The UK beauty industry is worth £17 billion and employs around one million workers nationwide1, making it one of the most lucrative industries in the country.
Grooming is an essential part of life, for humans and animals alike. It is vital for keeping healthy, clean and hygienic, as well as playing a key role in social bonding. We all have our own grooming, or 'beauty' rituals. Whether that be something as simple as washing every morning with soap, or undergoing more specialist treatments such as Botox or chemical skin peels. The average woman is thought to spend a massive £100,000 on beauty products throughout her lifetime, while the average 30 year-old man spends around £100 a month on grooming products and treatments2.
We clearly love the process of making ourselves look beautiful, and it is this enjoyment that drives a rapidly growing industry. Financial forecasts predicted an 8.5% growth in the beauty industry in 2014 and this rise is expected to continue in 2015, thanks in part to newly emerging markets such as men's grooming and anti-ageing3.
But how do we define what is beautiful and what is not? Where does our idea of 'beauty' come from and how has it changed over the years?
On this page
What is beauty?
What does it really mean to be beautiful? Type the term into any search engine and you'll find millions of pages full of quotes from poets, philosophers, artists, anthropologists and even mathematicians who think they've discovered the answer.
Some believe beauty comes from within:
- 'Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.' - Poet Kahlil Gibran.
- 'Our hearts are drunk with a beauty our eyes could never see.' George W. Russell.
Some believe beauty can be found in anything:
- 'In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they're still beautiful.' - Author Alice Walker.
- 'Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.' - Chinese philosopher Confucius.
And some believe beauty is a ratio, hardwired into every human being from conception:
The Golden Ratio explained
Dr Stephen Marquardt, a facial surgeon, devised a standard template for facial beauty after analysing beautiful faces across many different eras, cultures and races.
His findings show that, regardless of time, culture, or geographical location, beautiful faces all fit the same geometrical patterns and proportions. It dawned on the doctor that the distances between each feature - nose, eyes, mouth, all followed a proportion known as the 'Phi ratio', or 'Golden Ratio' of 1.618:1. This is a ratio found time and time again throughout the world - in natural objects such as flowers, insects and seashells, and even manmade structures such as the pantheon in Athens.
Dr Marquardt used the data to create the 'Golden Decagon Mask', a two dimensional template outlining the proportions of a universally perfect face. Beauties lucky enough to fit the mask perfectly include Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, Hollywood siren Marilyn Monroe and American actress Angelina Jolie. Interestingly, the proportions seem to fit all beautiful faces regardless of their ethnicity - so a beauty from Ireland should fit the Golden Decagon Mask just as well as a beauty from Kenya.
Is beauty really that simple?
Of course, there's a lot more to the concept of 'beauty' than facial perfection. We may be instinctively drawn to the Golden Ratio in nature, but that doesn't account for the changing trends in beauty across eras, cultures and countries. For instance - we aren't all born with an innate impulse to get vajazzled, and the Golden Ratio doesn't explain why we put ourselves through immense amounts of effort, pain and suffering to achieve certain fashionable looks. Some bizarre beauty rituals tried by humans over the years include:
- rubbing grizzly substances on the skin (urine, animal semen, blood, bird-droppings and snail slime to name a few)
- piercing genitals
- tattooing faces
- removing ribs
- wearing small shoes to deform the feet
- beer baths
- snake massages.
So why do we put ourselves through so much effort, pain and suffering, just to achieve slightly smoother skin, glossier hair, or a marginally smaller waist?
The importance of beauty
Why have we always been so fascinated by our own image? Are we vain, egotistical creatures? Or does beauty serve a deeper purpose than that?
Today's beauty industry is often slammed as shallow, self-indulgent, materialistic and even destructive. An increase in mental health problems (such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression) has been linked with pressures laid down by a money-driven beauty industry. Some people believe we place too much importance on material goods like make-up and other grooming products. Most religions, including Christianity, Islamism and Buddhism, denounce excessive grooming as narcissistic and immoral, as well as irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. But in denouncing these rituals, are we in fact underestimating the importance of beauty? After all, common sense tells us that beauty is important. Why else would we sacrifice so much in our attempts to achieve it?
Appearance has always been one of the most important tools for animals living together in communities. Take a look at our primate cousins, for instance. Chimps, gorillas and monkeys spend many hours every day picking lice from each other's fur - not just for health and hygiene reasons, but also to reinforce social bonds and establish hierarchical structure within their groups.
Humans too utilise appearance for social reasons. Attractiveness is thought to:
- help increase our social standing
- increase the likelihood of attracting a suitable partner
- increase the likelihood of success at work
- help us earn more money
- make us appear more competent.
One study by the University of British Columbia found that people tend to pay closer attention to attractive people either out of curiosity, sexual attraction, or a desire for friendship and social status6.
Another study, this time by Harvard University, revealed that women who wear make-up are perceived as more competent, likeable and trustworthy than those who go bare-faced7.
One economist calculated that people with 'less than average' looks incur a lifetime's loss of around £89,300 compared with better looking people.
Surely it pays, then, to make ourselves as attractive as possible?
The origins of make-up
The earliest archaeological evidence of make-up dates from 4,000BC in Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians were preoccupied, if not obsessed, with self-image, cleanliness and beauty. Both men and women lined their eyes with black kohl and accentuated their lips and cheeks with rouge made from ground carmine beetles.
In Ancient Rome bathing was a favourite pass-time. Along with regularly using bathhouses (early spas), Roman women created their own formula for hiding skin blemishes (the first foundation) as well as whitening their faces with lead and chalk as a statement of wealth. Paleness was indicative of high social standing because only the rich could afford to spend their time indoors, while poorer people were forced to work under the heat of the sun. European women in the sixth century even used dangerous blood-draining techniques to achieve a pale complexion.
In the early ages of cosmetics, many lethal substances were used, including mercury, lead and arsenic, in the belief that they enhanced beauty. Make-up was greatly revered among the wealthy throughout the middle-ages up until the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria denounced it as vulgar and condemned it to the theatres and whorehouses. However, not even the Victorians could completely abandon their beauty routines. Women regularly plucked their eyebrows and used homemade facemasks made of oats, honey and egg yolk to cleanse and exfoliate the skin. They also rubbed castor oil into their eyelashes to promote growth and brushed rice powder on their noses to reduce shine.
Commercial make-up only kicked off in the early twentieth century with the advent of the film industry and the glamorous 'celebrity world' that went with it.
Beauty industry timeline
1900 - A black, female entrepreneur named Annie Turnbo began selling lotions for hair straightening, hair growth and hair conditioning aimed at a market keen to tame unruly locks.
1909 - Elizabeth Arden began her cosmetics empire and coined the term 'makeover', which she performed on women in her salons.
1913 - Mascara as we know it today was invented by Maybelline
1920 - A new formula for a more effective eyebrow pencil was developed and used to create the thin, elegant brow of Hollywood's heyday.
1930 - Fashion Icon Coco Chanel accidentally got burnt while on holiday in the French Riviera. The look caught on and tanning oils were developed.
1939 - Hitler tried to ban makeup to save resources but German women simply refused to work. Instead, cosmetics companies used cheaper alternatives to packaging such as cardboard boxing. When the wars ended, the beauty industry enjoyed a 53% increase in value.
1950s - with the advent of colour film, the beauty industry got a colourful make-over with bright rouges all the rage. With men returning from war and the resulting baby boom, all emphasis was on family life. Women came back from work and resigned to life as housewives. With so much time on their hands, they spent a lot of time pampering themselves to look glamorous.
1970s - Second-wave feminism hit and women began breaking free from the constraints of femininity. Believing that make-up sexualised and objectified women, many gave up their beauty regimes in favour of the natural look.
1990s - Cosmetics companies began to get adventurous. With all the competition out there, they had to keep coming up with new and innovative ideas. The 90s saw the introduction of a range of imaginative products that promised to fight ageing and target wrinkles.
2002 - The celebrity saviour Botox hit it off, along with other quick-fix treatments such as collagen lip implants, facial skin peels and electric wave therapy.
2011 - The skin care industry is reported as one of the fasted growing beauty industry sectors since 2001.
2012 - the UK beauty industry alone is valued at £15 billion and is predicted to increase by 8.5% by 20142.
1Raconteur, 'Business Face of UK Beauty'
2Daily Mail, 'Women spend £100,000 on make-up in their lifetime'
3Franchise Help, 'Beauty Industry Report'
4Department of Neurology and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania, 'The Neural Response To Facial Attractiveness'.
5Psychological Science, 'Beauty Is In The Mind Of The Beholder'.
6Psychology Today, 'Why We Pay More Attention To Beautiful People
7New York Times, 'Make-up Makes Women Appear More Competent'.