The Age of the Punishing Beauty Ideal

The brief was to write about the Body, but of course I intend to throw a spanner in the works and talk about the Mind. But never fret: It’ll be about how the Mind has been shockingly worked over by the Body. Yes, shockingly.

In the beginning there was the breast. As it was and ever shall be. In the real beginning there was something else, of course—I’m not a fool—but very likely the first thing you saw, or wanted to see, when you came out was a breast. The bigger the better, with a wonderfully contrasting areola, full to bursting with milk and…and…well, you get the picture. If not, there are several million online. When presented with it, you latched on with a will and sucked until your strength gave out. How did you know it was going to be there? What information was implanted into your fledgling brain while you were being formed all those many months in a windowless bag (not a disparaging term for your mother, btw)? I don’t know, but it might just as well have been a white neon sign of a breast flashing on and off and the words “DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!” over and over again.

The breast was your only goal. It was mine too, let’s be honest. I have to laugh when someone exasperatedly asks aloud, “What is it about breasts?!” Were you, madam (a man never seems to be the one asking this question), the rara avis who came crawling out of the womb craving licorice?

When we define attractiveness, some of this instinctual ‘bullseye locator’ from deep in the darkest recesses of the mind come to the fore, true, but we also have an overriding computer that’s able to make additional judgments on other criteria. Otherwise the world would be run on breast size alone, which is ludicrous to everyone but the Hefners of the world. And maybe that quaint, misunderstood fellow who publishes Juggs.

There’s hope when you consider that the ideal of beauty is a kind of free-floating, chameleonic thing. Depending upon where you are in the world, or when you were, there’s remarkable variation. Take a moment to look at the ladies from the silent age of movies.

silent film actresses

Sources: and

If you notice, they look very much like your sister or neighbor or Ginny from Accounting. If one of them sent you a drink, you’d blush with pleasure. Attractive, yes, every one of them, but not quite the ideal that came later with the Audrey Hepburns, Ava Gardners, or Rita Hayworths. Sadly, this was a kind of last hurrah for the ordinarily beautiful girl. It continued on in dribs and drabs until a kind of punishing beauty ideal began to take over to the point where we’ve become positively beset by it today. And it’s crossing borders and wiping out native species wherever it puts down roots, the way the ‘news anchor accent’ has.

In order to be considered a beauty by today’s American/European standards, a woman feels she must have oversized eyes, oversized breasts, a boy’s body, a symmetrical face with a slightly upturned straight nose, high cheekbones, wide jaw, hair that shines as though painted with lacquer, a wide mouth with impossibly straight white teeth, wide upper and lower lips, and a proportion of face that speaks straight to the hive mind as though it were imparting the Holy Writ of God. There’s no hair anywhere on her body but the top of her head and her eyebrows have been landscaped to a knife’s edge. They are “on fleek” as the young persons are so fond of saying. I often think how charming it would be if they choked, these marvelous young persons.

A woman with these traits occurs in nature perhaps once in 20,000 births. She is, by definition, a product of chance genetics. She is not the norm. But when she stares out at us from her little cubby in the checkout aisle, her rare beauty acts as a kind of psychological bell tolling. You would follow such a person into battle. You would travel to Illyria to rescue her from the prince who either has or hasn’t kidnapped her, depending upon which foreigner you asked, and you would fight for her. “She is a queen,” the message seems to tell your inner operating system. You have a visceral response. You buy the magazine. There is a science to all of this and there is plenty to find disheartening in it.

The universal SHE from the magazine has now become the example women try to become. Ladies starve themselves, exercise like galley slaves, depilate, wax, dye, implant, vacuum, pluck, shave, break and reset, and so on, in order to more closely resemble this astounding genetic ideal.

Punishing beauty ideals have led us into the era of fitspiration (source:

This takes a lot of time, energy, and commitment. Why do it? Because the woman who responds to an ideal of beauty also desires to be responded to in the same way. The human race, unlike insects, is not comprised of drones. Every woman has it in her to be a queen, which is pretty wonderful when you think about it. However, as far as her response to beauty ideals goes, this aspiration to greatness is also her worst psychological flaw.

Let’s say I’m dating Ginny from Accounting. Ginny is a regularly pretty woman, like one of those silent film actresses above. Go back and look. Pick one and imagine she’s Ginny. Dark hair, lively, searching eyes. A ball of fire! When I see Ginny across the train platform or walking down the street, I light up like a pinball machine. She’s smart, funny, and independent. So…what effect is this body ideal going to have on her, on me, on us? For starters, she’s never satisfied with herself. When she visits her parents, her fool of a mother chides her for putting too much dressing on her salad or having the nerve to serve herself a crusty roll with her meal and constantly asks about her gym schedule. The word ‘fat’ is bandied about which is strange because Ginny is easily 20 pounds underweight. She leaves these visits more glum than when she arrived. She stares in the mirror every time she passes one and thinks, “If only…” or “I wonder if I should…?” She runs before work, does yoga regularly, and on alternate days works out with a trainer. She’s made a religion out of what she can and can’t eat (which we all know is really only what she will or won’t eat) and every interaction with a waiter or a hostess is anticipated (by me and very likely the chefs in the kitchen) with a horrible inward groan. When she meets girlfriends for drinks the subject invariably comes around to which absent friend has put on weight and has therefore left the One True Religion and Turned Her Face Away From God.

She’s not happy with herself. She doesn’t look like Scarlett Johansson, or Anne Hathaway or Charlize Theron. She’s always comparing herself unfavorably to other women. Women at the gym, on the train, on TV. Actresses, models, genetic lottery winners. It’s a game with predestined winners and losers. Ginny always loses.

“Why would you want to be with ME?” she asks incredulously when a pretty girl passes us on the sidewalk.

Enough. Goddammit, Ginny, pull the e-brake.

I mentioned an overriding intellect up above. The one that keeps the world from assigning worth based simply on breast weight. The one that gives bonus points for honor, kindness, humility, gentleness, grace, humor, and all those things that make life pass more pleasantly and have nothing whatsoever to do with looks. Well, that computer needs to do a lot of overriding here if we aren’t all to end up looking like Tan Mom or the The Surgeon’s Mistake.

Eight women out of 10 are dissatisfied with their physical appearance and it’s affecting everything they do, every relationship they have. Conversely, they are not encouraged enough by their parents, their peers, their coworkers, the media, to get off the hamster wheel, eat a cookie, and look out the window. They’re told to focus instead a highly critical eye on Self and to never look away.

No big religions are based on The Self (with the possible exception of the one that will sue me if I mention it by name) and that’s for a very good reason. We humans need taking out of ourselves more than we realize and to focus on things that are more productive and safe. The perfectibility of the soul is a good deal more attainable than the perfectibility of our looks, though you wouldn’t think so because it must always be looking outside to others and to doing good works.

It’s not just women who need to hit the override button. More men have been creeping past the fitness magazines at the corner store and wondering about their tummies for quite a while now. They’ve been getting their backs and chests waxed, their eyebrows plucked, their stomachs vacuumed, their hair dyed, their noses John Wayned.

I’m going to live forever. I’m going to have six-pack abs. I’m going to have the blue contacts of a hairless Siberian wolf. I’ll chug kale smoothies and high five my trainer Top Gun-style four times a week. Luckily, this is not the majority of men.

Can you imagine if all this time and effort and expense went toward painting, sculpting, or starting a business? Or attaining harmony and peace of mind? The body is a temple—I think Charles Atlas said that—but spiritually speaking, it’s a very sterile promontory.

You’d tell Ginny you’d rather read a book on WWII and sip bourbon whilst thinking about it all. Oh, all right, says Ginny. It’s more important to society, to the hive, that I be the one. That’s coming from her deepest, darkest uterus-imprinted tickertape. You’d rather criss-cross applesauce and contemplate your relationship with the infinite? Not Ginny. Ginny found a dealer in rare quinoas in the East Village and there isn’t a moment to lose. Oh, very well, read the Bhagavad Gita on the couch, killjoy. She’ll ride her J-Lo Fiat alone to the elusive grain merchant. It won’t be the first time and it certainly won’t be the last.

Fact #1: Your own workouts and meals are the stuff of legend, worthy of being broadcast to the multitudes. Everyone wants to—nay, should—hear about it. Fact #2: Other people’s workouts and meals are BORING and are not to be borne. Unfortunately, everyone ignores Fact #2 and talks about their horrible workouts and equally distressing meals. Ginny, you are as guilty of this as Manson was guilty of murder. We never talk anymore, Ginny, and this is why.

There’s another thing. Ginny doesn’t show how she feels. Someone may be looking. All this attention to body image is demoralizing and exhausting. But she has to constantly show that she feels the way she intends to look. Thus, she has to always appear as though someone has playfully tossed a beach ball to her and that she can’t wait to toss it back.

Ginny, you’re better than this. You’re kind—to others at least. You’re good at your job. You’re sweet and funny. It’s not you: it’s your religion.

I’m leaving you, Ginny. My next girlfriend will drink PBR Tallboys without asking the room how many calories it has. She will let me buy her an ice cream cone and eat it with relish. She will contemplate the infinite and her place in it. We will wander through museums and bookshops. She will like to be with me and she will not wear a machine that constantly counts her steps.

But, Ginny, I shall be watching your future career with considerable interest (not really). Aren’t you late for your trainer?

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