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Why "Average Is Beautiful" Won't Make Us Happy

03/07/2014 06:01 EST | Updated 05/07/2014 05:59 EDT

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Valeria Lukyanova has been fascinated with Mattel's Barbie since the age of five. Eventually, the fascination curdled into an obsession, and Lukyanova began to alter her appearance to match the doll's looks. The eerie makeup, wisps of flaxen hair, and the dead cast of her eyes all speak to her success. Lukyanova's desperate compulsion to mirror the doll is an outlier -- most 20-year-olds do not go to such painstaking extremes as to seek breast implants or wear colored contact lenses -- but it is true that generations of women have grown up believing that Barbie embodies the physical female ideal.

Naomi Wolf, in a seminal 1990 book entitled The Beauty Myth, remarked that unattainable beauty standards hold women hostage. Satisfactory appearance, as dictated by media, advertising, and other cultural institutions, is valued above all other traits, yet remains impossibly out of reach regardless of a woman's looks. Although Wolf may have exaggerated some of the epidemiological statistics, one cannot argue that this Sisyphean struggle for beauty bears heavily on the minds of many women, and contributes to the striking disequilibrium in the ratio of certain psychological disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia.

If you harbour any doubt on the matter, look no further than the world's most televised beauty pageant, which takes place in late February or early March of each year. The evening is a dazzling affair, in preparation for which women spend weeks dieting, exercising, undergoing specialized beauty treatments, and picking their outfits. Their shoes and dresses are subject to meticulous scrutiny in many of the country's leading media outlets; particular attention is afforded to their hair and makeup, and specialized cameras zoom in on their nails, broadcasting their manicure choices. Fame and lucrative advertising contracts follow for the winners. Some may even receive an Oscar. Kevin Spacey, who was subjected to the pathetic questions his female co-stars must field at the Academy Awards, was incredulous.

In a praiseworthy attempt to remedy the catch-22 described by Wolf, Pittsburgh artist Nickolay Lamm recently launched a campaign to crowdsource funding for a "Normal Barbie." Rather than use lingerie model-proportions, Lamm gave the doll a body more familiar to the average American 19-year-old, using statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Two days after the campaign began, Lammily, as the doll is called, has more than doubled its funding goal. The project's slogan? "Average is beautiful."

This phrase seems to be in line with Wolf's broader ideas: in the concluding chapter of The Beauty Myth, the author notes, "Just as the beauty myth did not really care what women looked like as long as women felt ugly, we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful." Later, Wolf writes, "While we cannot directly affect the images, we can drain them of their power. We can turn away from them, look directly at one another, and find alternative images of beauty in a female subculture..."

Scaling "average" up to mean "beautiful," however, may do more harm than good. John Constable, renowned as the painter of the idyllic Dedham Vale, once remarked in a fit of democratic sentiment, "I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for the form of an object be what it may, -- light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful." Contrariwise, the old idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder also means that some of us consistently find a lack of beauty wherever we may look. When it comes to one another, our aesthetic sense varies so widely that beauty must, to some degree, be based on caprice: there for some, absent for others.

There is also a linguistic problem at hand. If "beauty" comes to mean "whatever you are," the term will lose all meaning. Such a definitional creep will result in new terms being deployed to evaluate physical appearance, and the problem would remain -- semantically different, yet essentially the same.

Using beauty as a paramount marker of worth is a losing game. Reliance on feeling that one is physically perfect and sexually irresistible for self-esteem will inexorably end in disappointment, since there is little accounting for others' tastes -- tastes, which judging by the number of couples who we see every day, shows no sign of requiring model-grade perfection. We are hard-wired to be attracted to others, and instinct wins out at the end, whether because of body, intelligence, character, or simple need for companionship.

George Bernard Shaw had it right when he said that beauty was all well and good, but didn't garner a second look after it had been in the house for three days. Instead of allowing something as trivial as beauty, with its fickle, fleeting nature, to reign over self-value, we should discard it altogether. Men have, thus far, been largely lucky in this sense: despite a recent trend, beauty figures much less in the male self-concept. For men, the value of the physical ideal is displaced by sharp wit, perspicacity, intellect, courage, charm and charisma, determination, critical thought, and countless other admirable characteristics.

The concept of beauty has not been stretched to include the average male -- it's been made redundant, and using it as a benchmark is rightly ridiculed. Toys that do not impart the present, ever-elusive standards of appearance to young girls are desperately needed. Doing away with beauty, the illusory pillar of self-esteem, is even more urgent. Let us praise children for their tenacity, their ingenuity, their kindness, their courage, their humor. Championing beauty in the face of such traits is as shameful as having a Mani Cam at the Oscars.