Red plastic lips

A quest for perfection?

Why are we so rarely satisfied with our looks?

Surveys consistently show how unhappy most of us are with our looks. Cosmetic surgery in the UK is booming. We spend a fortune on haircuts and cosmetics. Why the obsession with our appearance?

Some argue that modern life is looks-conscious. Media images are dominated by the young, thin and beautiful. Fun is poked at celebrities deviating from an ideal of perfection – by exposing cellulite on the beach, for instance. This can create wholly unrealistic expectations of what is normal or why people should be valued.

Is this a new phenomenon? Probably not. Society beauties have always used attractiveness to advance themselves socially, and attempts to enhance nature’s work have a long history. Roman women, for instance, are known to have applied foundation, blusher and eyeliner. They used natural ingredients like olive oil and saffron in their cosmetics, as well as gladiator sweat and lead, which is poisonous.

In ancient Greek and Roman societies cosmetics were sometimes seen as a branch of medicine. The Arabic physician Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, or Abulcasis (936–1013 CE), wrote a 30-volume medical encyclopedia called the ‘Kitab Al-Tasrif’, which devoted a chapter to cosmetics (‘Adwiyat al-Zinah’, or ‘Medicine of beauty’). Cosmetics would have been a distinct help for those disfigured by syphilis or smallpox, common diseases of the age.

The modern era of cosmetics took off in the 1920s, thanks largely to Hollywood. Increasing people’s exposure to beautiful women and well-groomed men, products designed to improve appearance on film filtered down to the wider public.

The earliest signs of human culture include things like jewellery, suggesting that adornment or beautification is very deeply rooted in human behaviour. Whether it is still an advantage to us is a moot point.

Lead image:

Wellcome Library, London CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Ecology and environment, Physiology, History
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development