Ambrose Bierce (1958) once wrote, “To men a man is but a mind. Who cares what face he carries or what he wears? But woman’s body is the woman.” Despite the societal changes achieved since Bierce’s time, his statement remains true. Since the height of the feminist movement in the early 1970s, women have spent more money than ever before on products and treatments designed to make them beautiful. Cosmetic sales have increased annually to reach $18 billion in 1987 (“Ignoring the economy. . . ,” 1989), sales of women’s clothing averaged $103 billion per month in 1990 (personal communication, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 1992), dieting has become a $30-billion-per-year industry (Stoffel, 1989), and women spent $1.2 billion on cosmetic surgery in 1990 (personal communication, American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, 1992). The importance of beauty has apparently increased even as women are reaching for personal freedoms and economic rights undreamed of by our grandmothers. The emphasis on beauty may be a way to hold onto a feminine image while shedding feminine roles.
Attractiveness is prerequisite for femininity but not for masculinity (Freedman, 1986). The word beauty always refers to the female body. Attractive male bodies are described as “handsome,” a word derived from “hand” that refers as much to action as appearance (Freedman, 1986). Qualities of achievement and strength accompany the term handsome, such attributes are rarely employed in the description of attractive women and certainly do not accompany the term beauty, which refers only to a decorative quality. Men are instrumental, women are ornamental.
Beauty is a most elusive commodity. Ideas of what is beautiful vary across cultures and change over time (Fallon, 1990). Beauty cannot be quantified or objectively measured, it is the result of the judgments of others. The concept is difficult to define, as it is equated with different, sometimes contradictory, ideas. When people are asked to define beauty, they tend to mention abstract, personal qualities rather than external, quantifiable ones (Freedman, 1986, Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986).The beholder’s perceptions and cognitions influence the degree of attractiveness at least as much as do the qualities of the beheld.
Because beauty is an ideal, an absolute, such as truth and goodness, the pursuit of it does not require justification (Herman & Polivy, 1983). An ideal, by definition, can be met by only a minority of those who strive for it. If too many women are able to meet the beauty standards of a particular time and place, then those standards must change in order to maintain their extraordinary nature. The value of beauty standards depends on their being special and unusual and is one of the reasons why the ideal changes over time. When images of beauty change, female bodies are expected to change, too. Different aspects of the female body and varying images of each body part are modified to meet the...