For the past couple of years, a pixieish photographer named Mihaela Noroc has been traveling the world to create what she calls The Atlas of Beauty. The 30-year-old Romanian’s project is intended to record femininity in all its vibrant shapes and colors. It has earned a sizable international following online.
Wherever she travels, Noroc’s routine is the same: She approaches her subjects on neighborhood streets and invites their cooperation. Just ordinary, albeit “beautiful,” women spotted strolling about — who, when invited, stare dispassionately into the photographer’s camera. Some subjects demur, of course. But not here. “American women are really open,” Noroc told me. “And the U.S. is where I had the fewest refusals.” Anyone surprised by that?
In the U.S., where advertising and marketing often drive trends, we are not bashful about beauty. At the same time, we had better acknowledge that the way we talk about it is frequently just plain ugly.
Blame the media, sure, but the cruel fact is that our culture has created progressively less attainable (and desirable) ideals for women — and there’s nothing pretty about that.
Let none of us be stupid about this topic. Our perceptions of what defines a homeland goddess are insanely, even foolishly, subjective (among adult men like me, needless to say, but among women too) and they cannot be addressed without first also asking, “What’s even ‘American’ these days?” We’re a tossed-salad nation: All sorts of DNA has mixed into our bloodlines. The once celebrated “California girl” — so blonde, leggy, and blue-eyed — is not a myth, but she’s not representative of anything anymore except maybe Venice Beach. It’s the Kardashians, in all their weirdly callipygian splendor, who are maybe more the norm. It seems we’re shifting toward ambiguous national origin as a preferred standard, especially in advertising.
So, what does all of this portend?
I asked Jimmy Jellinek for his thoughts. Jellinek is a former editorial director of Playboy. If anyone would have a handle on what tomorrow’s grown men will regard as the “ideal woman,” it’s him. “Look,” he said, “the idea of beauty has evolved culturally.” Under his helm, Playboy was focused on finding “that sense of realness in women. We looked for something pure. It’s no longer a matter of plastic perfection.”
It’s a point I heard repeatedly: Today, authenticity is what matters, being natural. Surgical augmentation, troweled-on makeup, Photoshopped selfies — all that artificial enhancement — is still a thing among women of nearly every age. But the tide may be turning.
Among the reasons: effort and money. Barbara Lippert, a well-known commentator on the advertising industry, told me, “Women are beginning to realize that it takes a whole team to look anything like their favorite models. Because of social media, the truth [about how celebs are prepped] always comes out. People are much more savvy.”
Mihaela Noroc, she of The Atlas of Beauty, sums it up splendidly. In her view, the most stunning women display “sincere looks.” They are open, she told me. “And they don’t try to be somebody else.”
All of that may signal a better trend underway, particularly here in the narcissistically united States. Women, it seems, increasingly see the appeal of being themselves — lovely in their own skin. And that is an indisputably beautiful development.