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The Ever-Changing Standards of Beauty: From Plato to Today

Rubens Painting Adam Eve standards of beauty
The Ever-Changing Standards of Beauty: From Plato to Today. Credit: Rubens Painting Adam Eve. Public Domain

Beauty is power. That is perhaps why it has played such an important role in culture and society since the beginning of time. Eve herself, for example, has always been portrayed as a beautifully handsome woman and her husband as a strikingly beautiful man.

Humanity’s preoccupation with the the aesthetics of face and body has always had a two-fold purpose. First of all, the more attractive the partner, in particular females, the more likelihood of a fertile union bearing the gift of many children for future honor. Secondly, because once man passed the more primitive ages and discovered the sensory delights of the arts, the appreciation of the finer things in life became part and parcel of developing cultures.

Music, poetry, dance, sculpture, and painting were signs of sophistication and a well-attuned aesthetic eye even more so. Beauty’s inception, however, also had much to do with a more philosophical train of thought.

Plato’s Aesthetics

ancient greek statue doryphoros
Copy of ancient greek statue, Doryphoros of Polycletus. Credit: heroic nudity / wikimedia commons CC-BY 2.0

To define beauty, one must first define what it means as a notion, for while beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, the qualification of it was always determined by a select few artists and intellectuals in any given society—in this case, over 2,400 years ago in Ancient Greece and Rome.

It was Plato’s Aesthetics which would establish it as a certain ‘genre’ in regards to perception. It was a form of social and cultural criticism. There were, in essence, three core concepts—beauty, imitation, and inspiration—the mother and father of all the arts. The concept of beauty, nevertheless, is the most intrinsic to these all, given that it is what conceives imitation and inspiration.

The word ‘beauty’ comes from the Greek expression ‘kalon’ or ‘kallos’. Yet, while it has a singular meaning in English, there were many significations in the ancient tongue of Plato. If used in relation to the face, body, nature, or a sculpture, then, yes, the the term is equivalent in both languages. Plato, however, also employed it as an ethical or moral commendation or as a complement to goodness. At times, it could also designate someone who was noble or virtuous.

The Hippias Major is an excellent example of the difficulty in assigning a fixed meaning to the word. In the dialogue most scholars now attribute to Plato, Socrates and the Sophist Hippias endeavor to qualify ‘to kalon.’ Socrates would like Hippias to define its general attributes, but Hippias offers up three options. All three fail. Likewise, when Socrates attempts to do so, the argument ends with the question unsolved.

It must also be remembered that, in Ancient Greek society, the idea of physical beauty was not necessarily feminine. Rather, they associated it with men as well as women. Indeed, in stark contrast to today’s female-centric ideals, a handsome youth or athletic male was considered just as imposing in looks.

Setting the standard: the Golden Ratio or 1.618:1

Despite the dispute between Socrates and Hippias there was, nevertheless, one agreement on how one could physically describe it. This again sprung from Plato, who saw the body as divided into threes, a number, which, in antiquity, was of particular importance

Plato’s system of triads formed the perfect face, dividing it up from hairline to eyes, eyes to upper lip, and upper lip to chin. In addition, the ideal visage had to be two-thirds by height and width. This, Euclid defined as the ‘golden ratio.’

Leonardo's Mona Lisa
Beauty standards: La Gioconda, or Leonardo’s Mona Lisa mapped with golden rectangles. Mona Lisa’s face fits perfectly into a golden rectangle. Credit: Castorpuntoes / CC-BY-2.5 / Wikimedia

Euclid was what we consider today the father of geometry—an Ancient Greek mathematician for whom beauty was an extreme and mean ratio. Thus, it had little to do with aesthetics and more so with design. It is Phi in mathematics, for the Greek sculptor Phidias, who used it in his work.

It was only later, when the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli penned his pivotal work Divine proportione in 1509 and Leonardo da Vinci subsequently picked it up, that art and philosophy gave birth to the aesthetic of beauty as we still know it today—not to mention the $67.3 billion cosmetic surgery market.

In the age of innocence that was the 18th century however, artists looked more to history and nature. They closely examined Greek sculptures, for example, in a rather unsuccessful attempt to recreate a formula that would allow them to duplicate those beauty standards.

There were certain features deemed “perfect,” such as the low forehead of youth, eyebrows of grace that formed a feathery arc over the brow, a straight nose, and even eyebrows that grew together.

They also admired naturally rouged lips and small, round, smooth chins. Blond hair was considered to be the purest, of course, and therefore the best. Furthermore, in the pursuit of that ideal, they often resorted to cosmetics to get it and some of those methods are still in use today.

The politics of beauty: a modern interpretation

Beauty is capital. That is why cosmetics have always existed. Today, it is a $72 billion dollar industry. Long before, however, it was often a tool not only to improve one’s looks but also to mask any unseemly imperfections. This is where the Romans took up where the Greeks left off.

Grey hair was evidently as under-appreciated then as it is now and thus also hennaed to make it a more youthful and robust color in order to make women fairer. They used wax to hide wrinkles and fur instead of micro-shading to replace missing eyebrows.

For women of the middle-age to the late Renaissance, things grew even more difficult. Bad food and worse weather led to rough skin, rotten teeth, and premature aging. Beauty standards, however, had not changed.

Olympia by Edouard Manet
Olympia by Edouard Manet / Public Domain

Blond hair was still ‘in’ and if born without, then one dyed one’s hair if one had the financial means. Having the right facial proportions was also still key. Likewise, virtue continued to play a role as well: i.e. a woman had to appear fragile, breakable, and innocent. Her features had to be harmonic and her manner simultaneously demure and mysterious. Moreover, people in earlier days considered big to be beautiful and were apathetic towards those who were skinny.

The obvious reason for this was that the marriage market for beauty was the only capital a woman actually had in hand. Class, economic status, and a dowry were thus important factors in addition to one’s looks.

Subjectivity versus objectivity

Later on, nothing much changed except the shade of pale and curl of the hair. The 1920s was the only exception, when short, skinny, and dark-haired ruled. From the 1930s to the the early 1960s, things went back to a more traditional aesthetic, but this then changed once again in the late ’60s, when women became more liberated.

In the 1970s, it was healthy, athletic, feminine ideals like Farrah Fawcett who were at the forefront, and, in the 1980s, the world saw the advent of grunge coupled with admiration for the almost emaciated Kate Moss. ‘It’ girls like Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, and Cindy Crawford ruled the 1990s.

Then came the Kardashians followed by top models like Gigi and Bella Hadid. More atypical faces like those of Willow Smith and Winnie Harlow were later also among these, proving that, at last and in many ways, beauty standards are finally beginning to conform to reality.

Still, from the Paleolithic to the Hellenistic period, the Renaissance to the Victorians, and the roaring ’20s to today’s fluid aesthetics, the concept of beauty has remained a constant. This, despite the perpetual metamorphosis of its standards.

The Atlas of Beauty
Photo from ‘The Atlas of Beauty’ by Mihaela Noroc. Credit: The Atlas of Beauty / Facebook

There have been philosophical, classical, idealistic, hedonistic, and useless notions of beauty. Yet they all lead to the same end—that is, trying to define the undefinable. The notion of beauty can be perceived as undefinable since beauty actually exists as a differing set of ideals across a broad, individually unique spectrum.

The objective definition of beauty has thus always been subjective and vice versa. The beauty of that is it allows for so many deliciously differing aesthetics. A fact which brings us right back to Plato, Socrates and Hippias once again.

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