If Beauty’s In The Eye Of The Beholder, The Beholder Had Better Wise Up

If you took a poetry survey course in college, you’ll recall that beauty used to be regarded as something exceptional. In our egalitarian era, we needn’t be surprised to find people agitating for a redefinition of beauty—one that includes women who aren’t supermodels or movie stars. In a survey of women commissioned by Dove soap, 87 percent of U.S. respondents strongly agreed that “Beauty can be achieved through attitude, spirit and other attributes that have nothing to do with physical appearance.” Asked how much various factors contribute to making a woman beautiful, nine of 10 respondents attached great importance to happiness, kindness and confidence. Just 60 percent accorded such status to “overall physical appearance”; fewer did so with respect to “facial appearance” (51 percent) or “body weight and shape” (46 percent).

In assigning blame for society’s more cramped notion of beauty, women point to pop culture. Seventy percent agreed strongly that “The attributes of female beauty have become very narrowly defined in today’s world”; 81 percent said that “The media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve.” Under these adverse circumstances, how do American women feel about their own looks? One question in the poll listed a dozen descriptive terms and asked the women to say which (if any) they would “be most comfortable using to describe the way you look.” In its own presentation of the findings, Dove makes much of the fact that few women chose “beautiful.” This downplays the fact that many chose descriptors that are unambiguously positive. “Attractive” drew 18 percent of the vote, “cute” 9 percent, “pretty” 7 percent, “good-looking” 4 percent, “beautiful” 3 percent, “sexy” 2 percent and “gorgeous” 1 percent. Twenty-one percent selected “natural,” a term that’s more neutral in its strict sense but that has taken on very positive overtones in recent years. Five percent chose “feminine”—again, a term whose connotations in this context are quite positive. Thus, the women who picked flattering terms easily outnumbered the 27 percent who said they’re most comfortable describing their looks as merely “average.”

Another section of the poll presented a list of products and asked women to say which they use in order to feel more physically attractive. Deodorant got the most mentions (92 percent), followed by hair-care products (84 percent), body moisturizer (81 percent), makeup/color cosmetics (75 percent), facial-care products (73 percent), perfume (71 percent), hair coloring (56 percent) and nail-care products (55 percent).