Writer Kari Molvar takes a modern look at human beautification, culture, and fashion for the introduction of The New Beauty
"Beauty is not caused. It is," American poet Emily Dickinson once said. Beauty has fascinated and confounded humans since our earliest days. Why does beauty exist, what defines it, why does it matter? In the natural world, evolutionary biologists have long surmised that aesthetics in animals are related to natural selection. Extravagant, brightly colored feathers signify a healthy immune system, well-defined muscles indicate brute strength to fight off predators. But more recently some biologists have taken a decidedly progressive stance and suggested that beauty isn’t always tied to survival. Instead, it can be appreciated for its own sake. Female bowerbirds might choose mates with scarlet feathers for no other reason than they like red plumes—who cares if this feature indicates strong genetics or good potential as a partner? In other words, beauty has value all its own—and it can be powerfully seductive.
Ancient and medieval civilizations were so mesmerized by the notion of beauty that they believed it couldn’t be randomly formed in the ether or shaped by abstract forces. It had to be explained and quantified with numbers, defined by rules, and proven with equations. They built buildings and painted works of art that fit into the so-called golden ratio—which represented the ideal proportions of beauty manifested in many forms (a grand building, the human body). You can imagine the ancient scholars, so frustrated and obsessed with beauty that they thought: if only we can wrestle and pin it down, like some wild animal, we can understand its mysteries and allure.
But the fact is beauty is always changing and appearances are not fixed. Buildings heave and crumble, toppled by the forces of nature; oil paintings lose their luster, dimmed by the unforgiving glare of sunlight; mascara streaks and settles into creases; cheeks buttressed by youth fall and collapse; hair withers and slips through your fingers.
Reducing beauty to a formula—distilling its ethereal essence into something finite—is simply impossible. But early societies tried anyway. The need to idealize certain features created some of the first beauty standards in history. Over time, these features gradually shifted, but for centuries, they revolved around many of the same attributes, usually linked to fertility and what society deemed important or necessary: "The jawline was to be defined, the cheekbones high and sharp. The nose was 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—preferably golden. Symmetry was desired. Youthfulness, that went without saying," writes journalist Robin Givhan in an essay on the evolution of beauty in National Geographic. Such standards endured through the generations.
Until now, that is. Beauty ideals have changed more rapidly in the past 10 years than in the last 100, argues Givhan. This is shockingly fast. Change is often painfully slow. Revolutions are usually measured by inches. Yet an explosion of modern influences—from technology to engaged activism to gender fluidity—has radically reshaped and globalized the perception of aesthetics. With a scroll, flick, and click, you can get access to every known way to apply eyeliner, bend your hair into wildly creative updos, turn your nails into surrealist sculptures, and anything else you can dream up.
In the early 1900s, the pressure to fit into society’s beauty expectations was so pronounced that advertisements suggested something like body odor could make you unlikable. By the 1950s, hair removal was part of a woman’s expected hygiene (never mind that nothing about shaving keeps the body clean). Now beauty is no longer hinged on conforming and fitting in but telling your story through your appearance. Taboos that were never talked about are part of the mainstream conversation, whether it's body hair (and odor!), hormones, the realities of aging, or the normalizing of acne. Makeup, for that matter, has moved far beyond fixing perceived flaws or camouflaging the face to become a new mode of self-expression, a medium to explore themes related to individuality, community, and creativity. Painting on lipstick is about pleasing yourself—not someone else’s gaze.
Yet ideals still exist. Gen Z’s well-documented obsession with brushed-up brows, full lips, and heavily contoured and sculpted faces reveals that, despite all this freedom of imagination, ironically, sometimes we end up looking exactly alike. That’s the illusion we have created online anyway. When sharpening your cheekbones and brightening your skin is as simple as picking a filter and airbrushing, it’s easy to take this shape-shifting to an unhealthy extreme. What does it say about our culture when we constantly want to change our appearances—what purpose does it serve?
History illuminates how the body is a map of our cumulative experiences. Ancient cultures relied on markings and decorations to indicate rank and social status. Today, body piercing, tattoos, and henna are still full of rich meaning but artists are finding inventive, forward-thinking ways to preserve the authenticity of these traditions while exploring contemporary issues through the physical act of modifying the body. Similarly, hair has long been tied to the spiritual world in African rituals, and now the need to honor these traditions is more urgent than ever. Hair has long been politically charged—a subject of racism and discrimination—and, in this regard, beauty can reflect broader social issues, and optimistically, be an agent for change.
On another level, beauty is self-care—it transcends the surface and is closely connected to our emotional state. As the world moves faster, simple acts, such as washing your face and applying masks, can be healing for the soul and psyche. Tuning inward has brought a new wave of consciousness, in that we’re paying more attention to the impact of our actions and seeking out more sustainable practices. The beauty industry is notoriously wasteful, producing heaps of trash from single-use containers and plastic packaging. The new guard of environmentalists, though, is confronting such issues head-on, and turning beautifying into an opportunity to do good.
Ultimately, the future of beauty revolves around democracy: bringing others into the conversation, breaking down barriers, removing stereotypes, and creating a more open space where the meaning and purpose of beauty can be expressed. The world of self-care and wellness has, historically, been homogenous—made up of faces, voices, and places that all look and feel the same. Now, thankfully, that’s no longer the case, as services, studios, and platforms speak more directly to those of all backgrounds, income levels, abilities, and body types. As Givhan points out, "We are in a better place than we were a generation ago, but we have not arrived at utopia." Not all of the problems have been solved, yet the work has begun.
Because even in dark moments, there is joy in beauty. Its rituals follow us through all the stages of life and create memories that bond us together. Beauty is the powdery smell of a baby’s skin, the nightly bath that washes away the muddiness of childhood, the unruly tangles of teenage hair, the young face startlingly transformed into an adult by eyeliner and mascara, the creases and crinkles of deep-worn laugh lines, the downy softness of gray hair. Appearances will always change but beauty doesn’t disappear. Our bodies tell a story of who we are—and it’s all there, reflected back at us in the mirror.
Take a modern look at beautification, culture, and fashion through The New Beauty.