Beauty in di­ver­sity


The Gulf Today - Panorama - - Contents - By Claire Altschuler

Peo­ple mag­a­zine, which fo­cuses on celebri­ties and per­sonal in­ter­est stories, boasts the largest au­di­ence of any Amer­i­can pe­ri­od­i­cal. One of its most pop­u­lar fea­tures is the an­nual Most Beau­ti­ful Peo­ple list, which re­cently served as a tool for re­searchers try­ing to de­ter­mine if beauty stan­dards have changed over the last few decades. Com­par­ing the lists pub­lished in 1990 and 2017, they dis­cov­ered sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in skin colour, age, gen­der, race, hair colour and eye colour.

The study’s re­sults, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion Der­ma­tol­ogy, came as a sur­prise to the re­searchers, who ex­pected to find greater sim­i­lar­ity be­tween the two issues. The 2017 list in­cluded more celebri­ties with darker skin, a jump in the av­er­age age from 33 to 39, and a greater num­ber of mixed-race celebri­ties. The study con­cluded that, “con­trary to our hy­poth­e­sis … a wider va­ri­ety of skin colours and in­clu­sion of older age groups are rep­re­sented among those deemed to be the most beau­ti­ful.” The study also found that the gen­der bal­ance had changed: women ac­counted for 52 per cent of the list in 1990 but in­creased to 88 per cent in 2017.

As a way to an­a­lyse so­ci­ety at large, the study has cer­tain lim­i­ta­tions, such as the pos­si­ble bi­ases of the Peo­ple mag­a­zine ed­i­tors who made the se­lec­tions, says Gor­don Patzer, a pro­fes­sor of business ad­min­is­tra­tion at Roo­sevelt Univer­sity’s Heller Col­lege of Business and au­thor of books on the so­cial and eco­nomic ef­fects of phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness. Nev­er­the­less, he says, it “con­firms that so­ci­ety is changing with the times” and that we have be­come

“much more in­clu­sive than ever be­fore.”


Beauty has been a world­wide ob­ses­sion since the dawn of human so­ci­ety. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered cos­met­ics, jew­ellery and other adorn­ments in an­cient tombs, while po­ets, painters, philoso­phers and even math­e­ma­ti­cians have worked to de­fine beauty’s es­sen­tial na­ture.

Beauty is “not fully ob­jec­tive, not fully sub­jec­tive,” says Dr. Nee­lam Vashi, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of der­ma­tol­ogy at Bos­ton Univer­sity’s School of Medicine and lead re­searcher of the study in JAMA Der­ma­tol­ogy. “It’s dif­fi­cult to de­fine, and it changes.” In ad­di­tion to ob­jec­tive mea­sures of beauty, so­cial norms and cur­rent fash­ions in­flu­ence what we per­ceive to be at­trac­tive, she says.

In his book Looks: Why They Mat­ter More Than

You Ever Imag­ined, Patzer notes, “Al­most from the mo­ment of birth, each of us is judged … on the ba­sis of ev­ery­thing that goes into the mix of qual­i­ties known as ‘phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness.’” He goes on to say that how you look “shapes your life in dozens of of­ten sub­tle ways from cra­dle to grave.”

“Peo­ple are hard wired (to give) higher value for in­di­vid­u­als of higher phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness and lower value for in­di­vid­u­als of lower phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness,” Patzer says. And this has an in­flu­ence on al­most ev­ery as­pect of our lives. In­deed, stud­ies show that those who are seen as at­trac­tive make more money, are like­lier to land a job and even pay less bail if ar­rested.

Through­out our lives, we recog­nise that our ap­pear­ance is im­por­tant. Ac­cord­ing to Daniel Hamer­mesh, a pro­fes­sor of eco­nomics at Royal Holloway, Univer­sity of Lon­don, stud­ies show that we strive to look our best no mat­ter how old we are. As re­ported in his book, Beauty Pays: Why At­trac­tive Peo­ple Are More Suc­cess­ful, sin­gle Amer­i­can women, age 70 and older, spend 43 min­utes on groom­ing each day — just one minute less than younger women spend.


“In some ways, how we de­fine beauty is de­ter­mined by our­selves,” says Vashi, the study’s lead re­searcher. The study, she says, shows that “beauty is dy­namic. It’s not a static prin­ci­ple.”

She be­lieves what we find at­trac­tive can be in­flu­enced by so­ci­ety, with mass me­dia hav­ing es­pe­cially pow­er­ful ef­fects.

Ac­cord­ing to Ad­week. com, Amer­i­cans con­sumed more than

10.5 hours of me­dia ev­ery day dur­ing the first quar­ter of 2016 — up an hour from the pre­vi­ous year. As tech­nolo­gies such as smart­phones con­stantly feed us news, en­ter­tain­ment and advertising, Amer­i­cans are view­ing more and more im­ages of oth­ers — and of them­selves. This has far-reach­ing ef­fects on our cul­ture, our so­cial norms and our stan­dards of beauty.

Pa­tri­cia Wexler, a cos­metic der­ma­tol­o­gist in New York City, says she has wit­nessed sig­nif­i­cant changes in pa­tients’ per­cep­tion of beauty dur­ing her 30 years of prac­tice. New York’s di­ver­sity has al­ways made it re­cep­tive to racial and eth­nic dif­fer­ences, Wexler notes, but she thinks her pa­tients have be­come even more open­minded about beauty. “The stereo­type of the tall skinny blonde went away with the Kar­dashi­ans and Bey­oncé,” she says. Now “there’s a lot more lat­i­tude in what we con­sider beau­ti­ful.”

The same trend can be found in the ac­cep­tance of “plus-size” mod­els in advertising and even in Sports Il­lus­trated’s an­nual bathing suit is­sue.


While looks may still make a dif­fer­ence, the study in JAMA Der­ma­tol­ogy sug­gests that all of us can be­come more com­fort­able with ag­ing, em­brace racial di­ver­sity — and feel greater free­dom to be our­selves.

Sa­man­tha Con­rad, a cos­metic der­ma­tol­o­gist at North­west­ern Memo­rial Hos­pi­tal in Chicago, tells her pa­tients to fo­cus on their health and well-be­ing, not just what they see in the mir­ror. She rec­om­mends us­ing sun­screen daily, eat­ing healthy and stay­ing hy­drated. “It’s so bor­ing,” she says, but “those are things that make a huge dif­fer­ence.”

Pri­ori­tis­ing health, qual­ity of life and lov­ing re­la­tion­ships mat­ters most in the end, say ex­perts. Pur­su­ing those goals also makes you more at­trac­tive. “I be­lieve in grace­ful ag­ing; I be­lieve in di­ver­sity; I be­lieve in (en­hanc­ing) the beauty we were born with,” says Vashi. “And that’s what I tell my pa­tients.”

Michelle Wil­liams (left), Se­lena Gomez, Taraji P. Hen­son, Vi­ola Davis and Ruby Rose are fea­tured in Peo­ple mag­a­zine’s 2017 Most Beau­ti­ful Peo­ple.

Ju­lia Roberts was named Peo­ple’s 2017 World’s Most Beau­ti­ful Woman.

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