From an ancient Roman recipe for anti-wrinkle cream to the “Trotula” of the 12th century, a set of medieval manuscripts with formulas for skin care, hair dye and perfume, the desire to make us more presentable – and even attractive – goes back through history. And rather than embracing the subjectivity of beauty, societies have instead categorized and quantified these elusive qualities into prescriptive beauty “standards”.
These standards respond to changing political and social landscapes – and they continue to evolve over time, according to beauty and wellness writer Kari Molvar.
“So much about how beauty is defined right now has a political connotation,” she said in a phone interview, highlighting how the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements inspired responses from the beauty industry.
In her upcoming book, “The New Beauty”, Molvar traces the evolution of beauty standards – and the forces that have influenced them – from Antiquity to the present day. It’s fitting to remember that the eye of the beholder has been shaped by everything from industrialization to gender politics.
The brightly colored designs by wigmaker and hairdresser Tomihiro Kono play with ideas of identity and character. Modeled by Cameron Lee Phan. Credit: Sayaka Maruyama / The new beauty / gestalten 2021
From farm to face
In the 17th century, Europe was a growing center of world trade. A network of trade routes, reaching faraway places, brought new and exciting food products to the continent. Pepper and sugar, along with new meats, grains and grains, were now on offer – and they were not only available to the old upper class but also to the nobility, a new breed of wealthy landowners.
“All of this naturally led to plump bodies,” writes Molvar in his book, “which forged a new aesthetic of beauty”.
Renaissance artists, such as the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, helped establish the fuller figure as a new bodily ideal. Busty women with soft physique were idolized on the easel – dimples, ripples and all. But it wasn’t entirely progressive, Molvar noted. “It is a form that is widely celebrated for its biological function, its fertility,” she wrote. “And the ability to satisfy the desires of men.”
About 300 years later, another shift in agricultural rhythms saw a new aesthetic emerge in the United States. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the arrival of the “Gibson Girl,” a character imagined by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, with long legs and a fresh, detached air. The Gibson Girl represented a new type of wealthy and educated American woman – emblematic of the new freedoms of the industrial age, though she belonged to a class that was probably never encumbered with farm labor.
Gibson’s creations can be found in the pages of Life magazine, frolicking outdoors or engaging in high-energy activities like horseback riding or swimming. These hobbies spread throughout society to shape a new standard of beauty, Molvar wrote. Distinctive features were a slim, athletic figure and windswept hair stacked high and loosely tied.
Beauty as liberation
Beauty standards can be oppressive by their very nature, but they are sometimes shaped by the empowering act of evading societal norms. In his book, Molvar details the “certain degree of liberation” granted to certain whites. Western women in the 1920s and the impact it had on style.
Attitudes towards domestic life and motherhood have changed: “According to her means, a woman can work, stay late, travel, drive a car, smoke, drink, marry or not.”
The desired silhouette went from corseted curves, tightened at the waist, to a straighter, more androgynous shape that “frees the body of women”. The purpose of makeup has shifted from just smoothing out the complexion to something “meant to shock and stand out,” Molvar wrote.
Korean-born celebrity artist and manicurist Jin Soon Choi luxury nail polish line has achieved cult status, according to Kari Molvar’s upcoming book, “The New Beauty.” Credit: Jon Ervin / JinSoon / The New Beauty / gestalten 2021
Molvar also noted the emergence of the “Black is Beautiful” movement from the 1950s to the 1970s. The phrase was, in part, popularized by the work of photographer Kwame Brathwaite, who photographed portraits of dark-skinned models wearing Afrocentric fashions with their hair in afros or protective styles.
“It was a way of making its appearance in a beauty system that favored European notions of beauty.,Tanisha C. Ford, co-author of the book “Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful,” told CNN last year.
Brathwaite’s art encouraged black communities to embrace their natural features, although the prevailing beauty standards are predominantly white. “African American women and men have expressed their political support for the cause through their physical appearance,” Molvar wrote, “choosing to let their hair loose … instead of straightening it or styling it up to standard. white society. ”
The initiative aligned with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and exemplified the power – and political – of cosmetic rituals.
The future of beauty
Predictions of a post-pandemic beauty boom are already underway. The former CEO of cosmetics giant L’Oréal, Jean Paul Agon, predicted a tipping point reminiscent of the Roaring Twenties, which followed the global flu epidemic of 1918. “Putting on lipstick again will be a problem. return to life symbol,he told investors in February, according to the Financial Times.
In 2018 and 2019, the industry experienced its highest level of growth. Over the past three years, Selena Gomez, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Victoria Beckham, Emma Chamberlain, Kylie Jenner, and Pharrell have all launched beauty or skin care lines.
According to Molvar, former editor of Allure and Self magazines, what we are seeing now is nothing less than a revolution.
“Usually beauty trends and ideals take ages to change. And change happens so slowly,” she said. “But with the digitization and globalization of the world, we have been exposed to so many new ideas, thoughts and perspectives, the whole notion of what beauty is has just exploded.”
The American brand Aisle designs and produces modern, reusable and comfortable menstrual products for menstruation. Credit: Lindsay Elliott / The New Beauty / gestalten 2021
Expectations around secular taboos – from wrinkles, aging and body odor to perceptions of women’s body hair – are changing.
“You can see it with the young, ” Molvar said. “They question everything, like, ‘Why do we need to shave our legs? It’s a boring habit. Why would we do this? ‘
“Gen Z has a great way to make us question these things that we’ve always done.”
Billie, the grooming start-up selling artfully packaged razor kits, has raised $ 35 million in seed funding since 2017 after her representations women’s hairs went against the tide. In 2019, the company announced that its “Project Body Hair” campaign featured the first razor ads to show feminine fluff.
Elsewhere in the beauty space, makeup has become a tool that belongs to both sexes. Luxury giants Tom Ford and Chanel both helped bring male makeup to the mainstream by launching men’s beauty lines in 2013 and 2018 respectively. By 2024, male grooming the market is estimated at $ 81.2 billion.
“The New Beauty” by Kari Molvar, published by Gestalten, will be released in July 2021. Credit: Gestalten
Molvar quickly notices the growing overlap between beauty, wellness, and even the self-care movement. But as the industry expands and the appetite for new products grows, people around the world have embraced new practices – and have drawn criticism of cultural appropriation along the way.
Lately, brands are facing a reprimand for marketing “gua sha” – an ancient Chinese treatment that uses a bian stone scraper to relieve muscle pain and stimulate blood circulation. Hoping to take advantage of the West’s new appetite for the technique, more and more companies are making their own tools out of bian stone – ambiguously renaming them as “face sculptors” or mistakenly “gua sha” .
Molvar agrees that for consumers, as well as for brands, the line between ownership and appreciation is narrowing more and more in the internet age.
“We’re exposed to a lot more newer ideas and perspectives,” she said. “If (consumers) want to perform these rituals from different parts of the world, (they) should take the time to understand where the practice comes from, what it means (and) what is the intention behind it.
“But that doesn’t negate the benefits of (ritual) either. I think those authentic (beauty) experiences still exist, and are very important. They should continue; we shouldn’t give up on them. But you have to be a little bit. beware of what you are selling. “
Top image: A portrait of model and actor Amber Rowan, who developed alopecia as a teenager. Photographed by photographer Thea Caroline Sneve Løvstad. “The New Beauty” by Kari Molvar is published by Gestalten.