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Picture all the problematic, harmful trends that have come and gone in the last 30 years: waif-like figures and heroin chic in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, then, from the 2010s until now, the synthetic amalgamations of the waif-figure plus the “hard body” of the 1980s. While the former had many women and young girls starving and depriving themselves, the latter had influencers urging them to “just work hard at the gym” in order to obtain perfectly flat stomachs and thigh gaps, while at the same time having large boobs and butts (we all know, or should know, this look is greatly facilitated by plastic surgery).
This isn’t to say that the pursuit of beauty isn’t influenced by men’s preferences at all. But many of them are born from the pursuit of aesthetics that other women find appealing. When that appeal is used in marketing (think of celebrity cover girls for major beauty brands), those trends translate into some greater meaning for other women: something that’s enviable. Maybe she won the genetic lottery (even if she hasn’t). Maybe she has money (and lots of it!). Maybe she’s just so disciplined. Either way, it’s worth emulating and gives women something to strive for.
Beauty, according to Men
Is beauty really only in the eye of the beholder? Yes and no.
Men are evolutionarily inclined to like shapely figures that indicate high fertility. Think large boobs and particular fat distribution around the hips, butt, and thighs. Anything that indicates to the primal side of their brain that a woman could bear and raise healthy children.
Not all men are uniformly into that, though. They usually have more particular preferences, like favoring a more athletic figure or a curvier one, or short girls over tall. Still, many men date and even marry outside those preferences. It’s not that they don’t find their wife beautiful or aren’t attracted to her, but they find that although her beauty isn’t comprised of all of the typical things he prefers, when it’s compounded with her inner beauty, it makes her more desirable than a basic image of a woman that checks off all his typical physical criteria.
This is all just to illustrate that the spectrum of “beauty” is broad, to say the least. Standards change depending on who you’re trying to market to. In the case of the beauty standard, it’s hardly consistent – it seems to change every few decades. Is it really average men changing their minds over what they find attractive? Or something else entirely?
The “Impossible Beauty Standard” over the Years
The ever-elusive “impossible beauty standard” encompasses the male standard of beauty (from an evolutionary standard), but only sometimes. It’s better said that it overlaps at times. The most recent body trend from the beginning of the 2010s up until very recently that can be defined as “Kardashian-chic” falls into that category of overlap. Fertility indicators like large boobs and butts were in vogue once more, ushering in the era of “thiccness” and the dramatic hourglass figure.
Compare that to the trend preceding that: heroin chic and the waif-like figure in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Both go completely against what the evolutionary standard of attraction in men is. While this trend prevailed, many models looked nearly devoid of curves, and whether it was supplemented by makeup, also sported dark eyes and heavily angular features. If we’re to accept that men are generally attracted to the feminine and at least a baseline of health, heroin chic simply isn’t it.
In the 1980s, we saw the emergence of the “hard body.” Basically, a feminine yet pretty athletic build. We saw this with the popularization of home exercise videos for women (think Jane Fonda’s programs) and the prominence of models like Cindy Crawford. More appealing to men, although maybe not those who like more dramatic curves. Going back further, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we saw the popularization of slimness (think Twiggy), kind of a predecessor to heroin chic. But in the ‘50s, curves were all the rage (think Marilyn Monroe).
If you look for a pattern, you’ll see that these trends are oscillating. We swing from one extreme to another. For a while, slimness prevails. Then, once women and girls have developed eating disorders, we make dramatic curves and a full-but-not-too-full figure the next great thing. In between those two oscillations, we seem to land on a trend that’s more in-between, but it’s inconsistent. After all, in the midst of the “Kardashian chic” era, we did see a spike in the glorification of obesity, which is a new, never-before-seen standard in the mainstream. Even still, there remains a subculture around fat positivity, which aims to destigmatize obesity and call it beautiful.
Are Men To Blame?
Yes. But not in the way you may think.
The average man who’s looking for a girlfriend isn’t setting the standard for what’s beautiful or what belongs on the front cover of a women’s magazine. But in the past especially, that job was likely held by a man looking for how best to market products to women so that the company he worked for could make big money. His job was to sell aspirational images like the ones we discussed earlier. He was tasked with convincing women that they too could be as beautiful as the current “it girl” if only she bought a particular shade of Lancome lipstick or Chanel No. 5. Once she realizes it takes more than that, maybe diet and exercise, or more invasive procedures, it majorly feeds into the economy. Women’s beauty is a massive, global industry.
We can’t even blame the men anymore, however, because it’s mainly women who make up the majority of these positions and drive the marketing strategies in 2024 at large and small beauty and clothing brands. This is reflected in how the visuals for ads have changed with the trends. Women in these high-power positions are embracing the body-positive, ultra-attainable aesthetic rather than the supermodel, aspirational images we grew up with.
Women Marketing Beauty to Women
Not everyone has the money that celebrities do to get their exact facial structure. One estimate for the cost of Jennifer Lawrence’s cosmetic procedures falls at just above half a million dollars. However, other, more subtle trends that are more accessible to women are still encouraged and, unfortunately, overdone. Lip filler, for instance, is part of the Kardashian-chic model of beauty and is easy to overdo. Men are generally not attracted to it, but women still encourage each other to get it. We guarantee that no man has ever asked his girlfriend or wife to get buccal fat removal, yet this trend is sweeping through Hollywood at an alarming pace, influencing women who can’t afford the procedure to try other methods to achieve the same, sullen look. When a woman admits that she has gotten work done, one of the most common questions is, “by who?” or “where did you get it?” so they can follow in their footsteps. Plastic surgery and the chase after perfection is driven by social media (and women on social media, to be specific).
Even filters that started with dog ears and launched silly trends have become a driver of these ever changing beauty standards. They have evolved into creating the “perfect” face for you in an instant, making women truly believe they look better with a smaller nose or lifted eyes. You can even witness how women influence each other by watching the Stanley Cup craze. This “it girl” staple in 2024 has been around for over 100 years and women didn’t give it a second thought until some brilliant marketing specialist put it in the hands of some very influential women who made it cool.
Where brands previously relied on ad campaigns to be seen around big cities where many women lived or in magazines that women in middle America could access, they now have the power of image, or aesthetic, proliferation on social media apps like TikTok or Instagram.
Examples of this are the “clean girl” aesthetic, “cottagecore,” “soft girl,” “coquette,” and most recently, the “mob wife” aesthetic. These aren’t just pretty pictures for young girls and women to admire, they’re even more aspirational than the marketing models of the past and encompass fashion, skincare, makeup, and more. And once the trend gains a foothold, it could go viral just by women creating content and marketing their aesthetic to other women.
We can’t forget to pay homage to early iterations of this kind of marketing: Ugg boots had everyone in a chokehold in the late 2000s and early 2010s and are back again. Celebrities like Paris Hilton rocked them with their Juicy Couture tracksuits (worthy of its own discussion) and denim miniskirts. Girls wanted to resemble the “it girls” of the time, or come as close to it as they could. The boots can be cute, especially when they come in pastel colors. But are they really worth all the hype? It doesn’t matter – not if every girl and her friends bought into it.
With social media, you can see real-life girls who are living out trendy aesthetics, such as the “clean girl” aesthetic that dominates their way of living, from sunrise to sundown. Such aesthetics and aspirational marketing are produced by women, for women. The average man’s attraction won’t hinge on his love interest’s strict adherence to trends like this, or her ability to replicate an aesthetic. But women attach meaning and symbolism to aesthetics. If someone embodies them, that says something about her.
It’s not like men in marketing hold all the blame. Women bought into these standards, after all. On its own, that’s an interesting problem to solve. Women fall easily into groupthink. We’re the ones on TikTok sharing the latest microtrend, the foundation that will make your skin look like glass, the haircut that will even out your facial features. We’re constantly bombarded with products we “need” whether by influencers we choose to follow online or even everyday girls in our social circles. We’re the ones buying the products marketed to us by other women.
For the longest time, women embraced their curves, googled “workouts that will make my butt bigger” and followed the Kardashians every move, but the moment the newest “it girl” came onto the scene who’s thin and embraces an air of quiet luxury (like Sofia Richie) as opposed to donning trashy catsuits, we’re ready to jump ship and switch teams. If we’re really being honest, we don’t give a whole lot of thought to what men think if we’re not actively pursuing a mate. We care if other women think we’re pretty and our outfit is cute.
We can give a little grace to young girls who are socialized to want to fit into a group or a clique, since their concept of the world is still limited to the confines of a school or other environment where they’re mostly surrounded by peers who are all too eager to make fun of them for standing out.
But adult women are the ones who fully buy into whatever is being marketed to them and establish that as the beauty standard. Imagine what would happen if women rejected the standard? If they only stuck to doing their best to eat whole, healthy foods, to sleep well, to exercise and get daily movement, to talk to their loved ones every day, and to care for their hygiene within a reasonable budget that isn’t going to result in severe financial strain?
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