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What Makes Someone 'Most Beautiful' Is Changing, Study Says

If you throw it all the way back to 1990, things look a little different.
Image: Jennifer Aniston in 2004 in Cannes, France; Lupita Nyong'o in 2014; Sandra Bullock om 2014.
Jennifer Aniston, Lupita N'yongo and Sandra Bullock have been named "Most Beautiful" by People magazine in the last few years. AP file

In 1990, I was just a little kid, but my ideas of physical beauty were already beginning to take shape. I knew my mother, an Hispanic woman who then was about 40, was the most beautiful woman alive; my father, a short 50-year-old Jewish guy, was the most handsome man. But they were stark exceptions; I mainly idealized younger, blonde and perky-nosed celebrities like Michelle Pfeiffer, who graced the cover People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People In The World" issue that year.

Twenty-seven years later, People's curious tradition of ranking celebrity beauty continues, but as new research from JAMA Dermatology shows, the mag's criteria for its annual feature appears to have changed over time. 2017's edition of "The World's Most Beautiful" is an improvement on 1990's issue in that it is more diverse, allotting more coverage to people of color and to folks over 35 years old.

Here's a comparative breakdown:

  • In 1990, the percentage of white people featured: 76 percent. In 2017, this number was at 60 percent.
  • In 1990, people between the ages of 45 and 54 represented four percent of the list; in 2017, this age group accounted for 19.3 percent.
  • In 1990, 88 percent the skin tones featured were predominantly of the lightest shades, falling between type I and type II on the Fitzpatrick scale (a numerological system doctors use to determine how susceptible skin is to UV rays; type 1 is the fairest and most likely to burn); types IV through VI (moderate brown to darkest brown) accounted for a wimpy 12 percent. In 2017, these darker shades made up 29.6 percent.

The differences between 1990 and today were not ones that the paper's co-author, Dr. Neelam Vashi, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine was anticipating. In fact, when she and her team embarked on the research, they were working with the hypothesis that beauty standards had not much changed.

In 1990, people between the ages of 45 and 54 represented four percent of the list. In 2017, this age group accounted for 19.3 percent.

“I thought it would be static — that diversity and aging would not be embraced much more now than then,” says Vashi. “Perhaps because I run a cosmetic center, I just thought that things would have been relatively the same.”

Vashi added that her team elected People magazine to run their hypothesis because of its mass appeal.

“Reportedly People has the largest audience of any American magazine and its annual ‘Most Beautiful’ spread has been published for almost three decades,” says Vashi.” People did not return our request for comment.

The ‘Exposure Effect’ and Why Diversity in Beauty Matters

One major reason we may be seeing more nonwhite or “other” races (the study’s word, not ours) on People’s lists is because of the “exposure effect,” Dr. Frank Niles, a social scientist, explains.

“The exposure effect is a basic psychological idea: The more we are exposed to something, the more attracted to it we may become,” says Dr. Niles. “As a society, we have become more aware of the need and the value of diversity, and I think it is safe to say there are more people of color in positions of cultural visibility across a wider range of platforms.”

To be clear, it’s not like people of color (POC) haven’t been here and beautiful for the past bajillion years; it’s that only recently is Hollywood recognizing POC in a significant way, and transmitting that recognition to the public. In 1990, American women with brown skin such as my mother (still a loyal People subscriber!) had very little representation. And I can see now how that must not have been easy for her. I remember when I was a teenager, she’d study my hands, marvel at my fair skin and tell me I looked like Winona Ryder.

Gabriela Garcia, an editor with, poignantly recalls the feeling of looking nothing like the celebrities she grew up idolizing in the ‘90s.

“When I was a teenager, Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy were the women I emulated,” said Garcia, now 39-years-old. “They were tall, lithe and had long flowing hair. I looked nothing like them. I was short, brown and hairy, with an overabundance of curves.”

Garcia points to Jennifer Lopez as a notable catalyst (Lopez, by the way, was named People Magazine’s ‘most beautiful woman’ in 2011).

Women like J-Lo and Kim Kardashian have really helped promote body confidence for women who are not tall, blonde and white.

“The rise of Jennifer Lopez was really important for young Latinas in the U.S,” says Garcia. “For the first time, a brown girl with curves was popular and mainstream. She didn’t shy away from her Latina-ness. I think she paved the way for other types of beauty. It wasn't until the media started to show women of different colors, sizes, and cultures that I began to realize that I was beautiful. And as silly as it sounds, women like J-Lo and Kim Kardashian have really helped promote body confidence for women who are not tall, blonde, and white.”

Alas, We’ve Got Work To Do

If we’re to look at People’s “Most Beautiful” lists as a mirror of what the mainstream media accepts and promotes as beautiful, then it’s clear we’ve made some progress. But as Dr. Catherine Kerrison, a professor of history, and of gender and women's studies at Villanova University notes, “This isn’t cause for celebration.” Why not? Well, let’s have a look at those numbers again.

In 2017, People magazine featured 135 people in its “most beautiful” issue. That’s 85 more than were included in 1990. That alone signifies that this is in part a numbers game. In other words, of course more types of people are included, there’s more than double the amount of people being shown. But that’s not what really concerns Dr. Kerrison. She’s thinking about this number right here: In 1990, men made up nearly half (48 percent) of People’s list; in 2017 they made up 11.9 percent. So, out of 135 people, only 16 were dudes.

This is concerning because it suggests that women, no matter how talented, successful, influential, powerful, and so on, it’s her beauty that stands out.

“There are clearly many more women operating in visible and awesome ways in public life today than there were 30 years ago,” says Kerrison. “Yet in spite of women's advances, beauty is being constituted primarily as female. As any woman in the public eye knows, it's crucial to her acceptance, her success that she present herself in ways that are acceptable to this standard. I can't say I am surprised, but the bottom line is: Women will be evaluated by standards of beauty and though those standards are expanding they are still critical to our success.”

Glorifying the success of women by emphasizing their appearance only adds to the insane pressures women may be feeling.

Arguably, the message being sent is that yes, ladies, there are more ways to be beautiful, but you've still got be beautiful.

Dr. Anna Yusim, a psychiatrist and the author of “Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life”, points out that one reason women could be highlighted more than men is because the word “beautiful” has an effeminate association, whereas men typically lean toward the word “handsome.” But, still glorifying the success of women by emphasizing their appearance only adds to the insane pressures women may be feeling, notes Yusim.

And so, it’s important to remember that these constructs of beauty, whether you meet them or not, whether you even care about them or not: they aren’t set in stone. Conventions of beauty change, just look at old Renaissance paintings that depict generous bellies and undulating curves as the quintessence of elegance.

What’s more, with the advent of social media, we are able to set our own bars, start our own trends and flaunt our own ideas of and experiments in beauty. And even if today we are enthralled by caterpillar-thick brows and middle-parted hairdos, we tend not to forget where beauty really lies: on the inside. It’s corny, but it’s true, and that beauty doesn’t come and go, it grows.

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