Why we’re examining modern beauty—and how it matters for women

Women have long been judged on their looks in ways that men have not. Now ‘we are moving toward a culture of big-tent beauty,’ says writer Robin Givhan.

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.

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