I was on tour last fall, peddling my latest book, and was about to appear on a talk show on a Kansas City television station. The producer led me to the studio's "green room," the dressing room where guests brace themselves. I got the distinct feeling that I'd been there before--not deja vu, or presque vu, but vraiment vu.
"Yes," the producer said to my wonderment. "You were here four years ago to talk about another book."
"Y-e-e-s," I said, the memory becoming clearer. "I shared this dressing room with some tall, sort of attractive young woman who had just appeared on the cover of some fashion magazine or another, right?"
"Some tall, sort of attractive young woman," the producer sputtered. "That was Cindy Crawford!"
Good grief. I shared a dressing room with Cindy Crawford, one of the most beautiful women in the world. I should have given her a copy of my book. I should have gotten her autograph on her magazine cover. I should have had her scratch her initials on my forehead with a piece of broken glass.
Weeks later, when I told all my buddies this story up at Slick's Tavern, they expressed so much doubt and ridicule (not that I had shared the room with Ms. Crawford, but that I had not taken advantage of the occasion, having instead forgotten it), that in order to restore my male credentials I found myself also remembering that as I left the dressing room, Cindy said huskily, "Hey, you in the overalls--nice keister." (Although, now that I think of it and as I have made clear to Lovely Linda, she might actually have said, "Nice to meet you, sir.")
The point is--and I suppose you are wondering by now what the point is--beauty is not something immediately and inherently evident to all observers. In the case of Ms. Crawford, she was to my eye simply a nice-looking young woman until I was instructed by magazines, newspapers, comedians, television, calendars, and male friends that she is a ravishing beauty. Of course, Cindy might have been having a particularly bad day or I might have been preoccupied with my own coif, but the fact remains, physical beauty is cultural, not natural. What is considered beautiful in one culture or era is not necessarily beautiful in another.
If there is a universal rule of beauty, it is that we consider those physical characteristics that reflect wealth to be beautiful. In classic English ballads, which exemplify medieval and Renaissance times and customs, a good deal of plot development revolves around the tensions between characters like "fair Eleanor" and "the nut-brown maiden." Fair Eleanor is attractive, by virtue of her being fair, while the nut-brown maiden-well, you know, as we used to say in college, "She plays the piano and all the girls like her." If you were poor, you had to work, and work was almost inevitably outside. If you were rich, you sat around the castle all day, never venturing into the glare of the sun and dangers of the countryside. Pale skin therefore reflected wealth and came to represent beauty.
So English women went to extremes to have translucently white skin. They carried parasols, swaddled their arms, shaded their faces, and powdered and bleached their skins, right on up to fairly recent times. But these days working women are indoors--sitting behind desks in corporate offices, standing before classrooms, diagnosing patients, checking out books, taking care of kids. On the other hand, the idle rich are outdoors--playing tennis, skiing, and traveling to sunnier climes. Today, the nut-brown English maiden is the wealthy one, and therefore desirable, and the only resort for pasty Fair Eleanor is a tanning salon.
Same with men. Fabio? Marky Mark? Schwarzenegger? Obviously, these guys have enough money to spend their lives lounging around beaches, working out in salons, building their pecs, shaving their chests. …