Physical beauty & attractiveness of the general population of men/women seems to have increased greatly in the past few centuries, judging by surviving art/photos, contemporary judgments, and objective criteria like missing teeth, likely due to economic/technological/medical/nutritional improvements, but less from cosmetic tricks. Beauty may, however, be in decline very recently as some of those trends reverse (eg. now too much food, not too little).
Is physical beauty, masculine or feminine, a negative-sum, zero-sum (positional) or positive good? And has beauty increased or decreased over time? Thinking over various anecdotes and examples and changes in public health and environmental factors like nutrition and infectious disease and dentistry, I speculate that physical attractiveness of men & women in the West is not purely positional & relative, but has increased in an absolute sense over the past few centuries (albeit possibly decreasing recently as a consequence of trends like obesity).
In looking at historical paintings & statues, I’ve always been struck by how, athletes & warriors look subpar by contemporary standards (eg. knights), and even in erotic artwork or work meant to depict the epitome of human beauty or artwork intended to flatter a patron (or serve as an advertisement for a possible betrothal), they just aren’t that beautiful. (Yes, them being ‘Rubenesque’ may be part of it but the modern age of obesity should have long ago negated that.) The disparity gets worse when you look at American photographs from the 1800s onward, such as in biographies; a woman might be described as stunningly beautiful but look quite average in the provided photograph. Or when reading about classic Hollywood starlets such as Jean Harlow, after making allowance for the fashions like hideous eyebrows and frying their hair, I can only find them odd looking; was Audrey Munson really “the most perfectly formed woman in the world”? Or when highschool/college class photos are provided from the early 1900s, I can compare them to my own high school class photos, and the sets are almost disjoint in attractiveness—perhaps the top quarter of the old photos overlaps with the bottom quarter of the new photos. But on the other hand, American material from the 1970s or 1980s, does not strike me as any worse than in the 1990s or 2000s (perhaps even better), with most of the increase being perhaps in the 1920–1960 time range. (There may have been increases before then, but while related things like adult life expectancy & height can be documented to have increased considerably before the 1920s, there are no high-quality photographs from before then to judge beauty by.) So if I can see such a clear trend in increasing beauty over time, does that mean that beauty is increasing?
Few would deny that Olympic athletes have, objectively, become much better over the past few centuries—the runners run far faster, the powerlifters lift far heavier weights, and so on, due to professionalization, better equipment, better training, larger populations to recruit from, and many other points of progress. Similarly, boxers and bodybuilders are objectively far more impressive than they were less than a century ago in the 1930s (thanks to ultra-cheap protein and gyms everywhere and drugs and improved training): who would bet a bent penny on boxing world champ John L. Sullivan, who toured the USA punching out challengers in seconds against a Mike Tyson, much less a MMA star? (Sullivan hardly even looks like he ‘lifts’—because he didn’t.) Rubik cube puzzle solvers have dropped solve times from minutes to seconds using an array of tricks & improvements (like literally lubricating the cubes for speed), and video game players or speedrunners have achieved similar improvements, and mountain climbers or cliff climbers make impossible climbs now, and all of these are quite objective and difficult to dispute.
“Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone.”
If all of these can improve so much, why not beauty? Surely physical attractiveness should benefit from many of the same things: more knowledge about physical fitness and diet, cheaper food and travel, better communications, the spread of ‘tricks’ (like lubing a Rubik’s cube for speed), a larger population to draw from, etc.
If it has, then there are many possible reasons. The 20th century in particular saw major progress in nutrition (eg. iodization eliminating goiters, which surely are not beautiful), vaccinations eliminating harmful and disfiguring diseases like smallpox, an almost total shift from outdoors work to indoors work (bringing with it protection from the sun and the elements), delayed entry into the workforce, far less manual labor2, cheaper clothing and cosmetics (not to mention a radical expansion in the kinds of cosmetics available such as the creation from almost nothing of the plastic surgery industry), lower lifetime birth rates etc. Many of these changes happened during the 1920–1960 time window, in which iodization went nationwide, key vaccines like polio were rolled out or used to eradicate diseases in the USA, urbanization rates almost doubled, per capita GDP doubled, etc.
All of these could be expected to improve physical beauty, and we can see first-hand proof of how ‘aging’ life in poor countries can be when we look at photographs of women: for example, there is a famous photograph “Migrant Mother” from the Great Depression of a despairing worn-out woman with her children, who one might guess was in her 40s or 50s—she was 32. An interesting datapoint comes from American high school yearbooks (“A Century of Portraits: A Visual Historical Record of American High School Yearbooks”, et al 2015); high school yearbooks are homogenous portraits that students prepare for, which haven’t changed much over time, cover most of the population then and now, offering a relatively controlled comparison, particularly using composite/average faces, and the differences in attractiveness over time is striking—it looks to me like attractiveness increased from ~1910 to ~1980 and has perhaps fallen towards ~2000s (where obesity is clearly taking a toll). The main argument of is that smiling has increased, but looking at them, I am convinced that the difference between the 1900 average and, say, 1970, is not merely a matter of smiling, and of course, why did smiling or longer hair length become popular? ‘Photographic improvements’ aren’t an answer since cameras got better rapidly and were effectively instantaneous for most of that sample. Improved nutrition and overall health, and optometry & dentistry especially, or cost/quality improvements of soap & indoor plumbing, might have had something to do with that… (Possibly because they could—someone missing most of their teeth, or unable to grow more than scraggly clumps of hair, is not going to be so eager to smile or adopt long styles.)
Overseas, a striking example is provided by the before/after of the famous Afghan Girl: from the original photograph, one might guess at her 20s (she was 12), and when she was refound 17 years later at age 30, one might guess she was in her 60s from how haggard and worn her face is. Isabella Bird, traveling in impoverished central Japan in 1878, was struck in the mountains by the sight of the people: “The married women look as if they have never known youth, and their skin is apt to be like tanned leather. At Kayashima I asked the house-master’s wife, who looked about 50, how old she was (a polite question in Japan), and she replied 22—one of many similar surprises.” (Unbeaten Tracks in Old Japan, pg94, Letter XII) comparing them unfavorably to the women of the Ainu people, who “look cheerful, and even merry when they smile, and are not like the Japanese, prematurely old, partly perhaps because their houses are well ventilated, and the use of charcoal is unknown.” One can also see this phenomenon in other countries like Russia with jokes about how ‘devushkas’ turn into ‘babushkas’ overnight on their 30th birthday.
In the 1800s, King Ludwig I of Bavaria collected a “Gallery of Beauties”, a collection of portrait paintings of the most beautiful women he could find regardless of station, ranging from an accountant or cobbler or pawnshop clerk’s daughter to his own daughter, including several mistresses famed for their beauty, such as Jane Digby or Lola Montez; a similar 1600s gallery, the Windsor Beauties, depicts many mistresses of King Charles II (eg. Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland, “one of the most beautiful of the Royalist women”), and there is the somewhat later Hampton Court Beauties (King William III)—my own impression is that they are clearly trying towards beauty consistent with modern standards but don’t get too far, despite Ludwig in particular casting a wide net. Lucrezia Borgia was famed for her beauty and blond hair, but the only from-life portrait Wikipedia can provide shows neither; her rival, Isabella d’Este, immediately strikes one as “distinctly plump” (and her love of Venetian ceruse likely did her skin no favors). Or consider French revolutionary Aimée de Coigny, famed for her beauty and man-eating, who the aged Horace Walpole (no naif he) described as “much the prettiest Frenchwoman I ever beheld”; her portrait was painted ~age 28, and is unprepossessing3, as is the remarkable adventuress Camille du Gast, “once known as the most beautiful woman in Paris”. Similarly, Mathilde Kschessinska was a Polish ballerina who became the mistress of Czar Nicholas II of Russia; several Russians (including the peculiar Natalia Poklonskaya) criticized a movie about it as so much scurrilious slander based on, among other claims, that she was too ugly. (More difficult, but still thought-provoking, would be similar examples in East Asia where photography was available long before industrialization so we don’t have to go off portraits: how would the most famously beautiful Korean kisaeng entertainers compare to run-of-the-mill contemporary K-pop stars? Or similarly, geisha in Japan?)
I was struck watching They Shall Not Grow Old by how the carefully-restored video footage of WWI-era England revealed many of the drafted men—those who were not rejected for reasons of health—were stunted and short, with teeth already missing (perhaps because of—shades of The Road to Wigan Pier—all that jam on white bread we see them eating), and draftees reportedly gained “1 stone” of weight on average due to being fed real food & exercise (although still none would qualify for a fat men’s club). Even as late as 1968 in England, 36% of the population aged >16yo were “edentulous” ie had no natural teeth left; this is not merely driven by the elderly, either, since 25–34yos average ~8%, and by the 35–44yo age bracket, the rate reaches ~20% (et al 1970 ); this makes the occasional claim of total teeth extraction for dentures as birthday & wedding presents or that some urban legends (of “monsters with iron teeth”) stemmed from dentures not so implausible. (Needless to say, English dental health has improved drastically since, and things like “apple scoops” are no longer necessary.) In the US, salt iodization only came about sometime later as a result of draftees not fitting in their uniforms due to the prevalence of goiters (never mind the cretinism), with draftees often still malnourished well through to the Vietnam War (see McNamara’s Folly); France was little better, with travelers noting whole villages of retarded cretins4, where a quarter of young (relatively) healthy men were rejected by the military and many men were insane, hunchback, bow-legged, or club-footed due to conditions which were little kinder to young rural women either, who one contemporary called often, “a Venus [with] the face of an old monkey”.5 Sun exposure rapidly ages womens’ appearance; add in the effects of physical and child-bearing labor, malnutrition, childhood disease increasing underlying frailty, being married off and binding/cutting one’s hair, and so on, and a beautiful young woman must indeed have resembled a flower—blooming for a season.
Life expectancy increases appear to have relatively little to do with headline medical treatments like cancer, and more to do with public health measures like reductions in pandemics, with reductions in childhood illnesses predicting increases in adult life expectancy; and diseases like dementia have been in remarkable decline. All of this points to large improvements in overall “bodily integrity”: everything is more robust and better due to less accumulated damage from lifestyle, childhood infections, pollutants like indoor fires, increased protein consumption, disappearance of tobacco smoking (eg. et al 2009 ), general medical progress (no smallpox or leprosy)… With all of these effects pushing the population mean up a lot, it seems likely that the most beautiful people to ever live walk the earth now.6
The aforementioned Jean Harlow herself furnishes an interesting example, as after long-running health problems such as weight gain/fatigue/paleness, she died aged 26 of kidney disease (now mostly treatable) which was probably the sequelae of a childhood infection by scarlet fever (now curable & occurrence largely suppressed by antibiotics).
Some objections come to mind:
with an increasingly large population, the most extreme models and actresses will be much more beautiful than early on, similar to sports. The USA was a smaller population in 1900 than in 2016, and Hollywood & advertising have likewise expanded enormously, in addition to recruiting globally. Early Hollywood starlets were big fish in small national pools. Or perhaps modern advertisements and media are increasingly manipulated with Photoshop.
But then why does it also hold true when we compare photographs of ordinary people, and why would the artwork, whose artists were little constrained by reality, have been exceeded as well? And can we really say that the elimination of things like smallpox scarring makes no difference?
beauty is purely relative
There are at least 2 possibilities for how beauty works:
beauty is (mostly) relative/ordinal and is perceived as relative: a beautiful person is merely someone above the average on some arbitrary cultural measurements which are caused by no important objective attributes like health or strength; in another group of people, the same person would be rated by the same raters as ugly rather than beautiful. Particularly good examples of the relativism include the centuries of tooth-blackening and eyebrow-plucking among the Japanese aristocracy, Chinese foot-binding, tanning vs white skin, gavage in Mauritania etc.
Changes in beauty, therefore, indicate no gains to the possessors of beauty, cause no additional pleasure/displeasure in those around them (as they will perceive the same average level of beauty regardless), will vary wildly from culture to culture, and beauty itself is a harmful construct in that the biases in favor of beauty can disproportionately harm subgroups and in general causes wasteful arms races in time & money spent on tactics like cosmetics, clothing, or surgery, which leaves the group worse off.
beauty is (mostly) objective/cardinal and is perceived as objective: a beautiful person is above average on objective attributes like facial symmetry, long hair, smooth undiseased skin, height, energy & health, personality, intelligence etc. Hence, entire groups of people can increase or decrease in their average beauty, and ratings of individuals will not shift based on reference group.
Changes in beauty, therefore, may be due to objective improvements or it may be due to cosmetics etc. However, since perceptions are not relative, people will enjoy more what they see, so the arms races may be worthwhile in the same way that any decoration or artwork is worthwhile—because it looks nicer. On the other hand, to the extent that beauty serves as an indicator for objective things, this may be harmful: for example, if beauty & reproductive fitness are to reduce genetic mutation load, use of cosmetics is harmful as it hides the harm being done by bad genes & prevents them from being purged.7
If #1 is right, then there should be high levels of disagreement about whether a photograph of an individual is ugly or beautiful between raters (who will have been raised in different social groups and have different standards), higher still across ethnic groups, and almost total global disagreement across cultures; and beauty should correlate minimally with traits because social treatment has little effect on stable traits like height or health or intelligence or personality.
“Maxims or Myths of Beauty? A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review”, et al 2000 , meta-analyzes a variety of studies, and on the first point, finds that ratings of beauty are remarkably consistent and actually increase with distance: within-culture, r = 0.9/.85; cross-ethnic, r = 0.88; cross-culture, r = 0.94. (Given the limits of such inventories, this might imply that agreement on beauty cross-culturally approaches identity.) et al 2000 also finds that more attractive adults are more employed, date & have sex more and are more socially skilled & extraverted, are in better mental & physical health, and are slightly more intelligent. Unsurprisingly, beliefs that the beautiful are treated better by other people also turn out to be true. (Given that sex did not strongly moderate the results, this suggests that either men pay too little attention to their appearances or women too much.) Combined with the other evidence for things like fluctuating symmetry, #1 can be rejected. (Theory #2 is also more consistent with my personal observations.)
The past is a foreign country, so it seems like a safe assumption that the beauty ratings of someone in, say, 1920 would correlate r = 0.94 with ours. Then ratings will still be similar—eg someone rated at the 84th percentile (+1SD) by us would on average be rated 82nd percentile (+0.94SD) by them. So we would expect that the modern mean of beauty would be higher as long as it’s at least 0.06SDs higher, which is not much at all.
That would assume the difference is random, though, and not systematic: in the worst case, if that remaining 0.06 reflects a consistent cultural preference & fashion of the moment, then someone in 1920 will rate higher all people from 1920, and someone from 2016 will rate higher all people from 2016. How large would this rating bonus have to be to produce an overall correlation of r = 0.94? The total variance is 0.942 + b2 = 1, so a binary variable totally explaining the remaining variance must have the effect b = 0.342. So in the worst case, we would have to demonstrate an increase by our standards of +0.342SDs before we could be sure that people from 1920 would agree there had been an increase. The implication of this increase is that our 50th percentile would have to match their 63rd percentile; or to put it another way, in random pairs, ~59.5% of modern people would have to be judged the more beautiful. I think this is a bar that could definitely be met, so even in the worst case, beauty has increased over time.
The Public Domain Review notes in “The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture” that missing teeth was so common that it was hardly a point of shame:
It remains a commonly held belief that for hundreds of years people didn’t smile in pictures because their teeth were generally awful. This is not really true—bad teeth were so common that this was not seen as necessarily taking away from someone’s attractiveness. Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria’s Whig prime minister, was often described as being devastatingly good-looking, and having a ‘strikingly handsome face and figure’ despite the fact that he had a number of prominent teeth missing as a result of hunting accidents. It was only in later life, when he acquired a set of flapping false teeth, that his image was compromised. His fear of them falling out when he spoke led to a stop-start delivery of his speeches, causing Disraeli to openly poke fun at him in parliament.
Which one might expect to hurt, but manual labor is not as effective as regular exercise as it is highly repetitive, can be harmful, does not spread the work over the body evenly and cannot be calibrated to one’s fitness level, and must often be done at rates, times, places, and conditions minimally of one’s choosing. So increasing gender equity, permitting—even expecting—women to participate more in sports and use public gyms etc, could well offset this reduction. Certainly an Afghanistani woman confined to her house by purdah is not better off for it.↩︎
Nor can we excuse her portrait by blaming the artist, Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, for going against the biases of his profession by failing to flatter her, as WP provides us the critical evaluation that he “belonged to that ideal French school, which usually sacrificed truth to nature for elegance in execution…He was noted especially for his vivid coloring”. More generally, it is highly unlikely that paintings underestimate beauty. Patrons are not paying for unflattering portrayals but for advertisements & esthetics (often explicitly in the case of marriage-proposal portraits used in long-distance negotiations—Queen Caroline noting “I find him very fat, and by no means as beautiful as his portrait.”); further, painting is intrinsically flattering, as realism is laborious & difficult, and it is easier to mold faces towards a prototypical face (averages are well-known to be more attractive) while dropping signs of age or details like smallpox scarring leads to a built-in ‘airbrush’ effect. If the camera adds 15 pounds, the brush removes them.↩︎
The Discovery of France, 2008; ch5:
At the end of the eighteenth century, doctors from urban Alsace to rural Brittany found that high death rates were not caused primarily by famine and disease. The problem was that, as soon as they became ill, people took to their beds and hoped to die. In 1750, the Marquis d’Argenson noticed that the peasants who farmed his land in the Touraine were ‘trying not to multiply’: ‘They wish only for death’. Even in times of plenty, old people who could no longer wield a spade or hold a needle were keen to die as soon as possible. ‘Lasting too long’ was one of the great fears of life. Invalids were habitually hated by their carers. It took a special government grant, instituted in 1850 in the Seine and Loiret départements, to persuade poor families to keep their ailing relatives at home instead of sending them to that bare waiting room of the graveyard, the municipal hospice.
When there was just enough food for the living, the mouth of a dying person was an obscenity. In the relatively harmonious household of the 1840s described by the peasant novelist Émile Guillaumin, the family members speculate openly in front of Émile’s bed-ridden grandmother (who has not lost her hearing): ‘“I wish we knew how long it’s going to last.” And another would reply, “Not long, I hope.”’ As soon as the burden expired, any water kept in pans or basins was thrown out (since the soul might have washed itself—or, if bound for Hell, tried to extinguish itself—as it left the house), and then life went on as before.
‘Happy as a corpse’ was a saying in the Alps. Visitors to villages in the Savoy Alps, the central Pyrenees, Alsace and Lorraine, and parts of the Massif Central were often horrified to find silent populations of cretins with hideous thyroid deformities. (The link between goitre and lack of iodine in the water was not widely recognized until the early nineteenth century.) The Alpine explorer Saussure, who asked in vain for directions in a village in the Aosta Valley when most of the villagers were out in the fields, imagined that ‘an evil spirit had turned the inhabitants of the unhappy village into dumb animals, leaving them with just enough human face to show that they had once been men’.
The infirmity that seemed a curse to Saussure was a blessing to the natives. The birth of a cretinous baby was believed to bring good luck to the family. The idiot child would never have to work and would never have to leave home to earn money to pay the tax-collector. These hideous, creatures were already half-cured of life. Even the death of a normal child could be a consolation. If the baby had lived long enough to be baptized, or if a clever witch revived the corpse for an instant to sprinkle it with holy water, its soul would pray for the family in heaven.
The Discovery of France, 2008; ch6:
In the mid-nineteenth century, over a quarter of the young men who stood naked in front of military recruitment boards were found to be unfit for service because of ‘infirmity’, which included ‘weak constitution’, a useless or missing limb, partial blindness and eye disease, hernias and genital complaints, deafness, goitre, scrofula and respiratory and chest complaints. In a typical contingent of two hundred and thirty thousand, about one thousand were found to be mentally defective or insane, two thousand were hunchbacks and almost three thousand had bow legs or club feet. A further 5% were too short (under five feet), and about 4% suffered from unspecified complaints which probably included dysentery and virulent infestations of lice. For obvious reasons, people suffering from infectious diseases were not examined and do not appear in the figures.
This was the healthiest section of the population—young men in their early twenties. The physical condition of everyone else might give the traveller serious doubts about information culled from books, museums and paintings—even if the painters belonged to the Realist school…If one of the living figures turned around, the traveller might find himself looking at what Lieutenant-Colonel Pinkney unkindly called ‘a Venus with the face of an old monkey’. [More precisely: “The peasant women of France work so hard, as to lose every appearance of youth in the face, whilst they retain it in the person; and it is therefore no uncommon thing to see the person of a Venus, and the face of an old monkey.”] To judge by the reactions of contemporary travellers, the biggest surprise would be the preponderance of women in the fields. Until the mid-nineteenth to late-nineteenth century, almost everywhere in France, apart from the Provençal coast (but not the hinterland), the northeast and a narrow region from Poitou to Burgundy, at least half the people working in the open air were women. In many parts, women appeared to do the lion’s share of the work…The report on southern Normandy cruelly suggested that women were treated as beasts of burden because hard work had robbed them of their beauty: a sun-baked, arthritic creature was hardly an ornament and might as well be put to work. In parts like the southern Auvergne, where society was patriarchal, women seemed to belong to a different caste…Her face confirms the truth of what she says in all but one respect. That evening, at Mars-la-Tour, the traveller remembers her face when he writes his account: ‘It speaks, at the first sight, hard and severe labour. I am inclined to think that they work harder than the men.’ ‘This woman, at no great distance, might have been taken for sixty or seventy, her figure was so bent and her face so furrowed and hardened by labour,—but she said she was only twenty-eight.’
This accelerated aging, incidentally, turns out to be relevant to contemporary politics, as many wealthy countries grant special immigration privileges to people under 18 years, but older people in poor countries can claim to be much younger than they are and proving otherwise is difficult.↩︎
A corollary is that the ugliest people ever to live also likely live now, in part because in the past, they would not have lived. Countless rare diseases, particularly metabolic or genetic diseases, are now treatable; trauma medicine in particular rescues victims who would not have had any chance—someone whose face has been melted off in a fire would just die a century ago, but now might live (though no amount of skin grafting will make them look normal again). Such a person must wear a mask to venture out in public (although, progress there too!).↩︎
In practice, the correlation of physical beauty with fitness seems quite small (eg. 2009) either way so I don’t expect genetics to be relevant to the time periods here. (Reproductive fitness in contemporary Western societies has a lot more to do with one’s behavior in choosing children rather than other things, like education & career choices & impulsivity, than one’s appearance.)↩︎