Updated: Aug 13
Beauty standards have evolved through the ages. Yet, throughout history the annals have gotten pretty descriptive when it comes to the subjective appearance of women.
Helen of Troy is described as "the face that launched a thousand ships." She is the legendary beauty that incited a fabled war between the Greeks and Trojans. Egyptian Queen Nefertiti was described as "the most beautiful." How is it though their male counterparts don't bare such mention?
Since the ancient times, many philosophies have been produced describing the artistic and scientific thoughts on womanly beauty. Supposedly, the Greeks believed perfect proportions were a key to a woman's beautiful face. During the European Renaissance, artists used the 'golden ratio' to craft their masterpieces as a mathematical formula for beautiful feminine proportions. Later day Victorians had their own opinions. Tiny rosebud lips were a quintessential element to womanly virtue. Consistently throughout history, beauty standards have changed and evolved. Yet, having standards have always remained constant.
Think of the most famous modern women that you know off the top of your head. Marilyn Monroe. Elizabeth Taylor. Ava Gardner. How many are known for their beauty? If not known for their beauty, how many were famous for overcoming their lack of it by merit or accomplishment.
“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
Sadly, there has always been a bar to measure a woman's worth and that is one on the surface. That's not to say, of course, that men should be held to the same standard to equalize this inequality. (Judging anyone for something outside of their control can lead to doubts in one's self-esteem. Many studies have been published recently attesting to this fact.) Far from it, beauty is only an interpretation of value that society has of one's value.
For women, the evaluation on appearance seems to have become the norm because it is so commonplace. Without hesitation, we throw out terms like "trophy wife" and "eye-candy" to describe romantic partners. Women spend money on beauty products like facials, waxing, straightening and coloring hair supporting multiple billion dollar industries with their cosmetic 'fixes'. According to the NY Post, vanity costs the average American woman nearly a quarter of a million dollars in her lifetime. (Even if counting male hygiene and health products such as moisturizers and supplements, men spend an average of 22 percent less than women.)
In literature, the female protagonist frequently is described as beautiful and attractive. Frequently in fiction the female characters are casually gorgeous setting a new level of expectation. But we as readers all know inherently that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and there is more to a person than their just their external value, right?
Research done by the Pew center indicates traits that are considered favorable for men and women frequently differ. At the top of the list for positive connotations that are associated with women is the description "beautiful". Whereas, the next are honest, kind, and strong- character traits. For men, coincidentally these inner values are rated highest.
Yet, how come so often we care that our female heroes adhere to this absurd beauty convention? Is it not enough that they be heroic? Perhaps as readers we should demand more from our books. A woman's virtue may be established by more than her appearance. Even if her appearance is unsightly, she may have tremendous worth.