What is Beauty?

This topic submitted by Melissa Raftery, Joey Gomberg, Jenny Kuehnle, and Ali Mwanundu (jgomberg@hotmail.com) at 4:31 pm on 12/10/99. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Section: Cummins


There is a lot of pressure from American society to be beautiful. It seems like who we are depends on how beautiful we are. We see beautiful people everywhere. When we open a magazine, we never see some 400-pound woman on the first page. Instead we see a woman who is 23% skinnier than the average American woman. Advertisers show stunning models living the perfect life to try and entice us into buying their product. They give the illusion that if we buy their product, we will become beautiful and have the desired life. Advertisements don't try to get us to buy a product so that we will be better people; they sell products because we can be beautiful if we own them. For example, while flipping through the pages of Cosmopolitan we saw an advertisement promoting a new three-in-one concealor. It glides on smooth, dots on to conceal, and finishes powder-light. This is demonstrated by a face, which has no acne, beautiful, lengthy eyelashes, thin, perfectly colored lips, and finely plucked eyebrows. We question, "Is this the face we are supposed to strive for?" "Is this what is considered beautiful?"

As individuals, we seem to buy into this concept. We strive to fit the description of beauty that society has set for us. We buy the right clothes and cosmetic products. Many of us work out obsessively, and others even develop eating disorders. We are trying to mold ourselves into the outlines for physical attraction society has set for us.

Recently, all the freshman students in Creativity and Culture just finished reading a book titled Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. Lucy tells her life story from the time the acquired a malignancy on her jaw, to the time she came to terms with her face never being the same again. Half of her jaw was removed at an early age due to the cancer. With such an unusual shape of the face she comes across social problems each and every day, one being the fact that no man will ever desire or feel attracted to her. Lucy Grealy quotes, "Beauty, as defined by society at large, seemed to be only about who was best at looking like everyone else." And so we see it as Lucy Grealy does: beauty matters. However, when we think about it, there is no sense in it. There is no reason why Lucy should not have lived a perfectly normal childhood. Simply by bringing the concept of beauty to the conscious mind, we sense the negative affects it emphasis has. This realization allows us to re-evaluate our thoughts and actions.

We, as a group, are aware of these pressures and individuals’ interest in physical attractiveness and were interested in the effects closer to home. We wanted to know the effects society has on Miami students’ perceptions of beauty. Miami students seem to be fixated on certain brands of clothing such as Abercrombie and Fitch and J. Crew. We were wondering what else Miami students were concerned with.

We decided to do a project comparing society’s definition of beauty and Miami students’ definitions. Because a common trend on Western is to defy society’s norms, we wondered if the same would be true of notions of physical attractiveness. Therefore, we decided to compare Main to Western ideals of beauty. We further wondered if there would be a difference between male and female ideals of beauty and so we decided to throw that in with the mix.

With this, we wanted to recognize either a truth or a lie - one that may be hurtful in the end. Here are a few additional questions we were thinking about when preparing our experiment: In meeting someone do you solely decide to go on a date with them because of their appearance, or is it because they posses nice qualities? What visible qualities of a person to people most concentrate on? Can we consider the requirement of being beautiful a true one in order to get somewhere in life? Are we considered beautiful and who is to say? One other accomplishment we hope to achieve is a shield against what other people think based on outer appearance.

Before we felt like we were ready to start gathering our own data, we wanted to research some work that others had done. We looked up some different studies that had been done, and one in particular caught our attention. It was a study done on women's hair color, "The American Image of Beauty: Media Representations of Hair Color for four Decades," by Melissa K. Rich and Thomas F. Cash.

The study says that an important aspect of physical beauty is hair color. "In Western Caucasian society, there seems to be a popular image of beautiful women as having a fair complexion, light eye color, and light hair color, in contrast to an ideal image of men as having darker features (Feinman and Gill, 1978)." Clayson and Klassen (1989) found that college students consider redheads as least attractive and blondes most attractive. The purpose of the present study is to examine how beauty is depicted in our society with respect to hair color. Hypothesis: during a forty-year period, the proportions of blondes in the magazines were predicted to surpass the base rate of natural blondes in the norm group.

Two women's magazines, Ladies Home Journal and Vogue, were considered to offer contemporary beauty depictions and would be considered as the "norm" for this experiment. Playboy magazine was chosen to incorporate images that were directed to the mail audience. Pictures within the magazines were used if the model was an adult Caucasian female with distinguishable hair color. The following data was considered unratable: no model shown, children, men, non-Caucasians, multiple women, or hair fully covered.

There were a total of 750 ratable hair color observations: 325 Ladies Home
Journal, 227 Vogue and 198 Playboy. The base rates of the norm sample were 68.1 percent brunettes, 26.8 percent blondes, and 5.1 percent redheads.

The depiction of women's beauty in society in regard to women's hair color is an important piece of physical appearance. This experiment focused on the representation of blondes and other hair colors in print media, and in comparison a normative hair colors base rate. The percentage of blondes in each magazine exceeded the 26.8 percent base rate of blondes in the white female sample. This image delivers a message to society that blonde is a prominent ideal of feminine beauty.

Our group considered this study a model for our project, Is There A Difference? Society's Definition of Beauty Compared to Miami University students. The main difference between our study and the above study is that we will focus on the whole person, not just one feature like hair, which they used. We did gain some useful insights by the within the study by Melissa K. Rich and Thomas F. Cash. The following quote comes from M.R. Cunningham, "Measuring the physical in physical attractiveness: Quasi-experiments on the sociobiology of female facial beauty": "Cunningham investigated males' ratings of females' facial features and found that attractiveness ratings were positively correlated with neonatal features such as large eyes, a small nose, a small chin, and more mature features of prominent cheekbones, narrow cheeks, large pupils, a large smile, and expressive features. We found traits such as large eyes, small chin, and narrow cheeks surprising and would like to see if they show up in our results. Overall, the study done by the two authors may be used as a model for comparisons of final results.

This is a little complicated because our project evolved so much over the course of the semester. When we began, we thought that we were going to pass out a few surveys, tally up a few numbers, and there we would have it. As we got into our project, we learned otherwise. First, we researched what beauty is. Then we investigated different sources that portray societies perception of outer beauty. Magazines, the evening news, covers on CD's, and the appearance of the musician and stars of the movies helped us define society’s perception of beauty.

We looked at other research as described above. We then started talking about the physical attributes we were interested in looking at. We wondered how we were going to come up with our results of how Miami students define beauty, and we decided on a survey that focused on all-around beauty of a person. We didn’t include pictures because there were so many different aspects we included that it would have been much to complicated to have pictures of all of them. The survey had a topic such as eye color and then gave several options underneath for a person to check. The idea was for them to choose the one that was their favorite, though on many of the topics, people checked two or more of the options.

Designing the survey was very tricky because we wanted to make sure that it was totally neutral. We didn’t want to use the wrong wording and imply that one answer was better than another. We didn’t want it to be so long that people wouldn’t be willing to take it, but we wanted it to be long enough that we could have a legitimate amount of information. Furthermore, we did have one concern: we, as individuals felt that there is more to a person than physical appearance. We weren’t sure how to work that into our project, but it was important to us that we did. We decided to ask people if a person’s physical attractiveness was, in fact, affected by personality. Does the way someone looks change as personality emerges? The other information we needed from the survey was who was taking it. We had to know if the person was male or female, Western or Main, and we also asked if they were involved with the Greek system.

Though designing the survey was no easy feat, became more manageable because we had involvement from the class. For our in-class lab, we had each person in the class fill out a rough draft survey. We then had them help us come up with the best possible survey questions. They had some good suggestions. For example, they helped us better modify the last question about the effects of personality on physical appearance. Instead of asking about how beauty affects one’s decision when choosing a life partner, we asked how personality affects one’s beauty.

Then we had the class help us distribute the surveys. We gave each member of the class 10 surveys to hand out. We also passed out our own surveys. A week or two later, after we had gotten all of the surveys back, it was time to tally. We didn’t end up getting surveys to about 50 Western male, 50 Main males, 50 Western females and 50 Main females as we had hoped. In fact, we got nothing of the sort. We somehow managed to obtain surveys from a disproportionately large number of Main males, whereas we only had a few Western males.

We separated all the surveys into four categories: Main Campus females, Main Campus males, Western females, and Western males. We didn’t end up getting surveys to about 50 people in each category as we had hoped. In fact, we got nothing of the sort. We somehow managed to obtain surveys from a disproportionately large number of Main males, whereas we only had a few Western males. Each of us calculated tallies for every possible choice. Once the tallies were established it was now time to enter them into
StatView and establish charts. With the help of Hays, the Spearman Rank Correlation charts were selected for each comparison within a category.

We thought that Main students would describe the best physical attributes in much the same way society does. Conversely, we guessed that Western students would find different things beautiful. We presumed that Main males would say that physical appearance was not affected by personality, while the other categories would say that it is. We never really talked about the correlation between fraternities and sororities and personality, but the unspoken assumption was that involvement in the Greek system would be closely tied to the belief that physical appearance remains unaltered by personality.

To be honest, our results were rather inconclusive. We got a bit of a general idea on some things from eyeballing our data, but the actual numbers were all over the place. Our first big problem was that when we created the graphs, we did it by tally instead of percentage. Because we had so many more Main males fill out the survey, it appeared as though they liked everything better than any of the other categories.

Furthermore, because tallying up the data and comparing them with one another was so overwhelming in itself, we decided to leave out the component of society’s definition of beauty in our results. Our project became more of a comparison of male, female, Main and Western people’s definitions of beauty.

Here are some tentative results and random interesting bits of information: Males, in general, were tall and white with dark, short hair and dark eyes. Females overwhelmingly had blue eyes. Much to our surprise, most people preferred dark hair as opposed to blonde for females. There was not much of a difference between Western and Main campus as we had predicted; everyone seemed to have a fairly similar concept of what was beautiful. The biggest difference was regarding body piercings. People on Western like piercings a lot more than people on Main.

If we were going to do this project again, we would go about it very differently. We did a lot of things wrong this time around. First off, we tried to do too much and not enough at the same time. We tried to cover too much information but without enough attention paid to details. That was a common theme throughout our project. For one thing, we tried to encompass too much about what made a beautiful person. Our first clue that we were going awry should have been how specific the study on hair color was, but we missed that. Then, we weren’t careful enough when passing out our surveys. We were not very specific when we told the class to pass them out. We assumed that the numbers would balance themselves out, but they didn’t. The last big mistake we made was in forming our graphs. As we said earlier, instead of doing them by percentage we did them by tally. Our graphs were therefore inaccurate.

We did learn a lot, though. We learned about a lot of ways not to do a project, and we learned a lot from the results of our project. Granted we didn’t get any good specific results, we did some overall ideas of what people think is beautiful. We covered a lot of ground for anyone else interested in doing a project on beauty. If there is ever a follow-up study, we think it would be a good idea to have it focus on differences of style preference. Upon reflection, we see that style is where the greatest discrepancies would probably occur between Main and Western, and very possibly male and female responses.

All in all, our project did not result in much of a conclusion, but instead in more questions and another hypothesis.


1. Beckman, Richard. "Vogue Magazine." October 1999: The
Condè Nast Publications Inc., New York, NY.

2. Berner, Mary Gerard. "Glamour Magazine." October 1999: The Condè Nast Publications Inc., New York, NY.

3. Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

4. Rich, Melissa K. and Thomas F. Cash. "The American Image of Beauty: Media Representations of Hair Color for Four Decades." Sex Roles (1993): 113-123.

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