In Canada in 2014, the rather beautiful Justin Trudeau’s leadership numbers surpassed those of the older, somewhat less Disney prince-like, then-prime minister Stephen Harper with 38 percent of respondents telling Ipsos Reid that Trudeau was the leader they trusted most versus 31 percent weighing in for Harper and 30 percent for Tom Mulcair – this was despite Trudeau’s own lack of experience and sustained political attacks portraying him as feckless and self-absorbed. Sensing trouble, the other political party tried to turn Trudeau’s looks into a negative adding the qualifier “Nice hair, though”. But in doing so, they unwittingly drew attention to a powerful trait that Trudeau had to smooth over voters’ uncertainty. Thanks to this, Trudeau’s physical presentation became his most recognizable feature, setting him apart from his competitors and filling the conversation void left by the absence of reliable information about his experience and trustworthiness. When the time came, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party won 184 of the 338 seats in the Commons. Shorty after this, he and his also beautiful wife appeared on the pages of Vogue.

As much as our parents like to tell us to not judge a book by its covers (ignoring the fact that most books with ugly covers aren’t flying off the shelves), or “it’s the inside that counts” (as if anyone ever fall in love with a particularly attractive pair of kidneys), we cannot deny that beauty is power. For thousands of years, philosophers and poets marvel at the mysterious power of beautiful people. Each trying to come up with the best way to describe what “beauty” is, giving it numerous other qualities beyond that which we can see such as “a certain something”, “aura”, “sex appeal”, “inner beauty” etc. In the 1960s, a psychological research reveal we tend to persuade ourselves of the greatness of people who we consider as beautiful. We happily project virtues onto the beautiful person without the slightest knowledge of whether or not they possess them. Study after study has shown that we assume beautiful people to be smarter, kinder and more trustworthy even when we have nothing more to go on than pictures of their faces. 

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, Plato says. But even Plato must have noticed that those beholders have strangely similar tastes relating to facial and body symmetry. He would have realized, then, that agreement on what is “beautiful” is often consistent within nationalities and ethnic groups. For example, women in Egyptian art are often depicted as slim with high waists and narrow hips, ideally with dark black hair and golden skin. In Ancient Greece, however, the ideal woman was light skinned and plump. Plato also tells us tells us the three wishes of every Greek: to be healthy, to be beautiful, and to become rich by honest means. Ancient Greek parents-to-be were so concerned about their offspring’s beauty that they placed statues of Aphrodite or Apollo, the two deities of beautiful physical appearance, in their bedrooms to help them conceive beautiful children.

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Adonis by Rinaldo Rinaldi at Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, by Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The rules of beauty were all important in ancient Greece especially for the men. This was, of course, fabulous news for men who were buff and pretty. A full-lipped, chiselled man in Ancient Greece understood that his beauty was a gift of the gods and that his perfect exterior hid an inner perfection, he therefore had no qualms in spending more than eight hours at the gym every day to maximize his gifts. For the ancient Greeks, a beautiful body was considered direct evidence of a beautiful mind. 

This did not apply to the ladies. Although being a beautiful man was good news, being a beautiful woman spelt trouble. That charming fellow Hesiod described the first created woman simply as kalon kakon (“the beautiful-evil thing”). The woman was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil. But what is this “evil” that women had? Helen of Troy gives us an example. Her “evil” beauty was considered to stem not from the way she looked, but how she “made” men feel and what she “made” men do. When we first meet Helen in book three of Homer’s Iliad. The old men sing about her “Oh what beauty!”. “Terrible beauty – beauty like that of a goddess” – meaning that Helen has the kind of presence that drives men to distraction. Helen’s beauty, in the ancient world, was a weapon of mass destruction. The “evil” of women’s physical beauty is also emphasised in a famous anecdote about Phyrne. Phyrne was the young mistress of the fourth-century Athenian sculptor Praxitiles. She was also the model for some of his most beautiful works. During a game of follow-the-leader with other courtesans at a feast, Phyrne called for a bowl of water and washed her face. The other women, bound by the rules of the game to follow suit, were then also forced to wash their faces. Young and naturally beautiful, Phyrne of course looked none the worse, but her older companions had to spend an uncomfortable evening with their faces bare of any makeup.

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Phyrne, Walters Art Museum

This “eyes of the beholder” business that Plato talked about is also surprisingly specific and modern. One might remember the awful “thigh gap” fashion which started in 2013. We also have that search for the “perfect nipple” in 2017. Nipples that occupied between 25 and 30 percent of the breast were rated highest in terms of desirability. At the top of customers’ cosmetic surgery wish lists is having a symmetrical pair of nipples, despite the fact that most women have asymmetric nipples to go with their also asymmetric breasts. Second on the wish list is making the size of the nipple and areola (the pigmented area surrounding it) smaller. Those are just two examples of our many modern preoccupation with the “ideal” beauty.

The ancient Greeks also recognized specific characteristics as beautiful: a straight nose or one that fell in a slightly depressed line from its root to the forehead, a low forehead and perfect eyebrows called “eyebrows of grace” that formed a delicate arch just over the brow bone. Particularly appealing were eyebrows that grew together over the nose – a feature which we certainly wouldn’t think much of today as we call it “unibrow”. The mouth admired by the Greeks was naturally reddish, with the lower lip slightly fuller than the upper lip. The perfect Greek chin, round and smooth, should be dimple-free.

The ancient Greek housewives were somewhat exempt from this fuss. As Demonthenes put it, a man married “to have a faithful watchdog in the house. Beauty and gratification of the senses came from the mistress.” The use of makeup of enhance one’s appearance was therefore limited to the hetaera (courtesans) as a plain housewife was preferable.

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The Dahuting Tomb ( 打虎亭汉墓) of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China

In Asia, in the Han Dynasty of China (c. 206 BC – 220 AD) very slim women with long black hair and red lips were favoured. While the Japanese Heian beauty included pale skin, round and rosy cheeks, and little bow lips. In pre-modern Chinese literature, the ideal man in caizi jiaren romances was said to have “rosy lips, sparkling white teeth” and a “jasper-like face”.

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By Yashima Gakutei (Japan, 1786 -1868)

Despite the obvious perks of being beautiful, Bob Dylan was right when he said that “behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” The public tends to be more scathing and less forgiving when a person perceived to be beautiful made mistakes and show weaknesses as they hold this person to a higher standard. This also works the other way. The world’s most incompetent politicians and worst dictators in history tend to be quite unattractive with hideous haircuts. Although no one really expect people with such serious and demanding jobs to look like supermodels,  these politicians would have had access to the best barbers in their countries – therefore, they really had no excuse to have their hairs looking so ridiculous. One can only assume that they were so miserable to live with that the people in their lives may have let them out of the house looking like that as a form of payback. However, they seemed to enjoy a higher degree of freedom as they tend be held to a much lower standard and able to get away with so much more than their more beautiful counterparts.

 

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