The Evolution of Beauty – From Eve to Paris Hilton

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You might think that resorting to extreme, and painful, measures for beauty’s sake, is a new obsession, but you would be wrong. Crushing beauty standards have always been there, they are just more apparent now, and have reached a new level of insanity, in the age of the village world, with our 24 hour satellite channels and blackberry internet. You’re hardly ever without connection to the whole world anymore. You can see everything, anywhere, all the time. And boy do we see! We see Giselle Bundchen, Cameron Diaz and Charlize Theron. We see someone like Heidi Klum, 9 months pregnant in September ’05, and runway modeling Victoria’s Secret Lingerie in December ’05!


We have always been a silly species. I mean really, what is pretty about being crippled for life, which is what happens to Chinese females as a result of binding their four small toes to ensure small feet! They still do this nowadays. And who could forget corsets? First they meant social status, then they meant, suffocation, an assortment of health hazards from years of pressing on and squeezing internal organs, almost moving them from their original locations, and of course, purposefully cracked ribs, allowing for significantly smaller waists. Oh, I don’t have to breathe properly, but I’ve got to have an absurdly small waist!


But let’s stop for a moment and try to consider the reasons behind setting beauty standards. Now while these standards might seem arbitrary and often downright stupid, they actually boil down to a human’s natural instinct to procreate. Allow me to explain. Have you ever wondered why, generally speaking, we are attracted to muscular guys? (Think Hugh Jackman, not Arnold Schwarzenegger) You see, muscles subliminally say fit, fit means healthy, and nothing says breeder better than healthy! A-ha! Now we’re getting somewhere. This line of reasoning would also explain why, more often than not, women want to be smaller in size than their significant other; it goes back to the “Alpha male” thing, when the male leader of the clan in Neanderthal times had to be a big hunk of man to physically protect everyone. This idea was passed on from generation to the next, from era to another, whereby the reason behind it got lost and only the deeply ingrained notion remained. You don’t know why it’s there, it just is. Just like the time a mother was teaching her daughter the signature family pie. While she was showing her how to place the dough in the pan she hung out a little flap over the wall of the pan; the daughter asked her mother why she did that. “I don’t know that’s how my mother taught it to me” The daughter thought it odd, so she asked her grandmother, who didn’t have an answer either. Luckily, great-grandmother was alive so she asked her. “I only had a small pan” was her answer. True story.

On the flip side, Neanderthal psyche would also explain man’s obsession with the infamous female bumps. The butt is in the general pelvic area, which needs to be wide and curvaceous enough to bear children, and of course big breasts mean better breast feeding (that’s why they grow during pregnancy anyway). Following in the same vein that’s why young is hot, because young is healthy. So it all pretty much ties up in a nice little ribbon, doesn’t it? So if it all makes so much sense, why is it so confusing? It’s confusing when humans get in their own way.


Darwin’s “sexual selection” theory says that we’re programmed to find certain seemingly absurd characteristics sexually attractive, such as the pompous peacock tail in the animal kingdom. The key words here are, of course, absurd and programmed. It also reasons that these ridiculous traits could end up endangering the survival of the gender owning it, brings a whole new meaning to things like triple D cups and back problems or tanning beds and skin cancer, don’t you think?


There’s more; social, cultural and period-specific issues affect the mystifying mix of beauty standards. For example, in 17th Century France, exaggerated pale skin was all the rage – it communicated social status, because the working classes spent their days laboring under the sun. Now it’s the exact opposite. Idleness (and beauty salons) means tanned skin. Regardless, both scenarios often result in skin problems, it’s like we can’t win or something, go figure! It was also around that same period when makeup, rouge to be exact, was deemed fit for prostitutes only, because it was a symbol of heightened sexual arousal. Nowadays the color palette has grown to include more than red, and while on some level it might have a similar objective (appealing to a mate); it is also considered a true work of art. Then there are the African regions and their ritual of tightly wrapping soft baby skulls; this purposeful deformation of the head’s contour is to ascertain social status. The working class usually lifts things on their heads, and when the head is pointy you can’t really balance anything on it, hence announcing to the world at first glance that you don’t need to work for a living! Or how about the scarification that supposedly wards off evil, eases childbirth, protects in war, increases virility, you name it. Of course, it also comes with a side order of extreme pain. We really are a harebrained sort!


By today’s standards, the voluptuous Marilyn Monroe would be a size 14. Weighing in at 120lb and standing at 5’5” 1/2, Monroe would now be considered overweight, she, in the 1950s was the definition of beauty. Think about it for a minute, let it sink in, we’re talking about Marilyn Monroe! In this day and age, no self-respecting A-List star would be caught dead in those measurements, just ask Calista Flockhart or Lara Flynn Boyle. Unless you’re one of the very few women who dance to their own tune a la Kate Winslet and Queen Latifah.


In the 1970s Twiggy took the modeling world by storm. At 5’6”1/2 she weighed 90lb when she first graced the cover of Vogue. Twiggy, dubbed “the original waif” and her beauty ideal reigned supreme all the way through to the 1980s, (notice how her name is a play on the word twig?) She then handed the baton to Kate Moss, who at 5’7” and 105lb personified the new in look “heroine chic”, which one achieved on a diet of cigarettes and diet coke; the rest, of course, is history.

Gone is the ideal of a Botticelli beauty, named after Sandro Boticelli’s Renaissance female form, which was similar to the 1800s Rubenesque beauty, with a full and rounded figure, signifying health, wealth and good food, as portrayed by Peter Paul Ruben denoting the era’s superlative.


That is not to say that the 19th Century was a breeze beauty wise, after all it was considered a woman’s duty to be beautiful. They had this weird metal contraption to fix nose imperfections by tightening screws around it attached to straps clasped to the head. I guess "Little Women’s" Amy March was on to something with her nose peg.


I once came across a theory by evolutionary biologist Leigh van Valen; he calls it the Red Queen Principle, derived from the foolish Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”. She kept running to stay in the same place, because the scenery was always changing around her. The Red Queen effect believes that as a result of evolution (and mass adoption of the same principle), any successful evolutionary enhancement will lose its advantage. This could explain the sense of “enough already!” one feels when looking at all the cookie cutter, D Cup, straight haired, blonde bombshells of the world. In my opinion, this theory also shows how unrealistic, obsessive, time-consuming and tiring it is to endlessly chase this mirage.


So what is a beautiful human? Referring to the need to procreate, the ultimate definer would be overall healthy, right? So how did we get from healthy to a mal-nutritioned Twiggy, or an unnatural Pamela Anderson or the inane Paris Hilton and her cult of socialite wannabes? Why do we feel the need to botox ourselves into Barbie land, like Joan Rivers and her plastic act, instead of just realizing that our wrinkles mean that we’ve laughed, frowned, been amazed and actually experienced life? Why do we still feel the need to conform to those standards? Why, do we almost always set ourselves up to fail?


Get out of your own way and just live already!

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