Forty years ago, Bo Derek modeled a certain standard of beauty in the movie “10.” Svelte and tanned, she sported Caucasian cornrows and a thin, sculpted body below her blonde Northern European features. Sixty-five years ago, it was another blonde, Marilyn Monroe, who was the poster girl, though her figure was much larger and hourglass-shaped rather than willowy. A hundred years ago, it was the Gibson girl, though she was an artistic rendering rather than a real person; also hourglass shaped with a body exaggerated by a corset. These beauty ideals have all shared common features: they represent a look that is unattainable, reflecting either wealth, lucky genetics, or a figment of the imagination.
Consider the French Age of Enlightenment. In the 18th century, before Louis XVI’s head was lopped off, the aristocracy and the arts reigned supreme. French fashion is still splashed across hundreds of portraits in the average museum, displaying on white faces, giant hairstyles, and massive gowns overflowing with fabric. Those faces were painted to make them look unblemished since the average French face had scars and discolorations. Unfortunately, the huge amount of lead in the ceruse paint often created the very scars it was designed to hide. Eyebrows were also supposed to have a certain look – different from however they normally grew — so they were shaved and mouse hair was glued on instead, in a more ideal place or just different from wherever eyebrows would normally grow. Beauty marks were added, even according to a certain code.
“They were glued to key areas of the painted face with the intention of highlighting its beauties, each position named according to its charms. The ‘coquette’ was situated near to a pretty smile, the ‘passionate’ at the corner of the eye, and the gallant as a dimple in the middle of the cheek.” They were even used to highlight political affiliations. Think of them as the Facebook status of the 1700s.–historybuff.com
Powdered wigs were also the rage, starting from the mid-1600s. Why did the so-called peruke come into fashion? Syphilis. The disease was also all the rage in England and northern Europe and caused baldness, not to mention sterility (*coff* Henry VIII *coff*). Louis XIV and Charles II of England both adopted wigs at early ages likely due to the disease, so that wigs became not only necessary but fashionable. Poor hygiene and head lice also kept wigs in fashion for 150 years until William Pitt thought it was clever to tax hair powder in 1795, effectively killing the trend. Besides, Hamilton wanted to sing, so the Revolution in both America and France gave way to a more youthful, natural look.
Centuries before that, the “perfect” look most likely involved bathing. Two thousand years ago, the Greek ideal of the Venus de Milo was – like the Renaissance portraits of Rubens or the pinup girls of the 1940s – fuller-figured. There were even Greek beauty contests called kallisteia, for both men and women since the Greeks were well known for equal opportunity ogling. One mentioned in a BBC.com article was called the contest for Aphrodite Kallipugos – “Aphrodite of the beautiful buttocks.” As Freddie Mercury told us all, “Fat-bottomed girls, you make the rocking world go round.”
After all, in the ancient world, big girls with large accoutrements reflected health and the ability to pop out a lot of babies. The perfect ten reflected the goddess of fertility, as the Venus of Willendorf statues exemplified. Apparently, I was born 10,000 years too late to be properly revered.
Whether the trend in this new century will return to a larger figured woman, whether lighter hair will remain the ideal, or whether paler skin will eclipse dark skin is all hard to say. After all, neither Marilyn nor the Gibson girl nor Bo Derek were intended to be an attainable ideal. Pale skin was the rage for centuries, not just because it was unblemished but because it meant you didn’t work — you were an aristocrat rather than a peasant. Tanned bodies became the ideal in recent years because it meant you didn’t work – you were sunning yourself on a beach all the time instead of toiling away in an office.
We know an increasing percentage of Americans are overweight or obese due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and the amount of fat and corn sugar poured into our food. Yet beauty ideals continue to represent the unattainable, so being big may not come into fashion even though more people are bigger. Although there have been recent exceptions. Being callipygian has come back into fashion, as examples from the Kardashians and Meghan Trainor attempted to “break the Internet.”
And we have other positive models that may drive trends away from the Twiggy-inspired, anorexic look. Our former first lady was revered for many good reasons, but the Michelle Obama look itself set fashion trends. Part of the look was quite simply muscular and healthy. It didn’t hurt to be tall (5’11”), but she was so vocal about being active as a critical part of life that may have created a shift towards exercise that will change fashion. I doubt that as a teenager she expected to be considered one of the world’s great beauties or fashion trend-setters, but in this case, beauty is as beauty does.
Whether the First Lady continues to influence fashion and beauty trends is difficult to say with the recent changing of the guard. It surprised me to learn that Melania is the same height as Michelle, even knowing that she (was?) is a model. While a fashion model might be most likely to set fashion trends, it’s not clear whether Melania’s appeal would be broad enough. Certainly, there is something unattainable about her that ultra-billionaires might find interesting, but is she the pin-up girl type? She could be just a figment of our imagination.
(I suspect the Bulgarian headlines on this cover wouldn’t be any more meaningful if translated into English.)
Judging from the recent covers of magazines, we don’t yet seem to have advanced much from the bikini-wearing, unrealistic look of Bo Derek, who was both blonde and tanned, both pale by genetics and darkened by cosmetics and the skin-cancer causing rays of the sun. Strangely enough, the point of the movie “10” revolved around the idiotic behavior of nebbishy Dudley Moore who – like most of us – was not likely to be confused with the unattainable ideal of beauty. In the end, Dudley’s character realizes that the beauty he has stalked in his imagination is complete trash in reality, and he returns to Julie Andrews. (Who really was a Ten to all of us all along.)
Have we as human beings learned our lesson about idealizing the unattainable? Have we forsaken toxic lead paint for the healthy lifestyle that would lead to natural beauty? We might have to see if Michelle Obama keeps popping up on magazine covers – like Jackie O did for years after leaving the White House. Or will the new fashion model in the White House usher in a new focus on that old Derek-look?
It might be time to go back to the gym, just to be on the safe side.
Today’s post was prompted by the Daily Post word of the day: Ten