THE CHANGING NATURE OF BEAUTY AND IDENTITY
One way of illustrating the social construction of beauty, sexuality, and identity is to document the standards of beauty and attractiveness over the course of the last century. These ever-changing ideals are not merely a matter of aesthetics, but are historically linked to social, economic, and political factors. Conceptualizations of beauty are generally considered fixed. A deconstruction of beauty ideals illuminates that expectations of beauty are related to the needs of the majority culture and that these ideals change over time. In general, as mainstream women have gained more freedom regarding identity and self-expression, constraints on beauty and sexuality have increased. Thus, what may appear during any given era to be a matter of individual taste or vanity is very much a societal phenomenon related to the roles and status of women at that time.
The development of an ideal beauty in North America throughout the 20th century has several unique features (Banta, 1987; Clark, 1980; Ford & Beach, 1951). A cultural myth has developed that the ideal is normative, and all women should be able to achieve it if only they put forth enough effort. Promised rewards of increased emotional security and social acceptance help promote this myth. Consequently, women over the past century have “painted, powdered, scented, dyed, corseted, slimmed, fattened, paled, tanned, and shaved” in hopes of emulating the ever-changing ideal (Baker, 1984, p. 11). The image of the ideal has been a source of anxiety for women and has been remarkably expensive to pursue (Stewart, 1977). The pursuit of this moving target imbues women with the chronic feelings of inferiority and unacceptability; thus, they remain hypervigilant for ever-changing trends.
In this section, we emphasize three points. First, standards of beauty are ever changing; second, ideas about beauty emerge in a social, political, and economic context; and third, physical appearance has become a defining factor in women’s sexuality and, ultimately, in women’s identities in general. The beauty phenomena reviewed here are undoubtedly determined by multiple factors and maintained by a variety of mechanisms. Regardless of what elicits or sustains them, however, they have implications for women’s social, psychological, and sexual identities. The examples that follow are not meant to provide a comprehensive review or a complete chronology; they are intended, rather, to illustrate the beauty-sexuality – identity equation and its relation to sociocultural forces.