Skin Deep, but in the Eyes of All Beholders

Arthur Marwick reveals how beauty moved from being enticing and dangerous to being enticing and all-powerful.

Beautiful people have always enjoyed special opportunities denied to the plain and ugly multitudes. To validate that statement we have to be rigorous in our definition of beauty – a purely physical, biological quality – not rolling it up, as is so often done, with other desirable qualities such as charm, generosity, always being in the height of fashion, or sexual availability. If we make a meticulous study of the evidence, we find that standards of beauty (as distinct from fashion) do not change greatly from age to age. What does change is the value placed on beauty: in ‘traditional’ (or pre-industrial) societies, while beauty was always fascinating, it was considered dangerous and valued well below status and wealth. But with industrialization and, above all, the advent of mass communications, the ‘modern’ perception of beauty slowly emerged, identifying it as a purely physical quality with an autonomous value of its own, putting it ahead of status, and making it in itself a potential source of great wealth.

From classical times until the late nineteenth century, most people in the West scraped a living from the land. Among the peasantry, neither men nor women had great choice in the way of sexual partners: for them the notion of choosing one on grounds of beauty alone would have been almost meaningless. Peasants lived, worked, married and died within their own community. People who had limited opportunities to move around either geographically or socially also had limited opportunities to encounter, compare and select possible partners. The overwhelming priority was on the rearing of healthy children. The outlook of the relatively well-fed peasants of medieval Franche-Comté was encapsulated in a proverb: ‘When one has a beautiful wife, one has no fine pigs – Why? – Because the pigs, instead of eating, spend all their time staring at her.’

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