Francesca Minerva on the Homogenisation & Globalisation of Beauty Norms

Copyright Esther Honig, 2014
In the second of a series of blog posts anticipating our third project workshop on 'the globalisation of beauty', Francesca Minerva responds to the question of whether dominant beauty norms are becoming increasingly homogenised, and considers some of the ethical issues arising from this shift.

Is it still the case that there are significant cultural differences in dominant beauty norms and ideals or are beauty norms becoming increasingly homogenised and global?

What humans consider beautiful is partly determined by evolution and partly by cultural influences. For instance, symmetry is universally considered beautiful for complex evolutionary reasons, and therefore we are "hard-wired" to find symmetry attractive. In this sense, some features of beauty (symmetry, some proportions in the human body etc) have always been considered attractive and probably will always be. In this sense, some features of beauty have always been "homogenised and global". On the other hand, culture has an influence on what we consider beautiful at a certain time and in a certain geographic area. For instance, we all find some hairdos from the 80s rather funny now, but they were perceived quite differently some 30 years ago. Moreover, some features such as a low or high BMI have been considered attractive or unattractive in different areas of the world and at different times in history. In the last couple of decades, those features of beauty that are influenced by culture, have become increasingly "homogenised and global". We (or most of us) are all exposed to the same movies, newspapers, commercials etc thanks to TV and to the Internet. This means that there is less room for local cultural or personal differences. For instance, straight hair and a low BMI are now almost universally considered features of attractive women, but there is no evolutionary reason why this should be the case (and indeed, it was not always the case that these features were considered attractive). So I would say that, leaving aside those features which are universally considered attractive for evolutionary reasons and that have always been homogenised and global, there is an increasingly globalisations of those features of beauty that were previously influenced by personal or local preferences.

If so what are the drivers of this? Is it a westernised norm?

As I said before, I think that the reason why culturally influenced features of beauty are becoming homogenised is the widespread access to TV programmes and to the internet. Of course, this is just the surface of the problem, and one would have to understand why some features are now considered the dominant features of beauty. One answer is that, as many studies in psychology suggest, the more we are exposed to something, the more we find it attractive. This could explain why, being some features portrayed more often than other ones (for instance, caucasian facial features vs asian features) they have started being considered more attractive than others, when in fact, they are not.

Are there key ethical, legal or practices issues which arise in this context?

But this answer still doesn't get to the core of the problem, and the final question we need to answer is: why caucasian-western features and not other ones? The answer to this question is very difficult. It may be because of economic and political reasons. As Nancy Etcoff noticed, “Beauty judgments are sensitive barometers of social status. In all countries the economically dominant group has put forward its own ethnic features as the standard of beauty, and in widespread dominance mimicry, other groups tend to follow the group’s lead”(Etcoff, 1999). Etcoff's hypothesis sounds plausible to me and helps highlighting how some features of beauty are entrenched in political and economic dynamics- and not in evolution.

Since we are aware of these complex interactions between beauty and power, we need to make sure we fully understand them and work toward a de-globalization of beauty (and power!) (for instance, by portraying more often non caucasian, non tall -blonde-blue eyed-skinny women on the cover pages of magazines). The fact that the ideal of beauty has been narrowed down (because of the media and because of political and economic influences) has a negative impact on people's wellbeing. For instance more and more people every year decide to undergo cosmetic surgery because they are not happy with they way they look. Cosmetic surgery should not be demonised, as it can have a very positive impact on people's life and it can certainly be the result of an autonomous choice. However, it is also important to change the current standards of beauty and make them less narrow and more inclusive of non western features, so that one doesn't feel coerced by society to look in a certain way in order to "fit in". I think we are hardwired by evolution to consider some features attractive (symmetry, for instance), and some other ones unattractive, but there is no reason to keep narrowing down what should be considered attractive or not by focussing exclusively on a few features that are now (wrongly) portrayed as the only features of beautiful or average looking people.

Francesca Minerva is an FWO post-doctoral fellow, Bioethics Institute Ghent, Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, Ghent University. Her research project is on discrimination against unattractive people.

If you would like to contribute on this topic and write a post for us please email Ruth Wareham


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