Says the Washington Post's Robin Givhan, "We have come to equate a sinewy figure as the contemporary ideal. Beauty is control, discipline and independence."
A new photo exhibit in Milan, featuring images of 'beauty' dating back to the 1930s, provides a chance to analyze how our perceptions of "the most valuable currency in the fashion industry" has changed. Nowadays, says Givhan, our conception of beauty is an amalgam of advertising, media, medical science, plastic surgery and of course socioeconomic factors. "The folks in charge of our popular culture make the rules about beauty. The people who direct the movies, publish the magazines and create the television characters that become our constant companions, absorb the shifts and upheavals in our lives and sell them back to us. "
And nowadays, it's all about a combination of fragility and muscle tone: you have to be beautiful, perfectly groomed, but also fit and tough. Time in front of the mirror's not enough; you also need to log hours in the gym.
The exhibition serves as a guide to how we have gotten to this point on the beauty continuum — for better and for worse. Today, women willingly spend hours in the gym lifting the kind of weight that their mother or grandmother would have considered practically vulgar because they believe beauty is enhanced by a sculpted physique and the strength that goes along with it. And television gives us the pretty cops and investigators on "Law and Order" and "CSI" who are always tough and never have bad hair days. "Cagney & Lacey" meets "Charlie's Angels." That's modern beauty..But we have also come to a point where beauty is maintained by expensive and time-consuming rituals. Manicures and pedicures are no longer luxuries; they have become as de rigueur as brushing one's teeth. Along with eyebrow arching, teeth whitening, facials and massages, things that were once occasional treats have become necessities. Why? Beauty standards have been raised through retouched photographs, the constant recitation of celebrity grooming habits, the eternal rerunning of "Sex and the City" and the insatiable fascination with "Gossip Girl."
In a sense, our new notions of beauty echo other unrealistic expectations we face: beauty is expensive, time-consuming, demanding, painful - but wholly necessary. You've only to watch an episode of Made to know that grooming, straightened hair and heels are regarded as essential to well-roundedness as grades and accomplishments. And as Givhan points out, beauty in the classic sense isn't enough anymore: you must be thin but muscled, effortless but manicured, expensive but cool. If beauty is still a reflection of aspirational societal goals, this contradiction makes sense. Celebrity, after all, is a weird combination of "real" and manufactured, in which stars' effortless perfection is a lie we all willingly buy into.
Channeling the Ideal of Modern Beauty [Washington Post]