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Manufacturing Ideas of Beauty

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The beautiful have always had it luckier than the rest. Their very state of being "beautiful" is an indication that they were lucky enough to be at the very intersection of space and time when their features met the reigning standards of beauty.

It is awfully hard to figure out if our modern standards of beauty are biological or have evolved through a lifetime of social indoctrination. A common method would be to look at the standards of beauty through generations and see which features have persisted, or look across cultures and look for the common indicators of beauty. These indicators would most likely be biological, while the culture-specific would vary. Another way would be to study children before they have reached the age of indoctrination, and somehow tap into their idea of beautiful and ugly.

This is what researchers have been doing for decades now, and they have come up with some findings which are not conclusive but give us a general direction. But I wish to move away from away from the evolutionary underpinnings of beauty, and focus on the market factors, as they seem to play a large part in our ideas of beauty, and unlike our primal instincts, are almost in our control. (For the sake of simplicity and being hopeful, I refuse to consider a world where fads evolve with no control by the humans whose activities created them.)

It is important to understand the factors that affect our concept of beauty, because it is a fundamental and pervasive idea that almost directly affects the human psyche. Research – and you can back it up with anecdotal experience – has shown that the good-looking do have it easier in life. They get paid more and are on average more successful than the rest. It makes complete sense to seek to understand why the beautiful are "beautiful." But what if you could dictate beauty standards? 

The cosmetics industry, like any good industry, has tapped into this to create massive demands. With sales of over $63 billion in the European Union alone, it has an unparalleled presence in the marketplace. And having saturated wealthy Western markets, they have moved on to conquer the developing countries.

We need to understand the immense power that the cosmetics industry has over the public. There is a feedback effect that complicates the idea of beauty. What you see around you helps create a concept of beauty in your head. You then embrace those ideas, which leads to their persistence. Thus if someone can control what you see, they become the power brokers, and possess enough influence to change the lives of billions.

A simple thought experiment: consider a world without media or advertising, where we would have only each other for reference. Outliers would be rare, and our idea of beauty would center around the median level of beauty. Now come back to the present world, a society that is inundated by pretty faces thrown at us by the media and advertisements. The median level of beauty takes a huge leap because most of what we get to see are the outliers – the exceptional faces, the ones that live up to the standards of beauty set by the fashion world. Thus, our idea of what is average beauty is much more skewed than statistics would lead us to believe.

Furthermore, when this is coupled with subtle persuasion – when we are told what is beautiful and what is not – it can alter the dynamics of judging beauty pretty dramatically. And the human mind has always been easy to persuade, which is the only reason why advertising exists.

At this point I will digress. It is no secret that humans will always attempt to look more beautiful, whether to compete for the attention of the opposite sex or just to enjoy their own looks. It is a competitive world out there, and there is nothing wrong with trying to be better than the competition; competing is an important part of any evolutionary process. Most cultural factors also evolve to adapt to the environment. For example, pale skin was considered beautiful in Europe a long while ago because it was an indicator of not having to work in the sun, and thus of being more well-off than the tanned outdoor workers. In places with higher incidence of famine, women with fat are considered more beautiful.

But the important difference between market factors and evolution is that while evolution, left on it own, will work towards a state in which animals seek better mates in terms of health and reproductive fitness, a culture of cosmetic capitalism imposes the whims of the powerful and creative onto the fickle minds of consumers. The latter is what makes us human. It is a celebration of our evolution from animals to businessmen.

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About P Chandra

  • Too many people today have forgotten that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    Too many of us have allowed our relationships to evolve into short lived arrangements and never really learn the real beauty of their partner.