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Dating From the Inside Out
by Susan S. Davis

The Origin and Meaning of Physical Appearance

In the past, contemporary culture has been criticized by the spiritual community, for an omnipresent narcissistic existence – or, an abundant over-concern with the projection of attractive, ‘superior’ images and masks -- which characterize people in some form of ‘perfect’ state.

The supposition that a standard of perfection is actually attainable by the masses (which it isn’t, not only because it is generally unrealistic, but also largely genetically implausible) is also damaging, since it assumes a level of invulnerability that does not exist, as well.

To the contrary, numerous icons of pop culture, past and present, have proven that most of those portrayed as ‘perfect,’ or ‘best,’ for the most part, are all too human, and often much further away from any form of super-human aspect, on any level.


In earlier eras, a realistic conception of beauty, such as under Plato, determines that beauty is inherent in the object itself, containing an essence prior to and apart from human interpretation and reflection. As evidenced by Socrates’ musing in Plato's Symposium, "What if man had eyes to see the true beauty -- the divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed," physical beauty was treated as an access to higher qualities. Physical beauty, as it appeared to Plato, seemed more of an inspirational tool, rather than some ideal to strive for.

Through the ages, the concept of beauty has been relative. With the advent and popularity of subjectivism and relativism, the attempt by philosophers to provide a theory of beauty has been virtually abandoned.

We seem to live in an increasingly narcissistic culture, whose value system stems partly from the very images perpetuated by a consumer-driven society, from which eras such as the 1980s, seem to have set the gold standard for.

While most intelligent people realize that the dysfunctions of narcissistic culture, are, in fact, unworthy of the attention and authority that they are relegated, particularly in the media, there still remain a great number of people who allow themselves to fall victim to the societal standards that generate the shallow propaganda machine.

In present society, beauty doesn't sell ideas or religions; but rather, products and lifestyles. The implications seem to be that the purpose of beauty has had the effect of democratizing it in some fashion. ‘’Looking good’’ is no longer exclusive to Gods and Goddesses, but accessible to everyday people.

However, if most people could realize how irrelevant the painfully familiar images put forth on television and in print actually are, and that they are simply the symptoms that demonstrate the breakdown of family and personal relationships, as well as society overall, perhaps people would be in a position to cease rendering them any power in their lives.

Tragically, at the base of all of it, is what appear to be a group of self-absorbed individuals, whose inability to confront and embrace reality is so foreign, that the very idea of cooperating collectively to negate social problems such as obsession with physical appearance, is just too monumental to confront.

Researchers have issued studies that have shown how images of beautiful, impossibly proportioned models, have negatively affected people's self-esteem. The level of muscularity and attractiveness that are idealized in our society, are usually not attainable for the average person. In contrast, the images of ourselves that we see in the mirror, can lead to extreme and often unhealthy actions, such as eating disorders, obsessive exercising, and diet pill or steroid abuse. In reality, shallowness can also result in a staggering level of social isolation and insecurity.

Thankfully, some recent attention has sought to dispel some of the nonsensical standards that have plagued our society, with regard to physical appearance. Former model, Tyra Banks, has instituted a regular recurring theme on her show, called “So What!” in answer to the near-constant obsession that girls and women have developed with regard to their appearance.

The "culture of muscularity," prominently displayed in print, film and television, has also affected many men's self-esteem. In recent studies, researchers found that watching images of muscular, shirtless men lifting weights and selling various products, produced a sobering, depressed and unhappy effect upon men.

Fashion designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, last year replaced the usual rail-thin model, with a much larger young woman, as the lead down the catwalk to show off his clothing line in Paris. Choosing to "celebrate diversity," Mr. Gaultier utilized people of various shapes and sizes, including a dwarf. However, sadly, it has been reported that the reaction of the audience largely consisted of laughter. It would seem that perhaps haute couture, is not ready for the reality that most females today, do not resemble “perfect” bone-thin models.

In a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers found that after nearly 160 male college students watched various ads for various products, featuring buff men over 30, more felt depressed and less satisfied with their own bodies, than men who saw ads featuring “regular” men.

The Dove commercials, in which older women are featured, is not only an homage to women over the age of 22, but also, a reminder that models do not represent womanhood, in any stretch of the imagination. While many have embraced the Dove advertisements, there have been reports that they “offend” some of those individuals who are not comfortable seeing real women as they truly are. This is most likely, because of the conditioning as a result of the constant barrage of physical images, which have permeated into society as the norm, from media.

At least some effort is being made to re-develop society’s sense of what a healthy specimen of physicality entails. It would, of course, be wonderful if the rest of the commercial world could follow suit, however, it appears that it may take a bit longer to catch up to reality, for the realization that true beauty, and its value thereof, exists in many forms.

So, what is the solution to surviving in our society as we know it – including the barrage of imagery designed to serve nothing more than some unattainable fantasy?

As a society, we should attempt to disregard that which is unhealthy, including unattainable image standards, while developing ways to help people create realistic expectations about our appearance, and avoid buying into ideals that are impossible to attain. That goal will be more easily reached, if firstly, as individuals, we strive to define our own health standards, while focusing on developing involvements with like-minded lifestyles, through people who have a mutual connection and understanding with regard to physical appearance. In this way, we can more adequately assign the importance and relativity of physical appearance in our society and culture.

Related Links
» How Physical Appearance Figures in the Dating Arena
» What Makes Us Physically Unattractive?

Susan S. Davis is a published book author and writer, currently doing research for a romantic screenplay she is writing. Her Dating From The Inside Out column is published every Tuesday.

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