How Did Beauty Standards Change Over The Years?

Modern-day philosophers say our idea of “beauty is becoming increasingly visual,” with many trying to achieve this with technological and surgical interventions.

Justin Jedlica, a 41-year-old Slovak-American, prides himself on being a real-life doll and having no facial hair. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, he underwent his first corrective procedure at the age of 18. Since then, he has had at least another 999 procedures done and spent at least $1 million on modifications. It is safe to say that not all of these interventions have gone to plan.

When asked how he would define the word “beauty,” Jedlica told TRT World that “beauty standards are something that he has desperately “tried to redefine” for himself.

“The Western ideal of beauty,” he said, is not something that he has ever been comfortable with. He is the recipient of numerous pec implants, at least 32 bicep implants, half a dozen tricep implants and deltoid implants, as well as numerous buttock injections.

We’re told, “beauty in the eye of the beholder.” It’s wholly subjective, and it can’t be measured.

However, Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, begged to differ. According to the polymath, beauty could be measured. The founder of the Lyceum meant this quite literally.

In “Metaphysics”, he wrote: “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate to a special degree.” As beauty writer Skye Sherwin has noted, Aristotelian values “are written into the way the Greeks built the world: from the mathematical proportion of their architecture to the way they composed the twisting bodies of discus throwers in sculpture.”

A lot has changed since the days Aristotle roamed the streets of Athens and beyond, some 2400 years ago. But great thinkers, like John H. Brown, a philosophy professor affiliated with The University of Maryland,  still ponder the question of beauty.

Brown told TRT World that ‘the term ‘beauty’ in genuinely aesthetic philosophy functions as a term of art, encompassing every aesthetic value: the sublime, the lovely, the cute, the skilful, the emotionally expressive, and so forth — and their negatives in all degrees.”

The philosopher believes that the “endlessly various types of aesthetic value can be defined within the general category, as species are within their genera in the sciences.” He suggested it would be clearer “if all serious studies of ‘beauty’ were renamed ‘aesthetic value.’”

TRT World asked Panos Paris, a philosopher and Trustee of the British Society of Aesthetics, for his take on beauty. “As you can imagine, this is a question that has preoccupied philosophers for millennia,” he said.

Traditionally, he noted, “beauty was thought to be a matter of correct or good proportion. This was later abandoned, and philosophers began to think of beauty in terms of pleasure, defining beauty roughly as what pleases upon perception or contemplation.”

Paris thinks “that the link of beauty to both form and pleasure is something that’s still intuitively attractive.” In other words, he thinks “that beauty has something to do with the form of an object and the extent to which this form pleases suitably qualified human beings,” before adding a rather substantial qualifying statement: “Now, it is, of course, difficult to say what counts as form, and given the number of things that people find pleasing, we run the risk of saying that anything that pleases can count as beautiful, which is something I’d like to avoid. So I think there is a reason to restrict the scope and say that not everyone’s pleasure counts, and to carefully think about what we should accept as good form.”

Paris believes that “our idea of beauty is becoming increasingly visual, to the point of being nearly exclusively visual. (So much so, that when I ask people about their views on beauty, they often say it’s a feature of visual appearances; this can’t be true unless we think that music can’t be beautiful, which is absurd.)”

When asked about the role that social media has played in our definition and interpretation of beauty, Paris noted that many people now “digitally alter their appearances to reduce what they see as imperfections –– including smoothing out the pores of their skin, among a thousand other modifications.”

 

Because of this, “our standard is becoming less and less human –– that is to say, something to which beings of flesh and blood, that sweat, smell, have cellulite and fat, wrinkles and a variety of skin tones, cannot really aspire without resorting to modifications of their appearances that are either digital,  include extreme lifestyle choices or require surgical intervention.”

Which begs the question, what happens when the quest for beauty turns into a quest for perfection? And what happens when the quest for perfection turns into an unhealthy obsession?

 

Redefining Beauty

By 2026, the global cosmetic surgery market is projected to be worth somewhere in the region of $67 billion.  Although the terms “cosmetic surgery” and “plastic surgery” are often used interchangeably, they are slightly different. The latter encompasses both reconstructive procedures and cosmetic (i.e. aesthetic) procedures. In recent years, around the world, there has been a profound increase in plastic surgery. For some more extreme individuals, one procedure is never enough.

Plastic surgery addiction is a real behavioural disorder. It involves a person spending inordinate amounts of money on procedures that do not necessarily make them any happier or look any better. In fact, with this addiction (like all addictions,) an individual may very well be engaging in a form of self-harm, be it intentional or otherwise.

In January of this year, the website All That’s Interesting published an intriguing piece discussing Justin Jedlica and Valeria Lukyanova, who sees herself as a real-life barbie. Like Justin, she has spent huge sums of money on corrective procedures. Have these considerable investments paid off?

When asked to define his concept of beauty in greater detail, Jedlica pointed TRT World in the direction of a National Inquirer interview, conducted back in 2014.

Back then, when asked about his idea of beauty, Jedlica said that he always endeavoured to present the “most presentable version” of himself at any given moment.

When asked about whether or not he feared the sizable risks involved with presenting the “most presentable version” of himself, Jedlica responded, “I believe that nothing worth having in life comes without risk; it is those people who live in fear of taking risk who never achieve greatness.”

He has made multiple appearances on “Botched,” a TV show that sees two doctors attempt to remedy extreme plastic surgeries that have gone catastrophically wrong. Yet, Jedlica appears to be passionate about redefining the idea of beauty.

In his quest to redefine beauty, Jedlica appears to be subscribing to the socially-constructed, filter-driven narrative of beauty, albeit in a more extreme fashion. But, as they say, it is a free world, and Jedlica has every right to pursue his dream.

However, Jedlica’s dream raises another interesting question. Are we losing the ability to appreciate beauty in other forms? (Think of a stunning sunset, a sprinting gazelle, or the view from the top of a gigantic mountain.)

Paris still thinks that we are capable of experiencing beauty in others’ “characters, actions, and non-physical traits.” However, he added, “our shared concept of beauty is being reduced to physical features.”

Paris referenced the work of Heather Widdows, a philosopher at the University of Birmingham, who has argued (rather convincingly) that beauty is fast becoming the “dominant ethical ideal,” in Paris’ own words. By beauty, noted Paris, “she means a standard that is not only physical but also increasingly narrow, and impossible to achieve without considerable technological or surgical interventions.”

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