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Face value: The changing ideals of female beauty

From the fresh-faced looks of Ali MacGraw to the 'Instagram face' of today, Meadhbh McGrath charts the evolution of the feminine aesthetic over 50 years

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Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian West and Kendall Jenner 
attend The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp

Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian West and Kendall Jenner attend The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp

Getty Images for The Met Museum/

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian

Getty Images for American Influe

Cara Delevigne

Cara Delevigne

Getty Images

Ali MacGraw

Ali MacGraw

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie

Gisele

Gisele

AFP via Getty Images

Kate Moss

Kate Moss

AFP via Getty Images

Kim Basinger

Kim Basinger

AFP via Getty Images

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Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian West and Kendall Jenner attend The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp

You've heard of Botox, fillers and lash extensions - what about thread lifts?

 The non-surgical brow lift isn't new, but it has enjoyed a boost into the mainstream in recent months as the next step for women seeking to recreate the Instagram-filtered aesthetic in real life. It involves inserting a tiny, invisible thread into the eyebrow area to pull up the skin and emulate the wide, catlike eyes of Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski and Kendall Jenner… for about three weeks, after which it starts to dissolve.

It's the latest trend for those chasing Instagram Face, a distinctive, racially ambiguous look that has dominated the social media platform and seeped into the wider world, too. You'll recognise the full, pillowy lips; the neat little nose; the plump, prominent cheekbones; the pointy chin; the feathery brows and long, thick lashes framing those Disney princess eyes. Thanks to the introduction of the photo-editing app FaceTune in 2013, anyone could mould their face into this shape, but now, a flawless selfie on a screen isn't enough: women want to look like this IRL too, and they'll happily pay for it.

Ideals of female beauty have long demanded some measure of physical manipulation of the face and body. Aesthetic rhinoplasty dates back to the 1880s, while the earliest recorded incident of Chinese foot binding took place in the 10th century, and corsets have evolved through the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan era to today's shapewear.

Beauty standards have already changed so much in the 10 years since Instagram launched, but if we look back further, we can see how these ideals reflect our own anxieties and values through the decades.

1970s

The year 1970 saw the release of Love Story, and signalled Ali MacGraw's arrival as a beauty icon. With her centre-parted hair, too-thick eyebrows and fresh-faced makeup, she embodied many of the decade's defining trends: her "natural" look chimed with the emergence of the women's liberation movement, which saw many women resist objectification with a notably pared-back style.

The interest in all things natural stemmed from a rise in environmental awareness, and 1970 marked the first celebration of Earth Day in America. In 1976, an instantly iconic swimsuit poster cemented Farrah Fawcett's status as a legendary beauty. The bronzed beach look ruled, yet her brand of glamour still felt earthy and achievable, and her signature feathered hair and deep golden tan were much copied from Tinseltown to Tipperary.

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Ali MacGraw

Ali MacGraw

Ali MacGraw

1980s

The 80s heralded the age of excess: loud makeup, big shoulders and even bigger hair. One thing that had to be small, however, was the nose. Nose jobs hit the mainstream, and by the late 80s, liposuction also became hugely popular, for women seeking a perfectly honed aerobic body without all the aerobics. Kim Basinger was the reigning sex symbol. The more-is-more aesthetic was a product of the economic boom, and the culture of overconsumption gave rise to a very "overdone" beauty ideal, complete with fake beauty spot, massive hair and a sculpted, Spandex-clad body. The term 'supermodel' entered the cultural lexicon, thanks to the likes of Brooke Shields, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, yet unlike the identikit Instagram models of today, these women were distinctly striking: the goal was to stand out from the crowd, not blend in.

1990s

In stark contrast, this decade embraced minimalism, rejecting the uninhibited self-indulgence of the 1980s. The Big Five gave way to a new ideal: the waif, as personified by Kate Moss, Winona Ryder and Jodie Kidd. Dominant beauty standards prioritised youth and thinness, over the athleticism and curves of the earlier supers. The flashy makeup was stripped back, false tan was scrubbed off, noses got even smaller, collarbones were exposed and brows were plucked pencil-thin. It was the "less is more" mantra taken to extremes, a dark commentary on our relationship with consumerism and a backlash against the glamour of the supermodel era, yet the traditional aspirational element of fashion (and fashion photography) led many to feel the industry was glamourising death as "heroin chic".

2000s

The austerity of the 1990s paved the way for another boom period. The Celtic Tiger was a new golden era for tanning, with white women seeking to replicate the black and brown skin of Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Alba, Beyoncé and Halle Berry. As reality TV and the tabloid media flourished, culture became increasingly loud. There was no room for subtlety, and imagery became increasingly sexualised, from the raunchy music videos of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, to the "angels" of the Victoria's Secret fashion show such as Gisele Bundchen and Adriana Lima. The most desirable body was a super-built, super-slim one, idealised by Angelina Jolie in the film adaptation of Lara Croft. Everyone was faking it, with the help of hair extensions, false lashes, Botox, highlights and lowlights, not to mention silicone breast implants, as boob jobs became more popular than ever.

2010s

By the early 2010s, Cara Delevingne's face was ubiquitous, her trademark bushy eyebrows looming on every magazine cover, billboard and catwalk. Power brows became an affordable status symbol, all the better for achieving the perfect sultry selfie gaze in an always-on world.

In the age of social media, makeup grew increasingly dramatic, even cartoonish, and Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner promoted a whole new kind of makeup look, created by combining heavy contour, full-beam highlighter, smoky eyeshadow and nude matte lip gloss with what is believed to be a vast range of non-surgical procedures. Untraceable tweakments and "no makeup" makeup were usurped by a very obviously "done" face and body, bringing to life an army of nearly identical, digitally-enhanced avatars.

Women wanted to eliminate the divide between "Instagram vs reality", hiding their insecurities under a Kardashian-Jenner-Hadid mask. It's a frightening reflection of a society so broken that the gold standard of beauty all but demands a litany of cosmetic procedures. But if we've learned anything from tracing these changing beauty ideals, it's that they are ever changing. And in this increasingly unsettled socio-political climate, no one can predict what's coming next.

Irish Independent