Mask of Perfection focuses on the complex and ambivalent relationship between the beauty we perceive subjectively on the one hand, and the plastic surgeon’s scientific, geometry-based standard of beauty on the other.
Specific beauty ideals have seesawed over the course of history, but evolutionary psychology has demonstrated a high degree of consistency at the root level of perceptions of beauty (such as clear skin and a waist-hip ratio around 0.7). Accordingly, notable shifts in perceptions of beauty have been rare, and coincide with discontinuities in general history, and particularly art history. The Renaissance marked a shift toward sleeker body ideal, prizing a sleek figure and flattened chest. The Baroque became synonymous with a body type we describe to this day as Rubenesque. More recently, changes in the social order follwing the end of WWI manifested in the idolization of a slim, more androgynous female body type, epitomized by Hollywood stars such as Louise Brooks.
The current change in beauty ideal, however, is more profound than any that preceded it – in both kind and degree. Previous manifestations of a beauty ideal could be discovered in the flesh, and also represented in art. They were also concretized and rationalized by experts on the subject (think of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man). But any individual’s conforming to, or diverging from, the ideal of the time was a matter of “god-given” gift (or absence thereof).
The currently emerging ideal of beauty is unprecedented in that it is actionable, and that conformity to it has become widely available. Lips like Angelina Jolie; breasts like Scarlett Johansson; a butt like Kim Kardashian; less slanted eyes like a white woman; a wrinkle-free complexion like a cosmetics model? Available at a plastic surgeon near you. In other words, the emerging beauty ideal not only reflects changing taste, but represents a radical shift in the understanding of beauty itself. Conformity to an ideal of beauty used to be a daydream; now, it has become a line item on a shopping list.
Marc Erwin Babej