Sinister Standards: Entertainments’ Impact on Beauty Ideals Over Time

Credit: Pixabay

Grace McClung and Nina Dorighi

The entertainment industry, which has grown exponentially with the introduction of social media and online platforms, goes hand in hand with the beauty standards we see; it feeds new trends and public expectations, dictating what these standards are and glorifying those who embody them. Beauty standards have existed for as far back as historians can trace. They exist in abundance today. Only now, the expectation is that everyone should fit the mold, not just the royal and rich. We have a plethora of information right at our fingertips, a plethora the entertainment industry uses to turbocharge the spread and toxicity of beauty standards. Behind it all is a vicious quest for wealth that turns teenagers into corporate influencers and public health crises into money-making opportunities. A noticeable shift in beauty standards has occurred in recent years, spurred by our current situation and the large number of active users on entertainment platforms. Because of the entertainment industry, beauty standards are higher, more plentiful, and with greater potential to be seen and spread everywhere.

Beauty standards have been around since the beginning of time from the use of powdered coal to beautify eyes in Egypt to long painted nails to symbolize wealth in China. Depending on the time period and culture, there was a different ideal that people strove for, whether it be a more natural look accentuating natural beauty or superficial ones signifying prominence and wealth. These standards aren’t necessarily what was expected of people, rather they were the standards expected for people to desire. What creates these standards is different for every time period and culture. Throughout history beauty has been associated with wealth, power and status as well as been influenced by things like religion, art and what is told to be ideal. Dr. Modesti, an art historian says, “I don’t think there was ever really a society, if you’re looking at art, that valorised thinness…It was always to do with the notion of being healthy and a woman’s beauty reflected her ability to bear children — so thinness would not have been acceptable.” In a general sense, there was a time in history in which the ideals were based on biological necessity; thinness at the time was a sign of sickness while more weight indicated health.

Looking closer at western civilization through more recent time periods in the 1900’s, there is more of an influence with media and entertainment. As America developed, there was an array of beauty standards passing through each decade. Trends in fashion and beauty spread quicker with the rise of media influence and the growth of the ad and entertainment industry, giving reasoning as to why there is a distinct look associated with each decade. In the 1920’s thinness was the desired look—as seen with the popularity of flappers—as well as short boyish haircuts. This was influenced by the party scene during this time as the shorter more revealing dresses emulated the rebellious and fun times. Jump to the 1950’s, you see the greater influence the media has given the new advances in television. Beauty standards were heavily influenced by Hollywood icons seen on TV; for example, Marilyn Monroe promoted an hourglass figure, pale skin and a demeanor meant to please men. At this point, the entertainment industry had a tangible effect on the standards as it was tied in with the desire to make money and sell products. In the 90’s there was a huge shift from what we see in Marilyn Monroe to where runway fashion models were in style and people desired to look thin and underweight. The trend is often referred to as heroin chic exemplified by model Kate Moss who made the look popular. It’s important to note that this era was brought on by celebrities that fit the body type as well as editorial magazines which promoted unrealistic body ideals with photo-shop. Beauty standards for women have been around forever, with various influences, however more recently with the advancement of technology and the growing relevance of entertainment in our society, standards have drastically changed and become less and less attainable. 

With the growth of the digital age, these typical beauty standard patterns we see have been elevated. In the past, there might have been more of a space in between the public and the entertainment industry, but now every person has access to these platforms at any time of the day making trends spread and leave faster while new standards come in and out of fashion rapidly. Professor Elizabeth Daniels who researches body image at the University of Colorado says, “There’s so much social currency around appearance…It’s not like women opt into it. It’s just in the air that we breathe.”(NY Times) In older decades these beauty standards were portrayed in television, film and magazines, but now we have these sources—and more at our fingertips. Now instead of striving to match the lifestyle of a Hollywood star, we are trying to emulate what we see from everyday people on social media.  With a more direct path to these entertainment sources there becomes a more rapid cycle of fads, trends and ideals. This rapid consumption of ideals is further damaging with technology made to alter the appearances we see in the media with photo-shop and other filters making the standards extremely unattainable. Apps like face-tune allow people with massive followings to change how they look to be more desirable and, in turn, portray to  thousands of people a standard that is impossible. 

As almost everything and everyone has moved online in the past 8 months, it is no surprise that we are constantly bombarded with ads and sales and new products. It’s understandable. For many businesses—especially smaller ones—moving online is the only option. The problem is, now that we are all confined to screens, the beauty standard is impossible to ignore, and it’s becoming more potent. Stores are trying to convince you that you can fill this uncomfortable and uncertain void with stuff: more clothes, more gadgets, more entertainment all with more access. They have even gone so far to argue that by wearing their clothes or buying their stuff, you are somehow contributing to a better reality. For example, Gap basically argues in one of their flyers that the flannel pajama tops they sell make everyone more connected. The phrase “Dream the future” is slapped next to a grinning family in matching plaid pants as they sit in front of a plastic Christmas tree. And while this may sound downright stupid, it’s there for a reason. People want to feel connected especially with the holidays approaching so ads like these are oddly compelling. But let’s face it: Christmas and other holidays probably won’t be the same this year with everything going on yet stores want to make it seem like everything is normal. They are layering on the holiday cheer like there’s no tomorrow because they have to in order to stay afloat. And it’s not just holiday ads, it’s also “stay-at-home” ads created by influencers and beauty gurus. Just scroll through Instagram for a few minutes and you’ll see models with abs and thigh gaps selling you vitamins and workout programs that helped them achieve their “best self” during all these months at home. The truth is, with every new beauty standard portrayed in the media, there are thousands of brands—and people—wanting to sell you the means to achieve them. This was only heightened with the presence of social media because more people can make a career in the entertainment industry just by having a large following and promoting a product. And with everyone searching for some form of entertainment to brighten their days, social media, online stores, and big businesses and corporations are taking full advantage of it, and you. They have convinced us that we need to look good right now, that even though many of us are stuck at home almost all day, we need to be put together and sporting all the latest trends. They disguise this intent in holiday jingles and cutesy “dream the future” slogans, but they are truly trying to capitalize on a pandemic. That’s why it’s important to remember that beauty standards are especially toxic right now and that most of our realities are very far from the ones portrayed in the media. 

While beauty standards have been around for centuries, in recent decades there has been a capitalistic shift into how we are presented with these standards with the growth of technology. Standards have been created through the entertainment industry with its influence on fashion and beauty trends. Now we have access to a surplus media where everything is heightened. Our presence on social media is a selling point to advertisers whose products align with achieving the results for the beauty ideals. These ideals might seem important and relevant right now, but there is no need to feel pressure to achieve them. We should recognize that all these fads and ideals are temporary, most of the time unrealistic, and determined by the media. Ultimately, trends come and go, and the ideal body type will have a different look every couple years—we need to try to reflect on the importance of these standards in our own lives and hopefully try to lessen the superficial currency that surrounds us.