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Friday essay: how 19th century ideas influenced today's attitudes to women’s beauty

Time: 2019-06-29 16:25cheongsam dress Click:

In the 19th century, a range of thinkers attempted to pinpoint exactly what it was that made a woman beautiful. Newly popular women’s magazines began to promote ideas about the right behaviours, attitudes, and daily routines required to produce and maintain beauty.

The scientific classification of plants and animals - influenced by Charles Darwin - also shaped thinking about beauty. It was seen to be definable, like a plant type or animal species. Increasingly, sophisticated knowledge of medicine and anatomy and the association of beauty with health also saw physicians weigh into the debate.

Read more: Guide to the classics: Darwin's On the Origin of Species

A look at three significant books that focused on beauty shows several influential ideas. These include the classification of distinct beauty types, the perception of “natural” beauty as superior to the “artificial”, and the eventual acceptance of beauty as something that each woman should try to cultivate through a daily regimen of self-care.

Classifying beauty types

Friday essay: how 19th century ideas influenced today's attitudes to women’s beauty

‘The three species of beauty as affecting the head and face’ in Alexander Walker’s Beauty; Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Woman (New York: William H. Colyer).

Alexander Walker, a Scottish physiologist, wrote three books on the subject of “woman”. The first was Beauty; Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Women. Here, Walker focuses on women’s beauty because he suggests it is “best calculated to ensure attention from men”. He assumes that men have the power to choose sexual partners in a way that women do not, therefore men have a crucial responsibility “to ameliorate the species”.

Given that one of its key functions is to signal fertility, a woman’s appearance is therefore not a frivolous topic. It is linked to the development of humanity.

Walker defines three types or “species” of female beauty: locomotive, nutritive, and thinking. These types derive from a knowledge of anatomy and each is related to one of the bodily “systems”.

Friday essay: how 19th century ideas influenced today's attitudes to women’s beauty

‘Front view illustrating mental beauty’ in Alexander Walker’s Beauty; Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Woman (New York: William H. Colyer).

The locomotive or mechanical system is highly developed in women with “precise, striking, and brilliant” bodies. The nutritive or vital system is evident in the “soft and voluptuous”. The thinking or mental system is conducive to a figure “characterised by intellectuality and grace”.

Walker’s ideal is the mental or thinking beauty. She has less pronounced breasts and curves and admirable inner qualities that are evident in her “intensely expressive eye”.

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