A Deeper Beauty: Skin Deep? Maybe No Longer

Author: Mike Edelhart

As we began Beauty month here at Pivot, Dove, the soap company, set of an inflamed worldwide debate about beauty with a wildly viral web-only ad that compared women’s self-descriptions with those of people who knew them. In almost every case, the descriptions of the women themselves were less flattering than those of their friends and colleagues. The tag line of the ad: You’re more beautiful than you think.

Dove’s focus in the ad is on self-image; modern women are hard on themselves in terms of beauty. But I think that actually misses the big reveal in this ad, and in the broader role of Social in beauty today and in the future. That is that “beauty” is an idea not really held within each of us. It is a construct of how others see us. Beauty comes from culture and today culture comes from the Social Network.

Let’s think for a second about the history of beauty. Cultures tend to act, at their given moment in history, as if the concept of beauty is a constant and their momentary expression of it represents the eternal norm. That, of course, isn’t true. The ideal of beauty, not only among both men and women, but across all objects, nature and even the way we depict God, has shifted radically over the generations.

What has caused those shifts? I’ll propose two impulsions: Technology and context.

Technology? Absolutely.  Technology and fashion/beauty have always been intertwined. Before the invention of that testament to cantilever physics, the brassiere, small breasted silhouettes dominated ideals of beauty. Once lift-and-separate became the norm, hourglass figures pushed forward into the limelight. With the emergence of sophisticated modern cosmetics, health, vigor, color came to the fore as marks of beauty. Now, with precision plastic surgery and hi-def TV, no imperfections are tolerated and we see the emergence in media of a Kardashianesque ideal of beauty as startling as it is unachievable in nature.

As for context, beauty has always been in the eye of the beholder, so the key question has been…who’s watching? When beauty was a function of influence at the Courts of Kings, only the King’s sensibility mattered. If a king liked Romanesque figures, that was that; lean women despaired. In moments of cultural imperialism, the color and shape associated with a dominant race have become bound up in ideals of beauty.

So, what does this say about the concept of beauty in today’s technology-driven, net-centric, Social media world?

First, let’s go back to some core principles. Historically, beauty hasn’t always been described as a state of appearance, but as a state of being.  Aristotle saw beauty as a function of virtue.  “Virtue aims at the beautiful,” he wrote. Later, Scottish philosopher Frances Hutcheson, saw beauty as the singular in balance with profusion: “unity in variety and variety in unity.” More recently, Keats authored the famous lines in Ode to a Grecian Urn: “Truth is beauty, beauty truth—that is all.”

Given the Social web’s fundamental capacity  to celebrate truth and attack falsehood, its innate capability to produce unity from the actions and interactions of the many, and its expanding focus on joining together to do good and produce virtuous outcomes for society, I think, we will see a return to these historical beauty-is-what-you-do-as-much-as-how-you-look sensibilities.

That’s the aspect of beauty the Dove ads missed. It is also the basis for the criticism of the Dove program, much of it incendiary. Dove is accused of putting fake authenticity on a program that is really just one more expression of looks=beauty, more specifically classic European looks and willowy frame=beauty.

That criticism is fully warranted, historically. The historical truth about beauty is that, despite what we may think when looking at a super model, beauty equates to averageness. Hundreds of studies have shown that, when images from all races, ages, shapes, etc. are blended, the resulting image is viewed by most people as “beautiful.”  We are, in essence, beautiful to one another not so much singularly, but as a reflection of our blended commonality.  What could be more Social than that idea? No force in human history has made it more possible for us to view, create, extend and interact with the human mosaic than the Social net. In a world focused on the Net, the blending of bits of all of us into a beautiful whole is far from an academic process. It happens everywhere, everyday and is becoming a tenet of how we humans live and view each other.

So with our current, remarkable technology and in our extraordinary, global, interconnected context, I believe we will come to be seen as beautiful by our actions and together we will produce a beauty that outshines any of us and makes the world itself a better place.

That is a lovely idea. I want it to be true.

It’s beautiful.

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