Like most everyone, I’d like to think my particular form of handsomeness has a sort of timeless appeal. I mean, has the tall, rebellious, bookish type ever been considered unattractive? I doubt it, but even I have to admit that a culture’s idea of beauty changes with the times. Let’s go to the stacks to see if we can find some examples of how the perception of beauty has changed over the years!
For obvious reasons, the first book I looked through was C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington’s The History of Underclothes. Willet and Cunnington study countless underwear advertisements to show how underwear shaped women (literally) to fit to the culture’s ideal body type. The most painful examples come from the 1830s, where a woman might “spend a quarter of an hour in lacing her stays as tight as possible, and is sometimes seen by her female friends pulling hard for some minutes, next pausing to breathe, then resuming the tasks with might and main, till after perhaps a third effort she at last succeeds and sits down covered with perspirations, then it is that the effect of stays is not only injurious to the shape but is calculated to produce the most serious consequences” (82). A smashed innards joke would be funny here if this weren’t true.
Up next is Elwood Watson and Darcy Martin’s “There She Is, Miss America”: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant. This book contains nine essays that explore how the Miss America Pageant embodies the idea of American beauty. This book is great because it explains how recent events shape the idea of beauty. Mary Anne Schofield’s article, “Miss America, Rosie the Riveter, and World War II” explores how women filled the role of being “useful” while remaining “beautiful.” She offers this awesome quote from Irene, a factory worker, in an interview with American Magazine: “When a girl lets her foreman know she can handle the job without his help, she might as well go home and stay there. I manage to get into trouble once or twice a day, just so the foreman can help me out. That makes him feel manly and superior—and friendly. Men want their women to be efficient--but not too efficient (56)”. Between you and me; I use this trick on Tracy all the time.
But what of the men you ask? It does seem like being beautiful is largely women’s work, but playing the part of an ideal man in America these days can be tough. When I need inspiration, I go directly to Margaret Mead’s Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. In my favorite passage the author explains: “The plump man… with double chin, protruding buttocks, whom one has only to put in a bonnet to make him look like a woman, when put beside the equally plump woman will be seen not to have such ambiguous outlines after all; his masculinity is still indubitable when contrasted with the female of his own kind instead of with the male of another kind” (371). See, there’s hope for everyone!
Cunnington, Willett and Phillis Cunnington. The History of Underclothes. Faber and Faber, 1981.
Watson, Elwood and Darcy Martin (eds.). "There She Is, Miss America": The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant. Palegrave Macmillan, 2004.
Mead, Margaret. Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. W Morrow, 1969.