‘Short and round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, looking like rows of short sausages; with shiny, tightly-stretched skin and an enormous bust filling out the bodice of her dress, she was seductive and much sought after, owing to her fresh and pleasing appearance. Her face was like a crimson apple, a peony-bud just bursting into bloom; she had two magnificent dark eyes, fringed with thick, heavy lashes, which cast a shadow into their depths; her mouth was small, ripe, kissable, and was furnished with the tiniest of white teeth.’ – Guy de Maupassant, Boule de Suif
A voluptuous bust rippling over in cake-like folds and the proud owner of hands with fingers much reminiscent of Cumberland sausages, so Guy de Maupassant depicts his sumptuous French heroine as the gentry of her carriage look upon her with aroused eyes of desire, much as a famished captive beholds a succulent apple at his feet.
Meanwhile, some 300 years earlier in Tudor England, gushing damsels in corseted finery are throwing themselves at the of feet of the season’s hottest sex symbol – Henry VIII. Peacock upon peacock makes its way down a kingly oesophagus and into subcutaneous layers of fat while gouty thighs protruding from the knee-high breeches of the small yet, full-figured king leave the ladies (and men?) of the court longing for more.
As we fast forward to 21st century New York, we stumble upon Vogue cuttings of anorexic fashion shoots and towering Dior clad models who roam red carpets like lace covered rib-cages – it is safe to say, fashion and health have never gone hand in hand. Whether it be the rubenesque creases of a 19th century double chin, the skeletal shadows cast over haute couture cheekbones, the pale-faced charm of an untouched Geisha girl, the beautifully brokens toes of Chinese noblewomen bound into undersized footwear, the artificially elongated lips of Ethiopia‘s Mursi people, the bald scalp of an Israeli married woman, or the sun-scorched melanoma skin of Western icons – beauty seems inextricably linked to culture and a distorted sense of perfection detrimental to the functioning of the human body.
Naturally pale Europeans longing to darken their skin spend their summers smearing on fake tan and scouring the skylines for the sun’s beautifying shafts of light, whilst on the other side of the ocean, the naturally darker skinned Koreans and Japanese soak in their whitening creams and hide themselves from the vitamin D rich rays under ornate parasols. In the West we may lament the size of our overly large noses, but fly over to the Far East and you may well be met with a gaggle of Chinese girls queuing up for nose enlargement surgery – or what is known as ‘Eiffel Tower Nose Jobs’ – in a bid to increase their perceived attractiveness and employment opportunities through Rhinoplasty. Perhaps society’s sense of ultimate aesthetic beauty will always veer towards an unnatural ideal only obtainable through artificial modification or intervention due to our innately human lack of self-approbation; we eternally yearn to alter the organic state of the human form, we strive to become whatever we are not.
How are we shaped by the psychology of beauty? Is beauty purely visual? In feeding our vanity, do we harm our own physical form? Is our perception of beauty cultivated by society, culture and fashion iconography? What may be defined as aesthetically pleasing in colour and form? To what extent do we possess a capacity to perceive beauty beyond the borders of our own cultural experience? What is the balance between cultural perception of beauty, biological compatibility, pheromone attraction, facial symmetry, intelligence and individual personality in terms of the way we attract and are attracted to others?
‘There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.’ ― Edgar Allan Poe
‘A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.’ ― Roald Dahl
‘It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.’ ― Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata
‘There are no bad pictures; that’s just how your face looks sometimes.’
― Abraham Lincoln