Defining Beauty

Standards of beauty have changed radically over the centuries and say more about our cultural values than anyone’s actual physical beauty.  Attaining the appropriate standard of beauty depends almost entirely on a person’s socio-economic status.

During the Renaissance, a bit of plumpness meant your family was wealthy enough to eat more than one meal a day, unlike poorer people who mostly starved.  That’s why Titian’s female models are, to say it politely, fat by modern standards.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, wealthy people wanted to be pale to separate themselves from the ruddy-cheeked people who did manual labor.  Upper class women regularly ingested small doses of arsenic because it gave their skin a pale, pearly sheen.  They also wore clothes of velvet, linen and other expensive cloth as a visible symbol of their wealth.

One reason for the sartorial splendor was that people rarely bathed.  Bathing only became fashionable for aristocrats and socialites in the early 1800’s when they learned that Beau Brummell bathed every day.  Brummell was the Kardashian of his day, famous for being famous.  He also started the tuxedo tradition in which every sharp dressed man wears a white shirt with a black coat and pants.

By the middle of the 19th century, women’s beauty was defined by an hourglass figure. The ideal woman had an 18-inch waist and couldn’t take a deep breath.  Women wore corsets so tight that it reshaped their internal organs, often leading to complications during childbirth.

In the 1920’s, liberated women rebelled against their corsets and opted for a new flat-chested look, wearing dresses that fit like flour sacks.  They also continued using arsenic to whiten their skin and then slathered on mascara, rouge and other beauty products.

In the 1960’s, we finally awoke to the fact that women of color face a host of beauty questions that white women don’t.  Consider the great debate about hair; about whether to go “natural” or use a relaxer to straighten their hair.

Today’s beauty standard dictates that we must be wrinkle-free and maintain a “healthy” weight.  Higher income people can afford the Botox and cosmetic surgery to look young. They also have the income to pay for a healthier diet and to regularly work out at the gym.  Meanwhile, poorer people have wrinkles, eat a less healthy diet and don’t have the time or money to go to the gym on a regular basis.

For those of us who don’t meet the current standards, I suggest a different approach to the question of beauty.  Buy some champagne.   After a couple of glasses, you won’t care.


About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers (with up to 50 employees) to create human resources policies and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy.  To read my musings on the wacky world of human resources, see the HR Compliance Jungle ( which alternates on Wednesday mornings with my history blog, History By Norma, (available at To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (

Like what you’ve read? Feel free to share, but please….. Give HerSavvy credit. Thanks!


Filed under History, Self Savvy

4 responses to “Defining Beauty

  1. Such an interesting read. Thank you for sharing!! I can’t even begin to imagine the corsets…


  2. Lynne

    Great article Norma. Thank you


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s