Am I Beautiful?


Perhaps the better question to ask is, “How do we each reach our definition of beauty?” Standards of beauty have varied radically over the centuries and are more a statement about our cultural values than our actual physical beauty.

Beauty is a visible symbol of socio-economic status. In ancient Egypt, wealthy men and women shaved their heads and wore wigs. At parties, they removed their wigs and set scented wax cones atop their heads so that they dined with a beautiful scent wafting around them. (There are no tomb paintings showing wax falling in the diner’s eyes, unfortunately.)

During the Renaissance, a bit of plumpness meant your family was wealthy enough to eat on a regular basis, unlike poorer people who often starved. That’s why Titian’s female models are, how to say it politely, fat, by modern standards.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, higher income people tended to be pale.  Pallor separated them from the ruddy-cheeked farmers and other hoi polloi who did manual labor. After the Industrial Revolution, the beauty standards reversed. Poorer people were pale from long hours on the factory floor, while higher income people discovered the joys of nature and got a tan.

Today, our standard of beauty dictates that we must be wrinkle-free, slender and physically fit.  Higher income people can afford the Botox and cosmetic surgery to look young. They also have the disposable income to pay for a healthier diet and for the exercise programs to maintain a “healthy” weight. Meanwhile, poorer people have wrinkles, eat a less healthy diet and probably lack the time, mental energy and money needed for a regular exercise regimen.

Our modern standard of beauty also addresses our fear of dying. If we work out constantly, we will look and feel young and hopefully avoid chronic diseases that lead to “premature death” as the TV ads euphemistically put it. This is not a new obsession. Fear of growing old and dying was chronicled 4000 years ago in the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”

So what can we do if our personal beauty doesn’t match (or even come close) to society’s standard? Find an historical era where the standard of beauty matches your body type. Then buy some chocolate and a bottle of wine and salute your beauty. Am I beautiful? You bet!

About Norma Shirk

Norma started her company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy.

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