Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
Beauty and the Beholder
February 26, 1999
This column originally appeared March 3, 1990.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Or is it? That's what a 19th
century author named Hungerford wrote. But he was obviously talking
about the natural world, because throughout recorded history standards
of human beauty have been set for the many by the few.
Often I catch myself saying, silently, "That woman really shouldn't wear
shorts at her age," or, "If he insists on bending over, that guy should
wear longer shirts." But what right have I, or anyone else, to set
acceptable standards of appearance?
I can't see anything very beautiful about the Klingons on Star Trek, but
they obviously like their looks. They don't treat each other very well,
but that apparently is not a cosmetic problem. Did you ever see a baby
baboon and the utterly adoring look in the eyes of its mother as she
gazed at her offspring? The phrase, "a face only a mother could love"
was invented for a baboon.
In our modern human world there are billions of people, and no two of us
look alike. So who makes the rules that govern physical beauty in
people? Who says that Miss America is more beautiful than billions of
And in our obsession with the beauty image we don't even stop with
planet earth! It boggles the mind to realize that we are perhaps the
only galaxy in the universe arrogant and visionary enough to sponsor a
Miss Universe pageant and limit the entrants to earthlings.
Each era has its standards of female beauty. In past centuries the
great artists created the ideal in painting and sculpture, but their
ideal did not conform very closely to the natural female figure. Women
have tortured themselves for generations trying to shape up to somebody
else's version of what they should look like.
And now we have advertising, television, magazines and toys to tell us
what is beautiful. According to these authorities, every American
woman is expected to be tall, thin, blond and young. Well now, wait a
minute. I don't know how many tall, blonde, young women there are in
the world, but there can't be that many. What if she is short and
blonde, or tall and brunette, or what if she has gray hair, or black
or brown skin, or a ring through her nose?
Or, getting closer to home, what if she is short and has almond eyes, a
flat little nose and skin the color of coffee with rich cream? I know
one young lady like that and she is one of the most beautiful children I
have ever known, beautiful, that is, by my standards. Although she was
born in Korea she is purely American. But she says, wistfully, as she
combs the long golden hair of her Barbie doll, "I can't ever be
beautiful. I'm not American." What can we say to her? The best I have
come up with is, "Look at Connie Chung. She's an American."
But how did Barbie get into this discussion? She is an American staple
who has influenced thousands of little girls for years. Maybe she's
the real villain after all. Lots of kids get their first view of the
beauty image from her. Of course, the civil rights movement has forced
some changes in Barbie. She now comes in a black format and an Asian
format, but the basic image, the greatest profit-maker and certainly my
little Korean-born friend's favorite, still has long golden hair.
Barbie reflects the pervasiveness of that image of beauty which modern
advertising has given us. She is really only one of many influences
setting the standard, but it helps to have something specific to
blame. Or we could blame Miss Piggy, who certainly talks a good line of
I believe that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. My idea of
beauty and yours are probably not the same. But what do we tell our
girl children since we can't isolate them from the power of the modern
beauty image? We have to tell them that they are all beautiful and
that they are all different and individual, and that's what makes it so
wonderful. Unfortunately, however sincerely we mean it, they're not
likely to believe it.