Pitfalls in the Pursuit of Beauty

WHAT are the criteria for judging true beauty? “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” according to a well-known adage. Indeed, the perception of beauty is widely considered subjective. Furthermore, the popular notion of just what constitutes beauty has varied a great deal from culture to culture and from era to era.

Jeffery Sobal, associate professor in nutritional sciences at Cornell University, U.S.A., points out: “Through the nineteenth century, almost all societies equated heaviness with elevated social status. A wide girth was seen as a sign of prosperity and health, while a skinny frame meant that a person was too poor to afford enough to eat.” The works of many artists of the time reflect that concept, as their models​—mostly female—​had a physique with stout arms, legs, back, and hips. And many of these works were portraits of real people who were considered paragons of beauty.

That concept is still evident today, though beauty involves more than being fat or thin. Still, in some cultures of the South Pacific, fatness is highly valued. In certain places in Africa, prospective brides are shut up in “fattening farms,” where they are fed large amounts of rich food with the idea  that they will become more attractive. The owner of a nightclub in Nigeria says: “The average African woman is robust . . . That’s what she offers in terms of beauty. It’s in our culture.” In many traditional Hispanic cultures, robustness is also valued, as a sign of affluence and success.

However, in many other places, the opposite is true. Why? Some say that as trade expanded and industrialization led to a greater supply and wider distribution of food, the “lower” classes could eat what before had been the privilege of the wealthy. Thus, admiration for corpulence gradually decreased. On the other hand, some religious beliefs link overweight with gluttony, and this has conferred a negative image on robustness. Also, scientific discoveries about health risks related to obesity have had their influence. These and other factors have contributed to changing opinions about what constitutes beauty, and for decades now a large part of the world has promoted thinness as the ideal.

The media have done much to further this thinking. People who appear in advertising on billboards and on television usually have thin, athletic bodies. Their image is intended to project a sense of security and achievement. The same is true of movie and TV stars.

How does this influence ordinary people, including youths? A recent article on body image indicates that “by the time the average American female graduates from high school, she will have watched television over 22,000 hours.” During much of that time, she is bombarded with images of glamorous women with “perfect” bodies. The article adds: “Through repeated exposure to these images, women internalize an association between this body ideal and prestige, happiness, love and success.” It is hardly surprising, then, that after seeing photographs of models in a magazine, 47 percent of the girls analyzed felt compelled to lose weight, when only 29 percent of these were deemed overweight.

The fashion industry also has a strong influence on people’s concept of beauty. Jennifer, a Venezuelan model who works in Mexico City, states: “Your work is to look good, and today that means being thin.” A French model named Vanessa says: “It is not so much that they demand that you be thin, but that you demand it of yourself. It’s a worldwide trend.” In a survey of young girls, 69 percent confessed that models appearing in magazines influenced their concept of what constitutes a beautiful body.

But women are not the only ones who are susceptible to the influence of the “ideal physique.” The Mexican newspaper El Universal states: “Never before have so many products  for masculine aesthetic care been seen on the market.”

“Ideal Image”​—Ideal Results?

In an effort to achieve the “ideal image” or just to look their best, many people resort to cosmetic surgery. The applications of this branch of medicine are becoming less expensive and ever more varied. How did cosmetic surgery get its start?

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, modern techniques of plastic surgery originated in the years following World War I, when efforts were made to repair disfigurements resulting from war wounds. Since then these techniques have been valuable tools for correcting severe physical damage caused by burns, traumatic injuries, and congenital abnormalities. However, as Britannica acknowledges, plastic surgery is often “performed solely to improve appearance in otherwise healthy persons.” For example, the nose can be reconstructed, excess skin can be removed from the face and neck, the size of the ears can be reduced, fat can be eliminated from the abdomen and hips, the volume of certain parts of the body can be increased, and even the navel can be given a more “attractive” appearance.

However, what of healthy people who put themselves at risk in the interest of enhancing their appearance? What dangers might they face? Angel Papadopulos, secretary of the Mexican Association of Plastic, Aesthetic, and Reconstructive Surgery, explains that sometimes people who are poorly trained perform this type of surgery, resulting in much harm. There are clinics that administer dangerous substances to patients in order to trim their figure. Early in 2003, a newspaper reported that unhealthy conditions in beauty shops caused a scandal in the Canary Islands, where hundreds of women had become victims of unsafe operations. *

Men too can become caught up in the pursuit of the “ideal image.” Some spend many hours in the gym, using virtually all their free time shaping and toning their body. “In the long run,” says the magazine Milenio, “the  need to exercise causes their social activities and relationships with other people to fall off.” The compulsion to achieve a muscular look even causes many to consume substances that can harm the body, including steroids.

An obsession with personal appearance has caused some young women to fall victim to eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Some use slenderizing products that promise extraordinary results in a short time but do not have the backing of reputable health institutions. Using such products can result in serious harm.

The risks stemming from being obsessed with one’s appearance go beyond the physical. Dr. Katherine Phillips of Brown University, U.S.A., says that people who are unduly concerned about their physical appearance can develop a psychological illness called body dysmorphic disorder, in which sufferers are obsessed with imagined flaws in their appearance. This condition may afflict as many as 1 in 50 people. Those affected “can be so convinced of their own ugliness that they isolate themselves from their friends and loved ones,” she says. “They can become depressed and develop suicidal tendencies.” Phillips cites an example of a pretty girl who had a slight case of acne yet was convinced that her face was full of scars. Refusing to be seen in public, the girl quit school in the eighth grade.

Is how a person looks really so important that he or she must sacrifice mental and physical well-being to obtain the “ideal image”? Is there a more important kind of beauty that one should strive for?


^ par. 13 For Christians, having cosmetic surgery is a personal decision. Still, vital factors should be considered. For a more in-depth discussion, see Awake! of August 22, 2002, pages 18-20.

[Blurb on page 5]

In 69 percent of girls, the concept of what constitutes a beautiful body is influenced by models appearing in magazines

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Advertising exerts a strong influence on what is considered physical beauty

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Some have harmed themselves through excessive plastic surgeries

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Some make a strenuous effort to acquire the desired look