Is plain and chunky the new beautiful? The signs seem promising: ABC’s ‘‘Ugly Betty’’ has become one of TV’s most popular shows.
Redefining beauty ‘‘is in the cultural zeitgeist,’’ Michael Benson, ABC Entertainment marketing executive, told USA Today.
The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has made a splash with ads featuring women with gray hair, women with curves, women with plain faces, women who are bigger than a size 10 — basically, the faces and bodies of the majority of American women.
Jennifer Hudson, the voluptuous star of ‘‘Dreamgirls’’ and winner of this year’s best supporting actress Oscar, was the cover girl for the March issue of Vogue magazine. She’s one of the few full-size women to make the cover; reportedly, even Oprah Winfrey was told to lose 20 pounds before she could be a Vogue cover girl.
Promising? Not so fast. Amid these small signs that our perceptions of beauty may be changing are reminders that looks still play a role in how people respond to one another. Consider this story: A sorority at DePauw University in Indiana recently booted 23 members — including every woman who was overweight, as well as the only black, Korean and Vietnamese members. The members who weren’t kicked out, according to a report in The New York Times, ‘‘were slender and popular with fraternity men — conventionally pretty women the sorority hoped could attract new recruits.”
Here’s the ugly truth: Despite all the positive talk that beauty is only skin deep, that skinny is too skinny, that the breasts you were born with are just fine, evolutionary studies may say otherwise.
Many scientific studies have concluded that beauty is an essential part of human nature, and in the Darwinian struggle for survival, we naturally choose beauty over ‘‘Ugly Betty.’’
Even 3-month-old babies who have not been bombarded with societal expectations gaze longer at attractive faces than unattractive ones, studies have found — an indication that views of beauty are not learned.
‘‘From an evolutionary perspective there are standards of beauty that don’t change,’’ says R. Elisabeth Cromwell, an evolutionary and developmental psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
The genes that code the brain to find certain attributes attractive are passed from one generation to another. We have evolved to look for youth and fecundity when seeking mates, she says. In other words, people are programmed to make babies.
For example, men and women look for mates who have symmetrical faces (although they are probably not aware of it). If both sides of the face are symmetrical, it may subconsciously indicate a better chance for survival.
‘‘It signals that if you have lived to fight off parasites, disease, famine and still had the energy to grow a symmetrical look, then you have the genetic makeup to propagate the species,’’ says Cromwell.
Similarly, women are attracted to men with square jaws because the bone growth signals that the guy has lots of testosterone. Women are also inclined to select tall men, because height, like beauty, indicates health and genetic strength.
Men are attracted to younger women for the same reasons. When a woman gets older, she loses facial elasticity, which signals a loss of hormones and onset of menopause. Basically, biology rules.
‘‘If all men over time were attracted only to 80-year-old women, the species wouldn’t have gotten very far,’’ Cromwell notes.
Ironically, men are not programmed to go for the superskinny look. The fat of curvaceous buttocks, thighs and breasts come from estrogen, which is necessary for successful reproduction.
‘‘The Marilyn Monroe figure, not the ultrathin model, is more attractive to men,’’ Cromwell says. ‘‘Men don’t like emaciated women because that can signal that they do not ovulate.’’
So why do so many people idealize the woman who resembles a stick figure? Hollywood, the modeling industry, the media and the ‘‘you can’t be too rich or too thin’’ mind-set all come into play, experts say.
Over time, thin and beautiful has become associated with rich and famous; we’re constantly bombarded with images of beautiful people, Cromwell says, and thus we become convinced it’s the norm. Men have become less satisfied with a partner who is ‘‘average’’ because of this warped sense of what average is.
It’s a hard image to change, regardless of ‘‘Ugly Betty’’ and the fight against anorexia.