Looking for more than beauty

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It was, as is so often the case in the beauty business, a global production. Wek, with her velvety ebony skin and mere whisper of an Afro, was posed in front of a stark, white screen. Her simple, white Giorgio Armani blazer almost disappeared into the background. Wek, however, was intensely present.

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Wek represented everything that a traditional cover girl was not. More than 20 years after she was featured on that Elle cover, the definition of beauty has continued to expand, making room for women of color, obese women, women with vitiligobald women, women with gray hair and wrinkles. We are moving toward a culture of big-tent beauty.

One in which everyone is welcome. Everyone is beautiful. Technology has put the power to define beauty in the hands of the people. Mobile phones allow people greater control of their image, and include apps that come with filters used for fun, appearance, and entertainment. Wek was a new vision of beauty—that virtue forever attached to women. It has long been a measure of their social value; it is also a tool to be used and manipulated.

Beauty is, of course, cultural. What one community admires may leave another group of people cold or even repulsed. What one individual finds irresistible elicits a shrug from another. Beauty is personal. There are international beauties—those people who have come to represent the standard. For generations, beauty required a slender build but with a generous bosom and a narrow waist. The jawline was to be defined, the cheekbones high and sharp. The nose angular. The lips full but not distractingly so. The eyes, ideally blue or green, large and bright.

Hair was to be long, thick, and flowing—and preferably golden. Symmetry was desired. Youthfulness, that went without saying. The so-called great beauties and swans—women such as actress Catherine Deneuvesocialite C.

Guestor Princess Grace —came closest to this ideal. The further one diverged from this version of perfection, the more exotic a woman became. Diverge too much and a woman was simply considered less attractive—or desirable or valuable. And for some women—black and brown or fat or old ones—beauty seemed impossible in the broader culture.

In the early part of the s, the definition of beauty as it applied to women began to loosen thanks to the arrival of Kate Mosswith her slight figure and vaguely ragamuffin aesthetic. Standing five feet seven inches, she was short for a runway walker. The British teenager was not particularly graceful, and she lacked the noble bearing that gave many other models their regal air.

So too were the youthquake models of the s such as Twiggywho had the gangly, curveless physique of a year-old boy. The s brought Lauren Hutton, who stirred scandal simply because she had a gap between her teeth. Even the early black models who broke barriers were relatively safe: women such as Beverly Johnson, the first African-American model to appear on the cover of American Voguethe Somali-born Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Tyra Banks.

They had keen features and flowing hair—or wigs or weaves to give the illusion that they did. Iman had a luxuriously long neck that made legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland gasp. Campbell was—and is—all va-va-voom legs and hips, and Banks rose to fame as the girl next door in a polka dot bikini on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Her tightly coiled hair was sheared close to her scalp. Her seemingly poreless skin was the color of dark chocolate.

Her nose was broad; her lips were full. Her legs were impossibly long and incredibly thin. Indeed, her entire body had the stretched-out sinewiness of an African stick figure brought to life. To eyes that had been trained to understand beauty through the lens of Western culture, Wek was jarring to everyone, and black folks were no exception. Many of them did not consider her beautiful. Even women who might have looked in the mirror and seen the same nearly coal black skin and tightly coiled hair reflected back had trouble reckoning with this Elle cover girl.

Fashion and beauty magazines present a paragon of aspiration, often setting beauty standards for women across cultures. The magazines also serve as giant advertisements for the industries dependent on selling these ideals to willing customers. Wek was abruptly and urgently transformative. It was as though some great cultural mountain had been scaled by climbing straight up a steep slope, as if there were neither time nor patience for switchbacks. To see Wek celebrated was exhilarating and vertiginous.

Everything about her was the opposite of what had come before. We are in a better place than we were a generation ago, but we have not arrived at utopia. Is it a world in which everyone gets a tiara and the sash of a beauty queen just for showing up? Or is it one in which the definition of beauty gets stretched so far that it becomes meaningless?

We know that beauty has financial value. We want to be around beautiful people because they delight the eye but also because we think they are intrinsically better humans. Still, beauty is an integral part of the equation. But on a powerfully emotional level, being perceived as attractive means being welcomed into the cultural conversation. You are part of the audience for advertising and marketing. You are desired. You are seen and accepted. How relevant is she? Does she matter? Today suggesting that a person is not gorgeous is to risk social shunning or at least a social media lashing.

What kind of monster declares another human being unattractive? To do so is to virtually dismiss that person as worthless. We have come to equate beauty with humanity. It goes to the very soulfulness of a person. Beauty has become so important today that denying that people possess it is akin to denying them oxygen.

There used to be gradations when it came to describing the feminine ideal: homely, jolie laide, attractive, pretty, and ultimately, beautiful. The homely woman managed as best she could. She adjusted to the fact that her looks were not her most distinguishing feature. She was the woman with the terrific personality. Striking women had some characteristic that made them stand out: bountiful lips, an aristocratic nose, a glorious poitrine. A lot of women could be described as attractive. They were at the center of the bell curve. Pretty was another level.

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Hollywood is filled with pretty people. Ah, but beautiful! Beautiful was a description that was reserved for special cases, for genetic lottery winners. Beauty could even be a burden because it startled people. It intimidated them.

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Beauty was exceptional. But improved plastic surgery, more personalized and effective nutrition, the flowering of the fitness industry, and the rise of selfie filters on smartphones, along with Botox, fillers, and the invention of Spanx, have all combined to help us look better—and get a little bit closer to looking exceptional. Therapists, bloggers, influencers, stylists, and well-meaning friends have raised their voices in a chorus of body-positivity mantras: You go, girl!

You slay! Yasss, queen! They are not charged with speaking harsh truths and helping us see ourselves vividly and become better versions of ourselves. Their role is constant uplift, to tell us that we are perfect just as we are. And the globalization of, well, everything means that somewhere out there is an audience that will appreciate you in all your magnificent … whatever. In New York, London, Milan, and Paris—the traditional fashion capitals of the world—the beauty codes have changed more dramatically in the past 10 years than in the preceding hundred.

Historically, shifts had been by degrees. Revolutions were measured in a few inches. Through the years, an angular shape has been celebrated and then a more curvaceous one.

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The couture body—lean, hipless, and practically flat-chested—can be seen in the classic portraits by Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Gordon Parks, as well as on the runways of deers such as John Galliano and the late Alexander McQueen. But then Miuccia Prada, who had led the way in promoting a nearly homogeneous catwalk of pale, white, thin models, suddenly embraced an hourglass shape. And then plus-size model Ashley Graham appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue inand in Halima Aden became the first model to wear a hijab in that same magazineand suddenly everyone is talking about modesty and beauty and fuller figures … and the progress is dizzying.

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In the past decade, beauty has moved resolutely forward into territory that was once deemed niche. Nonbinary and transgender are part of the mainstream beauty narrative. As the rights of LGBTQ individuals have been codified in the courts, so have the aesthetics particular to them been absorbed into the beauty dialogue.

Transgender models walk the runways and appear in advertising campaigns. They are hailed on the red carpet for their glamour and good taste but also for their physical characteristics. Their bodies are celebrated as aspirational. The catalyst for our changed understanding of beauty has been a perfect storm of technology, economics, and a generation of consumers with sharpened aesthetic literacy. The technology is social media in general and Instagram specifically. The fundamental economic factor is the unrelenting competition for market share and the need for individual companies to grow their audience of potential customers for products ranging from deer dresses to lipstick.

Looking for more than beauty

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