What is beauty?

What is beauty? A great piece of art?  A winning personality? An attractive woman? That part of Boots with all the make-up?

According to the dictionary, beauty is all of the above.

That’s a lot of complex variation for one little word.

Let’s try to break it down. Beauty can be found in an object’s appearance or qualities, in how people look, and how people are.

Commercially and in the media, the meaning of beauty tends to focus heavily on how people look – how attractive a celebrity is and what you can do to look just like her.

I use ‘her’ as this focus is also mainly aimed at woman – see the dictionary’s third definition is ‘a beautiful woman’ – no men are mentioned. Using this definition, the phrase ‘what a beauty’ can be used interchangeably for both women and objects.

Attractive women are still objectified routinely in advertising to sell various products and services, everything from sandwiches to clothes to car insurance. Their beauty is packaged and sold, their inner beauty irrelevant.

Additionally beauty and attractiveness of women in the media have strict ideals – like being youthful and petite - which many women don’t or can’t meet. So we come to beauty’s second definition – beauty treatment, all the products and services sold to make you look like the woman on the poster selling it to you.

But the woman on the poster isn't the person selling it to you – it’s a whole industry that are selling a single, difficult-to-attain and maintain image.

If the media and beauty industry were to embrace beauty with respect to the complexities and variations found in the word’s definition, encapsulating everything that can be considered beautiful, from watercolours to kindness, then we might see a much wider and more inclusive definition of female beauty in the media.

But it’s not all hopeless. There have been attempts to break free of this singular idea of beauty for woman, such as the Dove's Real Beauty campaign, launched in 2004, featuring women in a range of shapes and sizes in Dove adverts. In June this year, alongside the regular fashion week New York held a ‘Full Figured Fashion Week’, showcasing new designs modelled by larger women, with London holding a sister event earlier this year. In April H&M featured a plus-sized model for their general (not plus-sized) beachwear range.

Although still in the minority, these examples are encouraging that in the future the media will be more inclusive of different ideals of female beauty.  

What does beauty mean to you?

An art exhibition coming soon to London is seeking creative responses to the question What is beauty? - submit your photo, artwork, film or poetry via Twitter @whatisbeauty for a chance to be featured in the exhibition!

Photo by Vinoth Chandar

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