When I was young, what my friends and I considered pretty was everything I was not: Tall. Stick-straight blond hair. Blue eyes. We wanted to look like Peggy Lipton from the TV show The Mod Squad. Or a 1960s Barbie, with her yellow ponytail and absurdly unattainable figure. But every day, the mirror provided a reflection of how I, and so many others, failed to attain that ideal.
As writer Robin Givhan puts it in her story in the February 2020 issue, “For generations, beauty required a slender build but with a generous bosom and a narrow waist. The jawline was to be defined, the cheekbones high and sharp. The nose angular. The lips full but not distractingly so. The eyes, ideally blue or green, large and bright. Hair was to be long, thick, and flowing—and preferably golden. Symmetry was desired. Youthfulness, that went without saying.”
When National Geographic decided to spend 2020 examining the state of the world’s women, we debated whether to write about beauty. Would that be shallow or playing into stereotypes? In the end, we concluded our coverage would be incomplete if we didn’t address the outsize role that beauty plays in women’s lives.
In every country and culture, women are perceived and judged, advantaged or disadvantaged, by their appearance in ways that men are not. Social media ratchets up the pressure, with body shaming and Instagram-filtered ideals. Let’s not even talk about the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery.
Still, humanity’s standards of beauty are expanding. The homogeneous Barbie of the baby boom is gone, replaced by a multitude that many more girls might appreciate—every color of skin and shape of eyes, every texture of hair; different noses, lips, and body types.
“We are moving toward a culture of big-tent beauty. One in which everyone is welcome,” Givhan writes. Of course, that’s not yet fully the reality. But as someone who’s the same age as Barbie—we both entered the world in 1959—I marvel at the progress. We don’t all have to be Peggy Lipton anymore.
Givhan says it best: “The new outlook on beauty dares us to declare someone we haven’t met beautiful. It forces us to presume the best about people. It asks us to connect with people in a way that is almost childlike in its openness and ease. Modern beauty doesn’t ask us to come to the table without judgment. It simply asks us to come presuming that everyone in attendance has a right to be there.”
Thank you for reading National Geographic.