Our obsession with beauty

Essay written at London Contemporary Dance School, course: Contemporary Culture and Society, date: May 1999


Humans seem to be obsessed with beauty, at least in our western culture. We see it in the continuous and glorifying media attention surrounding the model world, or by doing a quick word count with the largest search engines on the net0:

AltaVista: word count: beauty:

4 718 461

Yahoo search "beauty"  

Found about 1 280 000 web pages for beauty

Obviously, the numbers change practically every hour. The purpose of quoting them is to show how important 'beauty' is to us, since both commercial and non-commercial content on the net just reflects the society that communicates through it.

Every day, we are exposed to several pictures of "beautiful" bodies and faces, usually female, and practically always displayed to make us buy something. This essay will ask how these images are constructed, question the "reality" of the advertisement beauties, and ask what they as signs do to our perception of beauty. Finally, we will see if this has any relevance for dance.

Advertisement signs

A model pictured in an advertisement is turned into a sign by the juxtapositioning with the product, and the image is linked to the product by the suggestion that the person shares some quality with it.1 If the person is famous, s/he has already a reservoir of associations the product simply adopts, else, what we connect to the product, is what the image induces in us that very second. Obviously, for any transfer of meaning to take place, the picture has to be catching, and give us very clear signals of what particular quality it symbolises.

Oppressive beauty?

In her book "The beauty myth", Naomi Wolf does not agree with this analysis of advertisements, but argues that the purpose of the images, and the entire idea of "beauty", is to control women.2 She points out how the increased pressure of the female beauty ideals has paralleled women’s liberation during the last century, and says the power of these ideals is making women self-conscious and vulnerable to critic, because looks matter more than personalities:

"Since middle class women can best be weakened psychologically [...] the beauty myth [...] has had to draw on more technological sophistication than ever before. The modern arsenal of the myth is a dissemination of millions of images of the current ideal. " 3

She argues that these images are in fact motivated by the fears of the economic, male establishment, whose system is based on underpayment of women, and therefore need women who feel insecure and worthless.

Myths and men

To study Wolf’s thoughts, we need to define the word myth. Wolf seems to use it in accordance with Roland Barthes’s definition of myth as a "system of images and beliefs which a society constructs in order to sustain and authenticate its sense of its own being". 4 Wolf extends the definition to cover society’s ability to influence individuals’ sense of being. A classification of "the beauty myth", according to Barthes’s definition above and Wolf’s thoughts, might be "images and beliefs systematically constructed by the patriarchal society to authenticate women’s sense of being". The idea is similar to Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term myth, when he states that his interest is

"not to show how men think in myths, but how myths think in men, unbeknown to them". 5

This is Wolf’s purpose too, to show that the beauty myth "thinks in" women, unbeknown to them.

Whether we agree with her view that the main aim of the emphasis on "beauty" in western culture is oppression of women, or stick to the plain signifier/signified-analysis of advertisements, it is clear that they have an impact on our ideas and stereotypes.

Artificial ideals?

Just as an advert may create an artificial connection between a person and a product, a connection that normally doesn’t exist in the real world, the images and persons involved are today constructed through complex theories. The sciences and techniques behind advertising have more "technological sophistication"6, as Wolf puts it, than ever before.

Probably the most important single factor is the use of computers for design and manipulations of images. In the already artificial world of the advertisement, the computer technique means that looks can be more than perfected: created and coloured according to what theories say stimulate the watcher’s interest.

Not only can they perform cosmetic manipulations, like remove "Facial hair, make-up & blemishes"7; they can also change eye colour, skin colour, and even body shape: Legs are elongated, papillae enlarged, and bodies made skinnier8.

One example of manipulation is a photo used for a cover of "TV Guide".

"This cover contains a picture of Oprah Winfrey.  The picture is misleading because it does not accurately portray her real form.  The body of Ann-Margret, an actress, was combined with the face of Oprah Winfrey to create a more appealing image of Winfrey."9

Appeal is a central term to the advertisement industry, not least when preceded by "sex". Most image processing attempts to increase the model’s charm and appeal, and advertisers often use psychological theories about what we subconsciously react to.

Models are already slimmer than the average woman – between 22 and 23 percent thinner. Still, under the "surgical mouse" of the graphic designer, the model may be made even leaner, more like the abnormally shaped Barbie dolls. This aggressively pushes the ideal of beauty completely out of reach of women of flesh and blood. With enlarged papillae and a hint of blushing, she signalises desires, even though research confirms that women on low-calorie diets show decreased sexual interest10. Anything is done on the logic that this image will be only one of several thousand visual impressions the watcher will receive that day, and the more explicit and clear it is, the more it will manage to catch and hold the viewer’s attention.


Worth noting, is that most of these constructions are calculated to appeal to men only. This perpetuates imagery of the woman as the passive, watched object and the man as the active, watching subject, which in western culture has traditions back to the act paintings11. In addition to implying passivity of women, it protects men from feeling evaluated by a female gaze, and is thus no danger to men’s self-esteem, while it confirms that a woman’s looks are her real value, free for everyone to evaluate.

Wolf also concludes that advertising aimed at women, works by lowering their self-esteem. If the message was anything else than "You are not perfect, but you will be with THIS PRODUCT", the advert simply would not work12.

Thus, the advertisement world of carefully constructed, "perfected" women, serves to perpetuate the gender roles, and - highly important to the cosmetic and the plastic surgery industries - keep women constantly dissatisfied with their appearance.

Any relevance for dance?

This artifical perfection of the body presents dance with the challenges of being an anti-culture ... but can dance really grab this opportunity to be relevant? Although dance is one way of investigating what a wonderful object/creation/construction13 a body is, the audience may consider the highly trained and often slim dancer, as just another "perfected" body. There is therefore a danger that dance increases the pressure of the body image, and any dance that tries to counter-weight this, must be conscious of that danger.

Another factor is age. Youth means practically everything in a business where retirement age is 35-40. This mirrors and confirms the "beauty myth's" focus on youthfulness14. Clearly, contemporary choreographers ought to create more roles for older women15 and people of various body shapes. This may in fact be the only efficient contribution dance can give in fighting the importance attached to "perfected beauty" in our society, since it might make things even worse to make dances that are intended to raise discussion and awareness in this area, and cast young and slim dancers to perform them.


Sources on the Internet

As everything on the net, these pages may be moved or deleted. URLs were valid during research period 15/4-10/5 1999. If any link is broken (particularly if you are the webmaster and know the new location) or if you have link suggestions, please e-mail me!




0Regarding choice of search engines: AltaVista is regarded as one of the biggest search engines, and Yahoo! as the biggest catalogue.

1 Williamson 1981: Chapter 1 and 2.

2 Wolf 1990: 15ff

3Wolf 1990: 16

4Hawkes 1997: 131

5Hawkes 1997: 41

6Wolf 1990: 16

7Quotation from an Internet page on image manipulation, the URL is aleph0.clarku.edu/~bmarcus/commercial1.html

8Examples were shown on television, on the UK Horizon channel. I apologise for not having written down the name of this program, which is one of my sources for this essay, but I did not know when the program was screened that I would use it. I have therefore tried to base my argumentation on the sources validated by the bibliography.

9From the net - URL was at time of writing s9000.furman.edu/~eharmon/team2/pastexamples.html. I don't know the mentioned "TV Guide", but it is hard to believe that this would take place in any serious magazine. Since this is the only place I've found anything on this particular episode, and the nature of the Internet makes evaluation of sources very hard, the truth of this might be questioned. It would be perfectly possible and logical, though, which is the important point in this part of the argumentation.

10Wolf 1990: 192f.

11This point was developed in the CCS classes taught by Francoise Dupres.

12Wolf 1990: 276f

13The choice of word here is quite difficult, I would like to use "creation", but its religious connotations may be to strong. "Object" is not meant as opposed to "subject".

14Wolf 1990: 14

15Of course, this also is true for ballet. Some have already started looking at the challenge: The Norwegian National Ballet presented spring 1997 a piece starring among others a 60+ years old performer.


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