What’s the most important trait to have in life? You could say great intellect and talent or a great drive for success, but I think those are overrated if you’re the person with those traits. Others may value the effect from those traits, but rarely does anyone care about how smart you are. I think being good looking is the most important trait you can have in our image saturated world. Not necessarily top 0.5% looks, but being in the ball park of the loosely defined tribe called ‘good looking’, ‘handsome’, ‘hot’ within the milieu in which you inhabit. Lena Dunham may fit in the mainstream in a small town out in the hinterlands, but surround her with the drop dead gorgeous women who inhabit the arts world in NYC and none of her accomplishments can silent her subconscious comparing her dumpy body in a negative manner.
I remember my mother talking about Cindy Crawford when the rise of the Supermodels made her the ‘it girl’ of the moment. She said that Crawford was in her own way as much of a genetic freak as Shaquile O’Neal, a combination of features that yielded not far right side of the bell curve abilities, but near perfection in classically female features. She didn’t make this comment with any bitterness, but as an observation when the Mass Media started really making celebrities out of the truly beautiful.
Looking at pictures of the supermodels from the 1990s they certainly appear to be a completely different species form the women featured in National Geographic at the same time. Those old issues would feature photo-essays about some hunter gatherer tribe from the hot jungles or desserts that were too primitive to invent bras for their women, but nobody cared about their kids seeing these topless images. There’s nothing erotic or sexual about prematurely aged hunter gatherers with crooked teeth and pan-cake titties that appear to reach their waste.
But consider a world before mass media when those are the only women you’ve ever seen in your life. Imagine you live as part of a small tribe, every day spent living, communing and conducting ceremonies with the same couple of dozen folks who make up your loose kin-based tribe. The status differentials are minor, some look better than others or have more talent, but the ranges are small. You’d probably grow content with that life if that’s all you’ve ever known.
Then imagine that I visit your village with 1990s era Cindy Crawford in a bikini or the woman with gravity defying breasts from the Blurred Lines video in her thong. I don’t offer any treasures from another world, or even say much, I just show up with a woman who came from a very different environment and then I leave. There are some things that you can’t un-see, especially that which reveals the existence of desires you’d never even known. Would you be as content with those national geographic women after that? Would the men in the tribe be as motivated in their normal life now that they’ve witnessed such a creature? For the rest of your life you’d never be able to get the image of that that extreme combination of feminine beauty out of your mind, and the women of your tribe would always seem impossibly dowdy in comparison.
Would you have been happier had you never had that visit in the first place?
Take it several stages of progression forward to a small town somewhere in the first world during the 18th or 19th century. You probably encountered a few hundred different women during your entire life, what are the chances that you witnessed a woman that far beyond the mean in beauty, at her peak? You may have had a few glimpses of her out and about before she was married off by some big wig in your world. You certainly didn’t see her dressed in thong panties and strutting behind a crooner. The plain woman who you married was probably a great beauty to your eyes, because those eyes had never seen glamour magazines, nudie spreads, porn or even witnessed modern cities with scantily clad young women all about during the summer months.
Now images of young women, the freaks on the far right side of the bell curve for female beauty in the most sexually alluring poses and lack of outfits are everywhere, and the pace is only accelerating. Twenty-five years ago you only had television, magazines and billboards. Now you can see those images, however you like them on your smart phone. Hot chicks have Instagram accounts to celebrate their peak of youth. At the same time the obesity crisis is greatly expanding the proportion of straight up ugly humans who are drowned in this media landscape every day.
Now imagine the life of the typical inhabitant of the big city. Not the movie character version of that young man or woman, the actual one you see at the coffee counter in the morning. The young people working in your office that you barely remember, their friends that you meet at parties or the folks at the bar trivia night who don’t merit a second glance. Instead of living in limited world where they could consider themselves to be in the mainstream of beauty for their age, they’re either overtly or subconsciously comparing themselves and their romantic options against images from a media industry that scours the entire globe looking for the most beautiful humans that can be found.
For all the benefits that technology has given us: clean drinking water, abundant safe food, the continual expansion of knowledge… every development has done two things:
1) Increased the disconnect between the haves and the have nots in the grand status race
2) Increased our awareness that there are other people who: have what we don’t have, look like we wished we look, appears to live the kinds of lives we can’t help but envy.
Back in the analog days, it took supreme effort to the find the Bridget Bardots, Laetitia Castas, Grace Kellys and Christie Brinkleys of the world. It took a lot of effort to glam them up and then send messages of them around the world to sell whatever product needed sex appeal to moves off the shelves. Now they create their own media empires and their images are everywhere.
But our monkey brains evolved to compare who we are and what we have against what we perceive is our peer group. This is what people are really talking about when they bring up beauty standards. The media doesn’t create beauty standards, it shows us the extremes of attractiveness and we perceive that as the standard because those images lodge in our brains and become part of how we sort people on the attractiveness hierarchy.
I actually checked out a copy of the Naomi Wolf’s book the beauty myth when I was in college because I’d fallen into way too many debates where it was used as a talisman prove something about the oppressive world we were in. The book is a fairly standard boilerplate discussion about the advertising and fashion industries but there was one comment in the book that I still remember, when Wolf drops the mask for a moment. There’s a passage where she stops talking about the beauty industry and mentions that she had an eating disorder as a teenager that arose because she didn’t want to puberty to finish and then imprison her in a fixed position on the school girl hotness hierarchy. It’s an awfully revealing anecdote that subverts the thesis of her book, but it speaks to her insecurities.
All of us are plugged into the matrix in some way or the other just by existing in Western culture. Whatever other achievements you may have, whatever traits you’re praised for, you can’t help but judge yourself negatively if what you see in the mirror every morning is ugly in comparison to the faces and bodies of the ‘it people’. Look at the faces of most virulent online trolls, the loudest protestors and the most humorless scolds you’ve encountered? Can any of them be considered even moderately attractive?
And it works for both genders, look at the faces of the weak twitter trolls and asinine opinion writers who always preach surrender to whatever trend they fear. Do you see any chiseled jaw lines or good cheek bones among that crowd? Or a set of shoulders that can fill out a decent sports coat. No matter how much they scream about the injustice of the world. No matter how loud that they say they won’t be swayed or made to feel bad about our current beauty standards. Every morning they look in the mirror, and they’re reminded of what they hate, of what they wish to have and never will. Now they recognize themselves as part of the shuffling, overweight masses they despise.
Flunking puberty is an insult for which they can never forgive the Gods.
The beautiful, and those who are in the ballpark, have their concerns but they’re not ignored by the world. They see themselves in at least some of the people we admire for their look and presence. They go to pool parties and look good in their trunks and bikinis and life is good, or at least bad on a shallow level that doesn’t bring up a crisis of the soul.
That’s why beauty is the most important trait to have in our modern world. We constantly aware of beauty in all our waking life, we’re constantly aware of how we fit into that world, even if we deny it.
All the screaming about the injustice or attempts to find an emotional outlet won’t silence the voice that wishes you looked like someone else.