The Socio-Cultural Impacts Of Western Beauty Ideals on the lives of women

  • 12 Pages
  • Published On: 21-05-2024


The proliferation of media has led to an adoption of various beauty ideals among Caucasian women. However, the pursuit for these beauty ideals has had various sociocultural impacts on the women involved. This narrative literature review was set out to investigate these impacts, with a specific focus on the thinness beauty ideal and cosmetic surgery. The study has found that the thinness beauty ideal exposes women to chronic objectification and chronic discrepancies which lure them into practises such as plastic surgery and starving.

1.0 Introduction

Every man living in the modern world wants to look and feel beautiful. However, women are more likely to care about their beauty than men do, partly because society puts more pressure on them to be beautiful (Ashikai, 2005). As a result, Atkinson (2005) observes that women are forced to adjust to the culturally imposed standards of beauty by changing their body images, especially after having a long time exposure to media and body image advertisements done by the players in the cosmetic industry. In fact, Calogero et al (2007) acknowledge that contemporary society considers physically fit and shaven men; and slim women as the gold standard for beauty, and this has a general ripple effect on the body image, body satisfaction, physiological and physical health of women. Nonetheless, issues of body image and physical beauty of women have always been studied within the context of female beauty ideals. These beauty ideals have been used to explain the nature of female beauty, a phenomenon that now exists in a variety of perspectives. For example, according to Baumann (2008), female beauty ideals can be used to explain an individual’s fertility levels, their political and economic powers in the society. However, regardless of the various perspectives of understanding female beauty ideals, one underlying aspect is: female beauty ideals indicate more about a woman than just her external physical appearance – especially when viewed through the socio-cultural lens (Ashikai, 2005). However, according to Calogero et al (2007), there is an inherent unrealistic nature of the beauty ideals which often exposes individuals, societies, and groups to certain consequences. Therefore, the main aim of this study is to explore the sociocultural impacts of female beauty ideals among Caucasian women, with a specific focus on the ‘thinness’ beauty ideal and cosmetic surgery.


1.1 Research Objectives

i. To identify the factors contributing to beauty ideals among Caucasian women.

ii. To explore the socio-cultural impacts of exposure to beauty ideals among Caucasian women.

2.1 The Historical Background of Beauty Ideals

A review of the literature on beauty ideals provides the perfect demonstration of how appearance and beauty are important in the lives of women. In fact, Swami (2007) observes that the available artefacts, images, and texts from ancient Egypt reveal how women spent an immense amount of time to perfect their bodies. Nonetheless, women during the 1400 and 1700 considered beauty as being fat and full. For instance, during the time of the Birth of Venus, women with a pear-shaped body and round face were considered to be the gold standard of beauty (Kunzle, 2004). However, accounts by Calogero et al (2007) indicate that in the 19th century, there was a considerable shift in the idea of beauty towards unnatural and unrealistic body ideals. Whereas items like corsets had been developed in the 16th century, they evolved into the hallmark of beauty and fashion among almost all classes of women during the 19th century. Ideally, according to Calogero et al (2007), women in the 19th century used corsets to push out and hold-in their fuller body features, to an extent that some women achieved a 15-inch waist.

Historical accounts by other scholars (e.g. Banner 1983) also reveal that by the mid-19th century, there was an emergence of two other beauty ideals: one described as the ‘steel engraving lady’- characterized by a small waist, sloped shoulders, slight shape, tiny and delicate feet. According to Mazur (1890), women with this delicate image were associated with social status, beauty, as well as moral values. The second beauty ideal that emerged in the mid-19th century was the image of a ‘voluptuous woman’, characterized by fleshy-body and popular with the European nude magazines of that time (Calogero et al, 2007). The fleshy female was associated with good health, large boned figures, and broadened bottoms.

During the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, a new beauty ideal emerged, also known as the ‘Gibson Girl’. Calogero et al (2007) writes that the Gibson girl was characterized by the features of the ‘steel engraving lady’ but added a few characteristics of her own. She had slender legs and waist, but with curvy large breasts and wide hips.

Writings by Zare et al (2014) indicate that the period after the end of World War I was termed as the ‘flapper era’, in which the beauty ideal was characterized by an exclusive shift towards cosmetic surgery to develop slender legs and decorated face. Besides, Zare et al (2014) assert that during this period up to the end of World War II, women mostly attended cosmetic surgery to cover-up scars and to hide other physical complications emerging from diseases such as syphilis and HIV/AIDS. Accounts by Zare et al (2014) highlight further that after World War II, physicians used plastic surgery to restore the faces of soldiers but after realizing that it could help improve people’s beauty and enhance their appearance, cosmetic surgery became more popular.

Accompanied by an expansion of beauty ideals especially among Caucasian women in the US, cosmetic surgery has today become an inevitable phenomenon, and is now used without any medical justification, but to modify people’s physical appearance. Existing literature indicates that cosmetic surgery may be of a variety of types, ranging from rhinoplasty to laser removal of hair in beauty salons.

3.0 Methodology

The study relied on a secondary research approach to achieve its objectives. In doing so, the study conducted a systematic search, evaluation, analysis, and interpretation of existing literary evidence in relation to its research topic. Afterward, there was a comprehensive identification of various themes from the literary materials to come up with conclusions. Noteworthy though, the researcher evaluated the appropriateness of the literary materials and how they could help give the best approach to achieving the research objectives – through narrative literature review research methodology. Specifically, the narrative literature review methodology was selected for the study due to its ability of help achieve the research objectives through three major ways: by evaluating the existing research gaps on the current topic area, by identifying and highlighting the currently existing research evidence, and finally through a detailed and comprehensive analysis of those evidences to achieve research objectives.

3.1 Databases

The study relied on online databases and search engines to identify and select literary materials. According to De Brun & Pearce-Smith (2009), online databases and search engines allow for an easier search of literary materials using keywords, through a process that is relatively quicker and easier than a physical search of literary materials in a library. The use of databases and search engines also allow for an easier replication of the entire research process. This particular study used EBSCO, JUSTOR and Google Scholar to conduct a search of the literature. These databases were selected due to their relevance and abundance health and social science literature.

3.2 Search Terms

The study used several search terms to allow for easier retrieval of literary materials from the said databases. Some of the search terms used in the study includes beauty ideals, identity, body, gender, image, cosmetic surgery. These terms were chosen for use in this study because of their likeliness to yield a comprehensive and large range of literature for purposes of achieving the current study’s objectives.

The researcher customized the keywords in order to suit the selected databases during the search process. Besides, the researcher used Medical Subjects Headings (MeSH) as well as fee keyword searches to link the search terms to predetermined headings within each database. The researcher also conducted a manual search of literary materials from websites to ensure that no relevant literature material was left out.

4.0 Results

4.1 The Thinness Beauty Ideal

Our findings reveal that thinness beauty ideals are mostly propagated through all types of media including TV advertisements, magazines, films, children’s fairy tales, and videos. In fact, Groesz et al (2002) conducted a systematic review on the impact of exposure to thin beauty ideal and found that there was a significant association between thin beauty ideal and media images, and negative body image among women and girls.

When women and girls are constantly exposed to such images, some of which associated thinness to certain rewards, they develop a personal acceptance or a cultural internalization of thinness as a beauty ideal (Calogero et al, 2007). According to Calogero et al (2007), an internalization of a thin beauty ideal refers to the cognitive acceptance within an individual that thinness is the societal gold standard of measurement for beauty and attractiveness, and the adoption of this standard as their own measures of beauty, thereby engaging in any activity that is designed to help them achieve this ideal standard of beauty.

But, literary evidence also documents that women who have internalized thinness beauty ideals are more susceptible to negative outcomes associated with the pursuit of these beauty ideals; compared to those who have not internalized these ideals. Of specific interest in a variety of literary materials are chronic objectification and chronic discrepancies among women. As will be illustrated below, both chronic objectification and chronic discrepancies are interrelated and have negative socio-cultural effects on the lives of women.

4.2 Chronic Discrepancy

Literary evidence has revealed that there are discrepancies associated with women’s strive to achieve thinness beauty ideals. For instance, according to Thompson and Tantleff (1992), most women’s bodies have always been and will remain to be discrepant with the thinness beauty ideal, because some of the characteristics of the thinness ideals are physically incompatible and cannot be achieved within one body. For example, women in the 19th century strived to have smaller breasts but with curvy bottoms, while today’s women strive to have muscles but with low body fat (Katch et al, 1980) – yet these physical attributes are incompatible. Consequently, according to Calogero et al (2007), women have to undergo certain surgical modification on their body (i.e. cosmetic surgery) to achieve a curvaceously thin body, thereby being exposed to ‘double damage’ to their bodies especially when they attempt to reshape their bodies through exercises and disordered eating habits to reduce their lower body parts; as well as through cosmetic surgery to enlarge the upper part of their bodies.

4.3 Chronic Objectification

Reviewed literature also indicates that chronic objectification – defined by Bartky (1990) as the act of reducing women’s bodies to objects of admiration, inspection, evaluation, manipulation, and measurement; encourages women to engage in self-objectification by gazing at themselves through a process that requires them to distance themselves with their bodies. This chronic self-objectification among women explains the increase in women’s attempt to undergo cosmetic surgeries that bruise their skins, reshape themselves, amputate or rearrange their body parts to achieve their desired beauty ideal. Besides, Calogero et al (2007) associate self-objectification with women’s attempt to starve in order to achieve thinness as a beauty standard.

5.0 Conclusion

This study intended to explore literature on the socio-cultural impacts of female beauty ideals among Caucasian women. In doing so, the study has identified the thinness beauty ideal as one that is largely observed by Caucasian women and that dates back to the 19th century. In regards to the socio-cultural impacts of beauty ideals, the study has singled out the chronic discrepancy and chronic objectification, both which leads to the increased practice of cosmetic surgery as well as non-clinical eating disorders. The study, therefore, concludes that when women internalize thinness as a standard measure of beauty, they engage in several activities such as chronic objectification, and realize a chronic discrepancy between their current body image and the desired image, thereby triggering them to engage in inherently dangerous practices such as cosmetic surgery and self-starving.

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  • Ashikari, M. (2005). Cultivating Japanese Whiteness: The „Whitening‟ Cosmetics Boom and the Japanese Identity. Journal of Material Culture, 10(1): 73-104.
  • Atkinson, T. (2005). The Body. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Baumann, S. (2008). The moral underpinnings of beauty: A meaning-based explanation for light and dark complexions in advertising. University of Toronto, 2-23
  • Banner, L. (1983). American beauty. New York: Knopf.
  • Bartky, S. (1990). Femininity and domination. New York: Routledge
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  • Kunzle, D. (2004). Fashion and fetishism: A social history of The corset, tight--‐lacing and other forms of body--‐sculpture in the West. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing.
  • Katch, V. L., Campaigne, B., Freedson, P., Sayd, S., Katch, F. L., & Behnke, A. R. (1980).Contribution of breast volume and weight to body fat distribution in females. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 53, 93--‐100.
  • Mazur, A. (1986). US trends in feminine beauty and overadaptation. Journal of Sex Research, 22, 281-303.
  • Swami, V. (2007). The Missing Arms of Vénus de Milo: Reflections on the Science of Physical Attractiveness. Brighton: The Book Guild Publishing.
  • Thompson, J. K., & Tantleff, S. (1992). Female and male ratings of upper torso: Actual, ideal, and stereotypical conceptions. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 7, 345-354.
  • Zare B, Javadi F., Naseri S (2014). Does It Make Me Beautiful? A Focus Group Discussion on Cosmetic Surgery International Journal of Applied Sociology 2014, 4(5): 126-132.

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