Friday, 7 April 2017

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Across history and cultures, what’s deemed attractive has varied. There are a few constants. Being rich never scares off potential bed-warmers. To quote Blackadder, being a ‘thrice-endowed supreme donkey of the trouser part’ is also not harmful (that said, excessive endowment can be a problem, and one unlikely to yield much sympathy).

But most things do change. In the modern world a ‘healthy tan’ is appreciated by many people. A few centuries back, a tan meant you were a peasant working the fields, rather than a porcelain-skinned lady who lived in a lovely house and spent her day contemplating God and doing needlework.

Change can also occur very rapidly. Fashion varied wildly from the start to the end of the Tudor period. More recently, a few decades ago it was the norm for catwalk models to be unhealthily skinny. They’re hardly fat now, but the change is stark (a reaction to the rise of anorexia, as well as common sense).

Although this is changing, in parts of Africa women being of larger size is/was deemed attractive. The reason is pretty basic. Large size means plenty of food, means prosperity and security. Only a few generations ago “You’ve gained weight” was a compliment in the UK. When the world you live in has famines, diseases, poor medicine and occasional massive wars, a surplus of food is not seen as a bad thing.

But today, in the UK, where famine doesn’t really exist, diseases can be treated, medicine is much improved and wars tend to be small and overseas rather than existential and at home/just over the English Channel, the prism shifts. Excessive weight is seen not as a sign of success, prosperity and security, but as the symptom of sloth and greed, of lack of exercise and risking health problems.

And the reverse is also true. “Impiety has made a feast of thee” Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure (I think). This refers to one character greeting another who has lost weight. Huzzah, you might think. But in Elizabethan English, Shakespeare’s one-liner means the first character is asserting the second is skinnier because he’s been shagging so many prostitutes he contracted syphilis, which has caused his weight to drop.

Another old saying is that someone (this has been aimed at me) is just ‘skin and bone’. Don’t hear it much nowadays, but it does hark back to a time when bigger was better and skinniness was to be avoided.

Pox scars could help you get a job. I forget the precise time/place (I think it was the UK a century or two ago, during a pox outbreak). The scars only came after you’d survived, and once you made it through without dying, you became immune to the pox. So, the scars, whilst ugly, meant you wouldn’t die and inconvenience your company with paperwork and finding a replacement.

On a similar note, another type of disease (smooth-skin leprosy, if memory serves) often suffered by milk maidens made the skin, er, very smooth. No scars of disfigurement and probably helped milk maids achieve their fond folk memory of frolicking delights.

There’s also an element of, if not choice, elitism in attractiveness. To be well-rounded centuries ago required wealth. To be in great shape now requires the time, money or willpower to spend down the gym or running on the streets. The ‘healthy tan’ requires time to sunbathe and money to go abroad. Obviously, people are naturally blessed with glorious fingernails or stunning cheekbones, or cursed with bad breath or having one eye larger than the other, but the degree to which we’re attractive is, to a large extent, in our hands.

If we have the means to take advantage of it, of course.


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