Chasing Beauty: Cultural History of Beauty Obsession

Science and beauty obsession have converged into an intoxicating and dangerous mix.

By , Contributor

The Japanese embrace a concept of naturally weathered beauty they term "wabi-sabi." This aesthetic requires an appreciation of time's passage and the impression it leaves. It's the antithesis of a beauty ideal that seeks to erase all change and hold the face in a frozen, ageless state of dubious beauty. Cosmetic surgery promises to perfect perceived flaws and forestall the natural aging process, but in removing any sign of time's impact, it can also rob people of self-esteem, self-image and even good health.

Dangers of Beauty Obsessed Societies

Standards of beauty for women have almost always included hallmarks of youth, health, fertility and fragility. Smooth, fine skin signifies youth and femininity, so women once faked the look with dangerous lead-based cosmetics. During the Renaissance, Italian women thought that large pupils were alluring and placed a toxic plant extract in their eyes to dilate the pupils. That plant still bears the name belladonna, Italian for "beautiful lady." Chinese fashion considered small feet appropriately dainty for women; the practice of foot-binding created "lotus feet," deformed appendages that didn't allow women to walk without assistance for the sake of beauty.

The modern beauty culture may seem less extreme than using poisons and breaking bones for beauty, but acid peels and rhinoplasties do just that. A preparation of botulinum toxin (Botox), one of the deadliest neurotoxins available, is the active ingredient in injected wrinkle-releasing agents. Broken noses and cheekbones are common on the plastics surgeon's table.

How Far Must Women Go for Beauty?

A 48-year-old Korean woman became so obsessed with her search for beauty that she injected cooking oil under her skin to plump out her wrinkles. Others have disfigured their faces permanently after using household silicone to fill facial lines. Priscilla Presley, actress and former wife of Elvis Presley, rarely leaves her home after botched plastic surgery left her face immobile and distorted. Celebrities with breasts so unnatural that they look painful have become so common that it would be impossible to list them all. No one, it seems, is immune to the search for beauty even at great cost.

Surgery isn't the only dangerous road to an unattainable beauty ideal. Excessive dieting and exercise to reach an improbably thin body type, that only one in a few thousand women naturally have, has killed. Anorexia and bulimia are lethal psychiatric conditions, and while researchers may debate how much influence retouched images in magazines affect the prevalence of these disorders, it's clear that they do influence girls and women to over-exercise and diet. The premium placed on thinness has contributed to a rise in dangerous eating disorders.

Beauty shouldn't kill, yet it did and does.

Fame and Beauty

Beauty itself brings fame. Models earn their livelihood from their beautiful faces and bodies. As they age, it's almost inevitable that some will try plastic surgery to cling to the beauty that made them famous. Janice Dickinson was once a striking supermodel in the 1980s. It's hard to discern her age now, but the surgery didn't turn back the clock so much as it rearranged her face into unrecognizability. Erasing signs of aging by erasing who you are is surely too drastic a step for most women, yet actresses and models do it regularly.

Even good plastic surgery takes its toll. Jennifer Grey, the star of "Dirty Dancing," had a distinctive and prominent nose. When she altered it, the result was attractive, but she no longer looked like herself. Her nose was her name brand; without it, her promising acting career withered.

If celebrities are victims of the drive to perfect themselves through surgery, they're also the instigators. We have heard of actresses who have had breast augmentation in New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas. There were also those who opted for needless wrinkle treatments in their twenties, leading the rest of womankind wondering if their own faces measure up. If Megan Fox feels she needs a surgeon's touch, what must an average-looking woman need to make her acceptable?

If beauty serves an evolutionary purpose, it's to draw a mate. However, striving for prettiness to catch a partner doesn't explain the extreme measures of undergoing surgery for the chance to look marginally more symmetrical. The hunt for beauty has now become a pursuit in its own right, unconnected to looking for love. Beauty becomes a vicious circle in which those who define it must redefine their own faces to match changing ideals, leading to ever more unattainable images of beauty that no mere mortal could hope to match.

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Nancy Perkins, a full-time mommy wannabe, has been a freelance online writer for two years now. She loves sharing information on health, business, technology, fashion, women's issues and motherhood. Nancy lives life to its fullest each day and is dreaming of retiring on an island she will someday own.

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