Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.- John Muir
Beauty as Myth
Philosophers over time have tried to understand the nature of reality. How is it possible to understand reality when myth exists? How does myth affect one’s perception of reality? Do some people ever discern myth from truth–or does the myth become their truth as they subscribe to it?
Beauty is one aspect of myth that can be quite interesting– we as humans are especially susceptible to subscribing to myths when they pertain to things we find beautiful. As John Muir famously quoted, “Everyone needs beauty.” Does our need for beauty ever deceive us? Is beauty deception? Roland Barthes (1915-1980), the French literary critic and semiotician, was a major cultural theorist of the 20th century who contributed to the development of modern critical thought. Myth “hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth… is an inflexion” (Barthes).
Beauty is one of the most powerful motivators. It motivates us to date and to marry, to travel, to make a decision on a house, a city, a town. For these reasons, beauty is a subject of myth for the ordinary individual. The theories of Roland Barthes will guide this paper on the meaning of myth as a cultural symbol. Barthes would argue that if we are to consider beauty as a myth, then embedded within the subject of beauty are symbols and signs that we are meant to decode.
Therefore, how is beauty reflected as a form of myth in our culture? In what domains is there evidence for beauty being perceived as a myth. This paper will explore the myth of beauty in the areas of physical beauty and advertising, romance, place and location, and inner concepts of beauty.
In this day and age, how do we value aesthetics, and how do we convey this value within our society and on individual levels?
Barthes wanted to relate the method of semiotics to understanding everyday life phenomena, especially in popular culture because he was believed that objects and events always meant more than themselves; ‘they are always caught up in systems of representation, which add meaning of them’ (McNeill, 1999). Barthes described semiology as being able to:
…take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification. (Barthes, 1967: 9).
Barthes believed that semiotics would offer an suitable reading of modern culture because unlike liberal studies of culture by humanists, semiotics ‘a science of signs that not only possesses a notion of ideology against which the truth of science can be measured, but it promises a scientific way of understanding popular culture’ (Strinati, 2004: 97). Barthes in his famous book Mythologies (1957), examines semiotics in order to reveal particular pieces of cultural material which according to him were being used by the bourgeoisie as a way to impose their values on others. His semiological evaluation of popular culture involved the decoding of signs in areas of photography, fashion, music, literature and magazine.
The Dove Real Beauty Sketches video shows how people should know that they are truly beautiful, inside and out. The Dove brand is “about listening to women” and encouraging them to love themselves for who there are. (Dove 2013) Dove did a major global study called The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report to launch the Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004. The campaign began a “global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty” after the study proved that the definition of beauty has become unattainable and limited in today’s society (Dove 2013). Dove’s goal was to dispel the myths women hold about their own beauty. In the findings, only two percent of women around the world described themselves as beautiful. Since 2004, Dove employed “various communications vehicles to challenge beauty stereotypes and invite women” to discuss beauty (Dove 2013). As of 2010, Dove has evolved their campaign and launched a big effort to make beauty a source of “confidence, not anxiety” with Dove’s Movement for Self-Esteem (Dove 2013).
The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty was created to have discussions and debates pertaining the true definition of beauty. From 2004-2011, they proved what the true definition of beauty could be. In 2004, the Campaign began advertising women whose appearances “are outside the stereotypical norms of beauty” (Dove 2013). Women were asked to look at the women’s looks to determine their kind of beauty. In 2005, Dove’s second phase was advertising women with real bodies and real curves. This was used to debunk the stereotype that stick thin is beauty. In September 2006, Spain banned overly thin from their fashion runways. In response, Dove created a short film called Evolution which “depicted the transformation of a real woman into a model and promoting awareness of how unrealistic perceptions of beauty are created” (Dove 2013). In 2007, Dove launched the third phase called Beauty Comes of Age. This global study revealed that “ninety-one percent of women ages fifty-sixty-four believe is is time for society to change its views about women and aging” (Dove 2013). The campaign focused on the idea that girls are constantly given the “unrealistic, unattainable images of beauty and images that impact their self-esteem” (Dove 2013).
Dove came out with an online film called Onslaught that portrays the bombardment of dramatized beauty images. In 2010, the Dove Movement for Self Esteem and Dove teamed together to make women with the opportunities to mentor young girls and celebrate their natural real beauty. Some of the ways that one can get involved with the Dove Movement for Self Esteem is joining the Dove brand to extend their vision to women around the world. In the United States, Dove supports the work that the Girl Scouts of the United States of America Inc. and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Dove has also created “self esteem-building, educational programs and activities that encourage, inspire and motivate girls around the world” (Dove 2013).
Dove has reached approximately seven million girls with these programs and should reach a global goal of reaching fifteen million girls by 2015. In 2011, Dove released their results of their largest global study called The Real Truth About Beauty: Revisited. In this case, Dove discovered that only “four percent of girls around the world consider themselves beautiful and it begins at a young age … seventy-two percent said that they felt pressure to be beautiful” (Dove 2013). The study also discovered that only eleven percent of girls like using the word beautiful to describe themselves. There is a universal increase in beauty increase and a decrease in girls’ confidence as they grow older.
Despite Dove progressing in a positive direction with their campaigns, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Girls and young women are constantly influenced by societal norms of how beauty should be portrayed. In magazines, television, movies, music, and other forms of media, the image of beauty is distorted. One example of this is the Kardashian family, particularly the female Kardashians, as they attract a lot of attention and are known for their beauty. Due to this, they set a high bar of how beauty should be: including how women should do their hair and makeup, how they should dress, and how they should act. They are not the best role models because they sexualize beauty, which perpetuates some of the myths that women carry about beauty that may transfer into their relationships.
Dove is spreading a positive message of beauty. There are so many girls and young women who “develop low self-esteem from their looks, and consequently fail to reach their full potential in life” (Dove 2013). The media and society give girls and young women a dramatized view of what beauty should be. This is how low self esteem is developed. If more girls understand the true meaning of beauty, there would be happy and high self esteem girls in the world. In a video, an artist drew portraits of people by asking them how they view themselves. Most of the people being drawn had negative views about their bodies. After, he asked strangers about the people who were drawn and redrew them based on the strangers view. The second drawing were more positive. They were positive because other people looked at another person and looked passed their flaws. More people should love themselves for who they are. The Dove Self-Esteem Fund was created to act as an agent of change to inspire and educate girls and women about a wider definition of beauty.
In contrast to Dove’s initiative to the true definition of beauty, there are people who feel they need to look beautiful to feel beautiful. People with low self esteem who do not think they are beautiful try to make themselves more beautiful and give themselves false definitions of beauty. Girls do not need to wear as much makeup as they think they do because they should know that they look beautiful with a modest amount of makeup, not an excess amount. Sometimes wearing too much makeup can send the wrong messages, such as attention seeking or insecure. The positive message about wearing makeup is that one can be creative and feel confident in wearing makeup. Once this has been achieved, one can understand that they are truly beautiful. If someone only covers themselves in makeup to cover their flaws, it does not build up self esteem and makes someone insecure, even if it is not admitted. An extreme case of changing one’s appearance to make one feel beautiful. In an video, women with cancer were given makeovers to make them feel better about themselves. Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, weaken the body and make people feel as if they are unattractive. During the video, women were allowed to enhance their appearances to look differently as if they did not have cancer. These people were given makeovers because their physical appearance would help them on the inside to feel better about cancer.
Additionally, there are those who believe the myths presented to them in video games and cartoons (which are products of fantasy themselves), and go so far as to modify their physical characteristics to look like these characters, based on a physical and emotional connection that they feel to these characters. One prominent example of this is Anastasiya Shpagina, who transformed herself into a walking, talking anime character.
Another example of this phenomenon is Valeria Lukyanova, who transformed herself into a Barbie doll.
Beauty in Romance
Many people hold myths about relationships in general: “Disney princess effect” and have to suffer from the fallout of their expectations meeting reality. The Disney generation of women were raised to believe that they needed to wait for their own personal Prince Charming to sweep them off their feet and save them from their single lives.
Others find themselves persuaded by someone’s looks, blinding themselves to the reality of who the object of their affection who may have a rotten personality beneath their sweet exterior.
Another version of myth in romance is fetishism. Those who hold a fetish for one type of person are automatically making generalizations about an entire stereotype of classification of people without knowing anything about one individual person. One popular interracial dating stereotype is the “Caucasian man + Asian woman” pairing. This phenomenon is also known as “yellow fever.” When someone “assumes anything about [a person’s] personality based on [her] physical attributes, or disregards [her] autonomy because of [her] anatomy,” they are blind to reality because of their ideas of beauty (Chen).
Beauty as Place
It is easy for human beings to romanticize certain places, professions, and sometimes a combination of both. The beauty of certain places creates an illusion for people to fall beneath– they see everything through rose-colored glasses and have very specific (sometimes even high) expectations for what they expect their lives to look like as a result of being surrounded by and engaged in the beauty of the life they have perceived. Barthes’ belief that culture applies to everyday life makes it seem as if one could have access to an infinite amount of data through the semiotic examination of all the signs produced by society (Ribière, 2008: 29). Barthes’ influences to the study of cultural practices could be applied to the myth about the beauty of place. One can argue that the ideal of living in a certain place helps the individual to be seen as one who could be successful. This myth that by buying real estate or choosing to reside in a certain city an individual is helping to construct his personality show the consumerist ideology of the desire to market the city in question. One prominent example of this is New York City–the Big Apple– a place where “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” Society has turned New York City into some kind of self-selecting mechanism of exclusivity. This phenomenon of moving to New York city to pursue a career in the literary, fashion, or even financial industries has inspired some to write a book about it: Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. Author Cheryl Strayed wrote: “New York City isn’t just a city, it’s an idea—a projection of our fantasies and desires, like Paris or California or that beautiful person across the room. Because so many have imbued New York City with such meaning, it’s hard not to be a bit over the top in one’s reaction to it” (Westgate).
Paris is similar to New York City in that it attracts those who want to live the writer’s dream, as well as painters and other creative professionals. The City of Lights has another nickname however: The City of Love. Paris has become an ideal spot for lovers to be romanced–whether by the city or by each other. Those who believe the stereotypes of Paris may find beauty on every corner while others only see grimy city streets and odorous metro stops.
EF Live the Language has created a series of videos as a part of its marketing campaign to better familiarize people with different areas of the world.
Los Angeles is another city that perpetuates the myth of Hollywood stardom for many would be actors, models, musicians, screenwriters, and directors. These groups of people flock in droves to the City of Angels to pursue their glamorous dreams of making it in the television and cinema industries. Oxford Dictionaries defines glamour as: “the attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing or special.” Merriam-Webster defines glamour as “a magic spell; an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness” (Webster). When something or somewhere, is beautiful to us we fall in love with it, not so differently than we may awe at the novelty of a potential romantic interest. Many people end up working as baristas or bartenders while pursuing their dreams on the side. However, some have an idea of what their ideal life would look like that is grounded in reality, while others may be up for some disillusionment due to high expectations. A common belief of the latter might be, “If I could just sell one screenplay, get cast in one starring role, make one hit album, then I’ll have arrived. I would have made it.”
Reality television has only further perpetuated myths about Southern California. Shows such as The O.C., Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Hills, Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills Nanny portray life as it so called “is” according to the cast members of the show. People who do not have direct experience with life in the Southland are likely to hold beliefs and make generalizations about Southern California and its residents.
The Kardashians in particular have created an empire based on their portrayal of the reality of their lives.
As evidenced in the previous paragraphs, it is easy for an aspiring member of a certain industry to idealize and succumb to myths about the industry hub of their choice. Silicon Valley is not an exception to this. Silicon Valley, another reality television show, was produced recently in order to portray what life is like in the startup capital of the nation.
Additionally, Charles Dickens has written about London and its characteristics as another object of wanderlust.
Beauty as Spirituality
“It’s not what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside that counts.”
Inner beauty is something that many choose to focus on–and inner beauty is often directly tied to spirituality. Beauty of the spirit is another facet of beauty that mystifies many people. Upon deciding to embark on a spiritual path, many people subscribe to myths and illusions about what being spiritual entails. Many seekers believe that in order to be spiritual, they must deny financial abundance and remained detached from emotions, situations, people, and experiences.
Those who wish to possess an inner beauty often find that they do not have the wherewithal to actually become the kind of person they wish to be.
This essay explored the concept of beauty as myth, using Barthes’ theory of myths in order to analyze the symbols and signs embedded within the cultural representations of beauty today. One of the driving beliefs we have about beauty may be founded in perfection– if something is beautiful, we idealize it and have a difficult time disbelieving the myths we have either been exposed to, or created in our minds throughout our lives. The dangerous thing about perfection is that it either a) keeps us from living to our fullest potential because we believe we can never live up to the myth and are so disillusioned by it, or b) we never enjoy the experience of living life because we are always striving after the next best thing, in order to complete our vision of a beautiful life–whether that beauty is found in our profession, where we live, or in the eyes of another person. We project our image of beauty onto the things and people around us and experience things based on these illusions. It is only sometimes that these projections are altered or even destroyed when life (or whatever experience we are after) does not meet our expectations. Technology and digital media have only made it easier for us to fall in love with ideals through constant exposure to them.
Strinati, D. (2004) An introduction to theories of popular culture, London: Routledge.
Ribière, M. (2008) Barthes, Penrith: Humanities-Ebooks.
Barthes, R. (195): Mythologies