- Valentina Vidaček
Grey Beauty: Social Concept in A Medical Context
Updated: Aug 26, 2021
People often discuss beauty without any clear image or idea about what the social concept of beauty represents. The most comprehensive definition that we found during our research is that beauty is a concept which in its essence has a combination of what we were given by birth and that which we became through our own experiences. The identity of beauty is as layered as the society which determines it. Despite the usual connotations linked to the topic of beauty (make-up, fashion, etc.), and even though every culture has its perception of it, we can all agree that any prototype of beauty includes health. Since our bodies are as unique as our personality, the only logical action is to adopt a healthy lifestyle according to our body’s needs. However, a path that leads to personal health is not so personal and neither individualistic as it should be. The main reason why people rather ignore their own bodies in exchange for a generally accepted solution can be found in the theory about memes. According to Susan Blackmore (2005), author of this theory, memes are peculiar instructions that guide someone’s behavior, and they are located in the brain, but transferred through behavioral imitation. In other words, when we choose conventional medicine over folk medicine, or when we decide not to put make-up on our face, we have to ask ourselves is it really our own decision or is it based on something that is subconsciously imposed on us?
Through recent studies from different scientific fields, we examine the most conventional way of thinking and discover some paths that are not so common, despite them being more convenient. This paper is an introduction to the most common problems related to the interdependence between beauty and health: choice between different types of medicine, the products we put on our face, diet, and in the end, psychological effects of the tendency to achieve beauty standards.
The medical perception of beauty
Folk or conventional medicine?
Medicine, like any natural science, has its foundations based on numbers. The medical perception of what is beautiful should be determined by certain criteria such as the number of blood cells, cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, etc. Therefore, what is beautiful in the medical sense should be very clear, but this is not the case. Even when it comes to something as simple as taking some medicine when we don’t feel good, things start to complicate.
The dilemma about the treatment we need to apply to restore our health emerges from different claims that we are exposed to from early age. Society through media is inclined to present viable treatments or medicine through language such as 'medicine they don’t want you to find', 'they are killing you for profit', as well as promises such as 'natural medicine that will liberate you from pain, give you vitality and make you young again'. Those phrases and promises force us to choose between two "opposite" sides. Through vigorous data analysis regarding health, we have concluded that truth lays somewhere in between these claims. Conspiracy theories aren’t good for anybody’s health, and the same could be said for the uncritical use of conventional medicine.
During our research, we have constantly met with the feeling of having to choose between folk medicine or conventional medicine; between the Western or Eastern definition of health; between fruit or fast food. However, by studying how the body works it became clear that the most important thing for health is the metabolic balance (Živković 2000). The body functions in such a way that all elements and processes work together in synergy and as a result, the conclusion is imposed that we don’t have to choose between this or that for health or beauty. On the contrary, we should find the balance and make use of the synergy that is being presented to us.
We can point out today’s tendency related to our choice between synthetic medicine and herbal medicine. People are more inclined to pay extra money for the product that is labeled as organic because it is considered by the contemporary culture as healthier and safer than conventional medicine (Firenzuoli and Luigi 2007). Medicinal herbs are healthy for our bodies because of their specific and complicated ingredients that work together and have a mild effect on our system. However, the majority of medicinal herbs in their natural form do not contain the appropriate dosage of active ingredients. Equally, the majority of these herbs aren’t grown in a controlled environment. Therefore, their composition is greatly influenced by their surroundings. In short, medicinal herbs collected in nature are not tested, dosed, or studied in lab settings (Firenzuoli and Luigi 2007). On the other hand, we cannot stress enough that medicinal herbs are great for preventive purposes (especially if we emphasize the placebo effect which on its own is a powerful tool for treating health issues, and besides being connected to the use of synthetic medicine can also be connected to the use of herbal medicine) (Firenzuoli and Luigi 2007). In this case, the herbs have to be consumed over a longer period of time. Medicine manufactured in labs has its own properties which are missing from the herbs such as a heavily controlled environment, careful dosage, and instructions for proper consumption. We first reach for this type of medicine because usually, it has only one active ingredient which treats our specific health issue. For example, in the case of allergic reactions, we reach for medicine that blocks specific receptors responsible for the reaction. The problem is that these types of pills, powders, and other forms of synthetic medicine contain a dose of active ingredient which can nowhere be found in nature. This is why we need to pay attention when using synthetic medicine as our metabolic system could get out of balance more easily than with natural medicine.
Medicinal herbs, like those used in Eastern medicine, have a great effect on preventing health issues, while synthetic medicine, which is more used in Western medicine, is excellent in critical cases (Firenzuoli and Luigi 2007). When we take into consideration all the positive and negative aspects, we have to make an obvious conclusion: when health is in question (or that which can be called the medical perception of beauty), it isn’t necessary to choose between what is publicly being presented as an opposition: natural vs. conventional medicine. Instead, we should use both types of medicine in synergy for a well-rounded holistic approach to health.
Our physical appearance is the first thing people notice. This isn’t a question of superficiality but a fact — people first see our outside appearance, and then they slowly get to know our inside. This is why we shouldn’t be surprised about the amount of pressure that society puts on physical appearance. The most common topics connected to it are skincare and dieting.
Discussions about skincare, specifically facial skincare, are usually reduced to the culture that pays the most attention to it — South Korea. South Korea is well known in the skincare world for its 10-step skincare routine method which is practiced daily to have young, vital, elastic skin. The method is based on the understanding that the skin is an alive organ that needs nutritional substances and moisture to keep its original form. The first step of this routine is to cleanse the skin of all impurities and pollution to which it is exposed during the day. It is recommended to double cleanse: first with an oil-based product, then a water-based one (Cho 2015). The first step is the most important one as residues of make-up and some impurities to which the skin is being exposed can lead to the production of free radicals which are a potential cause of cancer (ibid.). After cleansing, it is important to remove dead skin cells which accumulate below the surface of the skin and in the end, can lead to eczema. For this purpose, a peeling is being used (ibid.). The aforementioned steps are used to clean the skin, after which serums and essences are used for the purpose of feeding the skin with many different vitamins and minerals (ibid.). We also need to emphasize the importance of face masks. A thin sheet of paper soaked in ingredients beneficial to the skin. It is recommended to use them at least twice weekly (ibid.). Since the skin around the eye area is very thin and sensitive, for that area it is recommended to use special creams and to pay special care to that area. The last step of the routine is to use moisturizers that give elasticity and softness to the skin, after which we use an SPF cream. The Sun is a source of vitamin D which is very important, but after 15-20 minutes of direct sun exposure, it becomes harmful to our skin. Free radicals are produced, which are as we already mentioned before potential cause for the creation of cancer cells. Also, sun exposure speeds up the aging process and damages the surface of the skin. Therefore, it is necessary to protect the skin from all the harmful factors (ibid.).
We need to take special care of our bodies and we have to make it our daily routine. However, we must preserve the image of our body as wholeness, and be careful not to pay too much attention to each body part separately. Because this can easily trick us and lead us in the wrong direction. Paying attention to every aspect of our body separately can make it easier to find flaws and lose sight of our body as a whole. We cannot say that it is bad when someone wants to straighten their teeth, correct their nose, or tighten up their eyelids to gain confidence. Still, there are many cases when someone undergoes plastic surgery only to conclude in the end that they didn’t need it. In other words, many people are taught how these ‘imperfections’ on their faces aren’t important only after they are 'corrected'— and plastic surgery is simply a process of learning to accept oneself. However, while some people do plastic surgery and gain self-confidence along with a healthy image of themselves, some lose their connection with reality and jeopardize their health to completely change the way they look. That sort of behavior not only jeopardizes someone’s health but deforms their original look.
Another industry that makes millions through manipulating beauty ideals is the one connected to our desire to be thin and fit. It is a social paradox how people spend large sums of money on different diets instead of taking advantage of their evolutionary precedence which is completely free of charge, and it is already in our bodies — it is the process called autophagy.
Our ancestors didn’t always have the opportunity to eat. Instead, they were very frequently quite hungry (Straubinger, Fensl & Karre 2019). Just like Newton’s law states that the body at rest wants to keep resting, and the body moving, wants to keep moving, so is the same for the human body — the more it’s being fed the more food it requires and vice versa. In the same way, our body needs time to digest the intake of food, absorb the nutrients, and expel the harmful ones. With the constant intake of food, we disable our body to do so and start to accumulate fatty tissue. Furthermore, people tend to interpret the stomach rumble as a sign of hunger, and they repeat the intake of food. However, this is only a sign that the digestion process has begun (Enders 2016). Therefore, instead of excessive intake of food, we can reduce the fat deposits in our bodies and regenerate our system through autophagy (Straubinger, Fensl & Karre 2019). Autophagy is a process that starts 12-16 hours after our last meal, and through which our bodies gain enough time not only to digest food but to destroy harmful cells which are potential triggers for cancer and other health issues (ibid.). The time period of 12-16 hours seems like a long time but if arranged so that most of it passes while we sleep, our system will go through it without us even noticing it (ibid.). There are several ways to variate this method of course: some people decide to fast every day 12-16 hours, some choose a specific day in the week when they will fast for 24 hours, and some will use this method a couple of times per month (ibid.). It is important not to over saturate our system with food, but to give it enough time to properly distribute that which we ate. So, rather than spending money on some diets that don't work, why don't we let our body do what it does best — regenerating itself.
Societal Beauty- a psychological issue?
The last piece of the puzzle we will mention is related to the psychological impact of beauty ideals. Our manners, our gestures, the way we talk and move, the way we think, are all comprised of many layers which are unconsciously imposed on us by society. The problem is that society is not a unified mass, which means that there aren’t clear parameters that would help us in determining how to become socially acceptable. On the contrary, the relationship between most of the parameters which are out in the open and the ones which are hidden is oppositional, not complementary. The most obvious example are magazines that talk about the social image of natural beauty. These magazines tell women how it’s not so bad to have some extra pounds and emphasize the beauty which comes in the form of different body shapes (Engeln 2017). The media writes about the necessity to be unique, yourself, they even support women who refuse to wear make-up in everyday life (Engeln 2017). However, photoshopped women are regularly on the covers of these magazines, telling other women how to apply make-up and dress nicely, how to feel more confident and be more attractive, even how to become more ‘naturally beautiful’ if you use some of their cosmetic products (ibid.). Psychologist Renee Egneln (2017) presents some incredible data in her book Beauty Sick:
- 34% of girls aged 5 want their bodies to look the same as the women they see on social media
- 40% of girls aged 5-9 want to be skinnier
- over 70% of women confirm how others treat them better if they are more inclined to the beauty ideals seen in the media
We have only mentioned some data on the topic of societal beauty, but it doesn’t demonstrate enough about how the beauty ideals put pressure on women and even subconsciously encourage them to spend a lot of money, time, and energy to pursue these ideals. This in the end makes everyday life more challenging for women (ibid.). It would be much easier if we could just point our fingers at men and say how it’s solely their fault for being pressured, but through our observational work in high schools, we saw how many female students put on make-up not to attract the opposite sex, but to appear more attractive than the other girls. Therefore, instead of pointing fingers, we should raise consciousness about this problem because this isn’t just about spending money or time, but about a huge psychological pressure that is felt by women on a daily basis. Societal beauty is the area somewhere in between the media’s perspective and medical perspective of beauty, and it has a significant psychological impact on physical and mental health.
Beauty is a complex social construct. People want to be beautiful, but it is a never-ending process that is determined by society and historical context. Medicine, media, culture, are just some of the factors which determine the identity of beauty. We don’t have the intention of implementing our perspective on someone else’s mind because life is not black and white. Using make-up is not bad, just like choosing conventional medicine rather than some type of organic product. This article merely provides us with multiple choices we can freely select according to our needs in a given time. Furthermore, through this article, we wanted to present real data that will help in forming a critical opinion and raise consciousness about the importance of social concepts that make up our everyday life. The article opened the door for many other social constructs which we will analyze and present in further research.
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4. Cho, Charlotte. (2015). The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin. UK: Harper Collins.
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