Written by Luke Ziegler
In season two of HBO’s hit drama “Euphoria,” the character Cassie, played by Sydney Sweeney, establishes a beauty regimen where she wakes up at 4 a.m. and performs a multi-step ‘self-care’ process that includes but is not limited to serums, creams, hair removal, gua sha sculpting and facial steaming. She does all this to chase after an idealized form of self-care in hopes that the object of her obsession, on whom she bases her self-worth, Nate Jacobs, will glance in her direction. While Cassie’s intense beautification lies in the extreme, it is hardly unheard of. Society’s obsession with beauty (newly rebranded as ‘self-care’) is endemic of its pursuit of vanity in all forms.
Hardly a modern problem, humanity’s desire for physical beauty is timeless. The ancient Greeks believed that a person’s moral and spiritual virtue tied directly to how good-looking they were. Someone who was more physically attractive was more righteous. This concept, transliterated as “kalokagathia,” influenced their sculpture, literature, ethics and politics. That idea still operates today. However, modernity relegates it to subconscious processes. Videos have circulated on TikTok discussing ‘pretty privilege’ and how people who conform to conventional attractiveness have it slightly easier.
What is more interesting is how beauty standards for men remain relatively unchanged, while those for women essentially follow a 20-year trend cycle. How the Greeks and Romans thought the ideal man should look resembles how Michelangelo carved the David, or Jacques-Louis David painted “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.” For the past three millennia, the beauty standard for men has gone unchanged. Women and their bodies, on the other hand, are expected to fit the fleeting fad. Compare statues such as the Venus de Milo to what is displayed on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” or even to the beauty standard 10 years ago. While the standard set for men is just as unrealistic, they do not have to conform to passing trends.
In The New Yorker article titled “The Age of the Instagram Face,” Jia Tolentino describes how social media has created an unattainable mold for how faces should look. This face, which is virtually impossible to achieve without the intervention of plastic surgery, is a homogeneous representation of globalization. It is exotic while at the same time distinctly Caucasian. It is a cultural appropriation of physical features.
The Teacher writes in Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity and a striving after the wind” (1:14 ESV). Vanity is nothingness. What humanity fails to grasp about beauty is that it comes from God. The true beauty of the Holy God is not nothingness, for God constitutes everything. While vanity is chasing after the wind, beauty chases after the Lord.