Is the desire for beauty biologically rooted? There is convincing literature in support of that. The first person to put that idea forward was really Charles Darwin in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, which introduced his theory of sexual selection [that to ensure the survival of the human species we make ourselves desirable to the opposite sex]. We know that appearance and smell in particular send out signals of fertility. So do things like clear skin and [healthy] hair. The evidence is pretty convincing that we use beauty products because of the need to attract and reproduce. But, that said, societies have defined what it means to be attractive in very different ways.
How have definitions of beauty changed? If you look back thousands of years, you can see there’s no universal standard of beauty. Instead, the definition of what’s beautiful has varied enormously over time and between cultures: long hair versus no hair; dark skin versus light skin. These things are affected by the fashion cycle, and they shift between generations. Knowing that is empowering. Thirty years ago [in the U.S.], you had to be white to be considered beautiful, and that’s not true now. In 19th-century Japan, having very narrow eyes was the benchmark of being beautiful. And now [in Asia], very big eyes are in. In a hundred years’ time, I’m sure we’ll be in some other place.
How have cosmetics affected what we think of as beautiful? In the past, only rich people had access to beauty products. As the industry grew, it democratized access to beauty, and it gave women choices for the first time about how they looked. That continues to be important in emerging countries, where access to beauty products can be a liberating experience. The trouble was, as the industry developed, it started dictating what it meant to be beautiful, and that was very much associated with being under 35. But there has been a growing confidence and a reassertion by women of control over their lives, and part of that has been pressure against this restrictive idea of beauty.
Has there always been this emphasis on looking young? Romans and Egyptians dyed their hair to get rid of the gray. But until the modern age, it wasn’t much of a concern, because when you had candlelight and no cameras or television, you couldn’t really see as much. And before the 19th century, once women passed 35, they weren’t expected to be attractive. They took on other roles. As the beauty industry took shape, it introduced this concept that you should be beautiful after 35, and the way to do that was to look under 35. But it needn’t be that way.
How can we think of beauty differently as we age? Imagine an alternative world, one in which you look beautiful in a different way at different stages of your life. Beauty is not necessarily associated with being young and fertile. In the past, “beauty” was treated in the industry and by society in a very linear way directly linked to physical age. Now, as women have increasingly taken control of their bodies through diet and exercise (and plastic surgery), physical signs of age are less dominant. Women can define themselves by their lifestyle choices rather than by a prescribed notion of where they should be that’s strictly linked to their age. So, for example, now you can be single and sexy in your forties, whereas in earlier times beauty was no longer considered relevant at that stage.
What effect is social media having on how we define beauty? It has diminished the ability of beauty firms and fashion editors to dictate beauty standards. They remain significant influences, but now they share their space with bloggers and vloggers—and consumers who express their views on Facebook. It’s possible that this shift will make beauty ideals more legitimate as they are less manipulated by big advertising budgets. However, we are only at the beginning of the social media revolution; we still have a ways to go.