Unrealistic Expectations of Female Beauty? Blame Edmund Burke(sort of)

Imposed by men, carried on by women

We all know how images of women in media are Photoshopped into unreality and portray an unrealistic standard of beauty. But thisstandard wasn’t thought of by advertising executives, it didn’t just pop into existence in the 21st century, or 20th or 19th.

Try the 18th century Aesthetics movement, which was apart of the Enlightenment. Unblemished skin, impossibly thin, unhealthful proportions, it all originates from them. This can be seen most clearly in the work of one man:  Edmund Burke, and his On the Sublime and Beautiful. Now Edmund was a product of his time and his views weren’t just his, but he puts the unrealistic standard of female beauty right out BUT doesn’t necessarily say they’ll ever meet the ideal or even should.

On the Sublime and Beautiful is a long dense work and would take far too long to go into in depth, but I’m going to quote the relevant passages and summarize.

Edmund posits the idea of the sublime and the beautiful:

For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.(quote)

The two gender appearance ideals are here.

Men: Tall, dark, rugged and handsome aka the sublime.

Women: Thin, curvy, delicate and unblemished aka the beautiful.

While he never bluntly states the man/sublime connection, he’s not subtle with women.

Remember beauty has five components: smaller, smooth, gradual deviation(curvy vs. angular)  light and delicate(there’s a racist component here which dark  = ugly, which manifests itself where women with lighter skin are considered prettier today, but that’s for a completely different post).

Women aren’t mentioned in the smaller section, but if you consider digital manipulating is making women smaller:

This is meeting his ideal

Next is smoothness:

THE NEXT property constantly observable in such objects is smoothness:  a quality so essential to beauty, that I do not now recollect anything beautiful that is not smooth. In trees and flowers, smooth leaves are beautiful; smooth slopes of earth in gardens; smooth streams in the landscape; smooth coats of birds and beasts in animal beauties; in fine women, smooth skins; and in several sorts of ornamental furniture, smooth and polished surfaces.(quote)

Note how are women are causally inserted between beasts and furniture, kind of gives an idea of how he views them.

So smooth, she doesn't even have pores.

Next is gradual variation, or rounded and not angular:

 Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness; the softness; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily, without knowing where to fix or whither it is carried. Is not this a demonstration of that change of surface, continual, and yet hardly perceptible at any point, which forms one of the great constituents of beauty?(quote)

I don’t think Burke would approve of breast implants actually, since the concept would have been alien at the time.

Finally from the Delicacy section:

The beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness or delicacy, and is even enhanced by their timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it. I would not here be understood to say, that weakness betraying very bad health has any share in beauty; but the ill effect of this is not because it is weakness, but because the ill state of health, which produces such weakness, alters the other conditions of beauty; the parts in such a case collapse; the bright color, the lumen purpureum juventæ, is gone; and the fine variation is lost in wrinkles, sudden breaks, and right lines.(quote)

This is an interesting passage. He’s stating that women are beautiful when they’re timid and delicate, but no so timid and delicate they’re unhealthy. But there’s something else very subtle here.  Look at the last line: “lost in wrinkles, sudden breaks, and right lines.” Aging women are unhealthy and not beautiful. He might not have meant it there, but it’s implied.

Now is Edmund Burke promoting the unhealthy, impossible standard?

THERE is another notion current, pretty closely allied to the former; that Perfection is the constituent cause of beauty. This opinion has been made to extend much further than to sensible objects. But in these, so far is perfection, considered as such, from being the cause of beauty, that this quality, where it is highest, in the female sex, almost always carries with it an idea of weakness and imperfection. Women are very sensible of this; for which reason; they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness, and even sickness. In all they are guided by nature. Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty. Blushing has little less power; and modesty in general, which is a tacit allowance of imperfection, is itself considered as an amiable quality, and certainly heightens every other that is so. I know it is in everybody’s mouth, that we ought to love perfection. This is to me a sufficient proof, that it is not the proper object of love. Who ever said we ought to love a fine woman, or even any of these beautiful animals which please us? Here to be affected, there is no need of the concurrence of our will.(quote)

This a hard passage to compute.  But from how I read it:  Beauty is the highest quality of women( aka women are only good for their appearance) but perfection mean’s they’ll sick and unhealthy, so they purposely try to be imperfect(and compliment and an insult at the same time) . Oh and since women will be never perfect, so they don’t actually have to be perfect to still imagine the  ideal standard(which we can now see it thanks to Photoshop).

Burke goes even further, even implying women are dumb and incapable of moral judgement, but I think I’ve made my point.

This is what Edmund Burke was imagining.

This ideal of what women should look like just didn’t pop up overnight, it’s been around for hundreds of years. But now,  with Photoshop, the ideal beauty can be seen at and presented to women.  Burke was right, it is unhealthy. The one bright spot in his almost completely misogynistic portrayal of women, that women sensibly shouldn’t try to meet it, is completely lost, all thanks to corporations hijacking  that ideal for profit.

Now women carve themselves up, starve themselves, buy useless cosmetics that don’t work, all to match a standard that has its basis in Aesthetics, which was in essence a philosophical exercise to imagine what the most beautiful is. Burke never actual thought the ideal was achievable and states as such.

I presented a well received paper on this subject my senior year of undergrad at a philosophy conference, and stated that ultimately standard has to change, because now, it’s  is finally and truly starting to damage and destroy women. Fun fact, the selection committee was completely shocked to learn a man had actually written that paper since  my name was left off the copies.

That’s why I support projects like Beauty Redefined, but they have there work cut out for them, but a standard three hundred years old, simply isn’t going to disappear overnight, especially when it’s more powerful than ever.

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