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America's 'Beautiful People' Are Changing

HealthDay News
by By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter
Updated: Oct 11th 2017

new article illustration

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 11, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- It strikes no one as surprising when someone like Beyonce graces the cover of a magazine as an icon of beauty, but a new study suggests that was far more rare three decades ago.

If People magazine is any indication, America's definition of who's "beautiful" has broadened to include more races and a wider span of ages.

"This study analyzed photographs of celebrities who were deemed 'beautiful' by People magazine in 1990 compared to 2017," explained study author Dr. Neelam Vashi. "We intended to answer a simple question: Did our perception of beauty change between 1990 and now?"

Apparently it did.

"This data suggests that maybe our society is starting to embrace graceful aging, diversity and the beauty we are born with," Vashi said.

In the study, after breaking down looks by hair, skin color, eye color, age, gender and race, the team found that "celebrities rated beautiful in 2017 were older, more often women, and had a higher rate of darker skin types and mixed race," noted Vashi, who is director of the Boston University Center for Ethnic Skin.

Why People magazine? Largely because of its readership of nearly 44 million adult readers, making it the most popular magazine in the United States, Vashi explained.

She added that the magazine's top-50 beauty list was first launched in 1990, and that editorial decisions have always been based on the combined input of magazine staff, modeling agents, photographers and readers.

After cataloguing 27 years of choices, the team observed that while lighter-skinned men and women accounted for 88 percent of choices in 1990, that figure fell to about 70 percent by 2017.

The same held true for cover photos on those special issues: Actress Halle Berry was the only woman of color until 2003, but Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce and Lupita Nyong'o all made the cover between 2011 and 2014.

All told, this meant that individuals with darker skin accounted for nearly 30 percent of list participants by 2017, up from just 12 percent in 1990, the researchers noted.

And while the 1990 list included just one mixed-race celebrity, by 2017, the findings showed that 14 mixed-race men and women made the cut.

Still, Vashi noted that over the entire timeframe, just four non-white celebrities were featured as number 1 on the list, and all of those were post-2000.

Nevertheless, the perception of beauty does seem to be shifting on several fronts. For example, the average age of exemplary beauty notably rose over time, up from 33 in 1990 to nearly 39 in 2017. And that trend seems to be picking up steam, as the lists have included six celebrities aged 40 and up since 2010, compared with just one in all the years prior.

For some reason, however, men seem to be losing the attractiveness battle. While the list's gender breakdown was more or less 50-50 back in 1990, more than 88 percent of those on the 2017 list were female.

As to what accounts for such trends, Vashi said that was beyond the scope of the current study. But, "the implications of this study are that beauty is ever changing and not just a static principle," she added.

The findings were published online Oct. 11 in the journal JAMA Dermatology.

Amelia Couture, a Ph.D. candidate in the communication studies department at University of Michigan, expressed little surprise at the findings, "as we've seen a push in the last few years to make beauty standards as presented by the mass media more inclusive."

At the same time, she cautioned that "media representations don't necessarily reflect the views and opinions of readers," especially when reflected by just a single magazine's decisions.

Couture also pointed out that "the findings from the 1990s indicate that beauty ideals were quite narrow at the time, with only six of the 'Most Beautiful' list representing women with darker skin types."

"That means that there was a lot of room for improvement in terms of diverse representation," she stressed, "and I would suggest that there is still a long way to go now in terms of evolving beauty standards to be more inclusive."

More information

For more on beauty research, read this story from CNN.