This Photo Series Shows How Beauty Standards Are Totally Arbitrary

June 15th 2017

Tiernan Hebron

Unrealistic beauty standards are so widespread in U.S. culture that it is considered unusual if someone doesn’t feel insecure about the way they look in some shape, or form. However, one need look no further than Nickolay Lamm’s series of images to see that beauty standards might not be so objective.

 male body image

The 26-year-old visual artist from Pittsburgh has recreated the "ideal male body" throughout U.S. history. Lamm started collecting reference photos dating back as far back as the 1870s to get a better sense of what body type was considered "perfect" over the years. Beauty, it turns out, is not necessarily in the eye of the beholder, but in the eye of society.


Lamm found that the ideal male body type in the 19th century would be considered overweight or obese today. Food was less readily available for the poor back then, so having a few extra pounds on one's person equated to wealth, success, and higher social status. What was considered attractive started to change around the 1930s, when food was not such a novelty anymore and Hollywood began promoting a slimmer body type with some muscle tone.


Jump forward a few decades to the 1960s and the male beauty standard evolved to one of even less body fat, but also less muscle. As the video on Lamm’s work states, "Young Americans became tired of the corporate bureaucracy, which led to more rebellious lifestyles." In other words, drugs were in and working out was out. This "heroin chic’"image was overtaken though in the 1980s by a heavily muscled physique, typified by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger.




In the 1990s, the ideal body type shifted from overtly masculine to the slightly less muscled but still lean look that presides today. The current ideal body type for women is also lean, with the pressure to be as thin and trim as possible.


 male body image

Like Lamm’s images of the male body, the ideal female body type has also transformed over the past century. Although not quite as varying in weight or size, it’s clear that desired characteristics and features consistently change throughout the years. These standards not only change with the time, but with location as well. The sought after body type varies depending on which country you are in, with Spain and Portugal favoring a healthier, more average body size, compared to France and Italy, which prefer unrealistic thinness like the U.S.

The takeaway from Lamm’s series, and from the differing body standards across the globe is that beauty is not a consistent or permanent concept, but heavily influenced by time and popular culture. Attempting to live up to these arbitrary measures of attractiveness will result in a continuous loop of of unattainability. Rather, the focus should be on self-acceptance and self-love—with a new cultural narrative to match.