The beauty ideal continues to change with time; the best evidence for it is the way people presented themselves in the movies from various eras. Of course, the beauty ideal also varies from one geographic region to another, from one culture to another. For instance, in India, fairness is a yardstick for how beautiful someone is, but in the U.S., tanning is the way to go. This seems to indicate little correlation between beauty ideals among disparate cultures, or does it?
Consider the beauty ideal from any time, at any place, in any civilization. It is not hard to notice that the most affluent people (historical or fictional) at that time and place were considered to be beautiful. Be it Helen of Troy, or Nefertiti of Egypt, or Desdemona in Othello, Sita in Ramayana etc. This correlation, IMHO is not coincidental. In fact, I think its causal; the physical characteristics and appearance that denote affluence (and/or power) become the beauty ideal of that age and place.
Lets consider a few examples to illustrate my assertion:
Europe – Middle Ages
In the middle ages, in Europe, the gender roles were rigid and strict among the affluent. Men were supposed to be the knightly type, and the women, the homely type. The women therefore, seldom went out in hot sun. They almost never exerted themselves physically. Most of the work around the house was done by the orderlies. Consequently, the women were pale, physically weaker than men, delicate in the way they carried themselves to accentuate that perception of weakness, demure in their behavior towards men (acknowledging/submitting to superiority of the man), and so on. Interestingly, those features are actually a good description of the feminine beauty ideal of those times.
America – The 50s
The America in the 50s was a booming place. They had just won the war, and the economy was busting at the seams. Everyone was happy, and the money was flowing. The affluent got their hands on most of the money while a tiny trickle went down to the rest of the society (the middle class was a very thin social class). The affluent had all the money to buy food, healthy and lots of it. They didn’t have travel far to get anything, others did it for them. On the other hand, the poor had to fight for a decent meal, and had to walk quite some distances. Consequently, the poor looked thin and frail, and sun-tanned for most part. The affluent women on the other hand had little tan (because they didn’t need to go out in the sun), and were ‘pudgy’ by today’s standards; a sign of good healthy food: hence affluence). Not surprisingly, this was the feminine beauty ideal personified by Marylin Monroe. In today’s scales, Monroe would be considered ‘fat’ in the fashion industry.
America – 21st century
The economic boom in the second half of 20th century made basic living expenses affordable in America. Importantly, food become ridiculously cheap with the influx of fast food into America. Fast food was the cheapest food you could get, and was hence the poor man stable diet. Fast food, unfortunately, has this side-effect of being high in Sodium, MSG, and hydrogenated, saturated fat. Not exactly the healthiest, but filling nevertheless. Thus came about the obesity epidemic in the US. The rich and affluent, however, didn’t have to eat the unhealthy fast food. They would afford healthy food, and so long as they maintained a healthy life style, their weren’t likely to grow obese.
The trend was reversed. The poor were no longer thin and frail, and the rich no longer on the heavier side. Interestingly, the beauty ideal for this time was thin, almost anorexic. Coincidence? I think not!
Independent India in the 20th century
India struggled for post part of the second half of the 20th century. After independence, the power structures that were established by the British were left intact as the model of governance for independent India. The people who replaced the British personnel in the various positions in this power structure were the educated elite. Since pre-independent India did not have an education system to speak of, all of the educated elite were educated in Briton. Due to their education background, they replicated the British value system back in India. Therefore, people being served by the power structure actually saw little change in the value system before, and after independence. Consequently, the perception that the Europeans were superior (and the affluent) which was established in colonial India, was propagated in independent India through the replication of the value system imbibed by the educated elite who operated the traditional power structure.
Consequently, the perception of Europeans being superior or affluent never really faded away. The economic acceleration of the west, coupled with the crippling poverty of India did not help change the perception. Consequently, the Europeans were the rich and the affluent. Power and affluence was associated with white skin, with fair skin.
This, in fact, can explain the Indians’ obsession with fair skin that has bled into the 21st century.
I understand that the illustrations I have elucidated above are indicative at best, and inadequate to draw a strong conclusion. But it does support my hypothesis that the beauty ideal is defined based on the lifestyle and appearance of the people who inhabit the higher rungs on the social ladder.