This post is a part of the Historical Context series, where I share excerpts from my vintage magazine collection.
One common misconception about American society is that we’ve become more and more obsessed with physical attractiveness and beauty as time as gone on. How many times have you seen someone post one of those graphics (usually using a photo of Marilyn Monroe) that paints a picture of the past as a sort of utopia where “curvy” women were accepted by all?
The truth is, beauty and physical perfection have always been highly valued, not only in America but in the history of the world. One article in the May 1940 issue of Physical Culture provides evidence of this focus on beauty in the mid-century. It’s titled “Sex Attractiveness: The Key to Successful Living” and boasts in its subhead that “The Knowledge that You Are Physically Attractive Will Inspire within You an Emotional Calm and Confidence that Is Your Best Guarantee of Happiness.”
Tied into this article is an old Hollywood story I’d never heard before. Apparently during World War II, Loretta Young proposed that the government should open up federally-owned beauty shops “using the price of one of its proposed battleships” so every woman in the country could have access to cheap, or preferably even FREE beauty products! Young is described in the article as admitting that her own beauty is the work of makeup artists rather than good genetics, and she says that these federal beauty shops would improve the morale and happiness of the whole country during the war and eventual peacetime.
“Possibly Miss Young did not intend her proposal to be taken literally,” the article’s author writes, “but the principle behind it is both sound and vitally important.” So, good looks are vital to the improvement of society — how’s that for an obsessive attitude about beauty?
It’s not surprising for this particular magazine to feature such an article. Physical Culture was published by Bernarr Macfadden, a man who was on a life-long crusade to bring healthy lifestyles to America. He published workout guides, cookbooks, hairstyle guides and all types of other books in addition to his magazine, with the hope that the whole country would follow his advice for optimum health and attractiveness.
The major difference between the age of Bernarr and today’s world is the focus on “healthy” bodies rather than just “thin” bodies. After all, the article itself states that true beauty must be built on “a foundation of sound health.” Make-up can only do so much if you aren’t taking care of yourself!
Though I appreciate Macfadden’s focus on health, this article still rubs me the wrong way in that it promotes “fix-it” solutions rather than self-acceptance. The writer states that Puritan anti-beauty ideas could have wiped out the human race — as though beauty is the only thing that motivates us to live! The magazine also puts down those of us who compensate for our unfortunate facial features by improving ourselves in other ways, like becoming highly educated:
“Needless to say, there are men — and women, too — who ‘compensate’ for the lack of physical attractiveness by developing unusual ability or skill in other respects. They may even have a degree of essentially neurotic ‘drive’ that will carry them to the topmost heights of fame or power. Or, like the poet Byron with his club foot, they may be compelled to reassure themselves against their self-doubt by an endless string of amorous conquests. But in either case the struggle usually fails to bring real satisfaction, and underneath all the seeming triumphs, there remains a vein of bitterness which makes them difficult, and often dangerous, to deal with.”
Physical Culture is always a fascinating time capsule, but this article is particularly interesting to study given the many misconceptions people hold about society’s past focus on beauty.