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Amy Van De Casteele talks love, looks and modern relationships, and asks whether we’ve become too hung up on appearances…

Since the dawn of matchmaking and matrimony, human beings have had a slowly evolving set of requirements which they use to aid them in their quest to find the right partner. Once upon a time, eligible young men would have had, at the very head of their list, the requirement that a woman be of suitable childbearing age and health so that she could provide them with that much-desired son and heir; women, meanwhile, wanted a man of a certain wealth and status to help them out of their often poverty-stricken family situation.
These days, men are no longer so fixated on whether or not a prospective partner can provide them with a son and heir; in fact, in this increasingly superficial era of plastic surgery, nips, tucks and illicit liposuctions, a lot of young men seem to be solely interested in how attractive their future partner is – and young women are increasingly thinking the same way. Where in the 50’s and 60’s an “ideal spouse list” might have had attributes such as “good provider” or “skilled homemaker” at the top, nowadays you are more likely to find “cleft chin”, “tanned and toned” or “big cleavage”. In a society which now encourages rather than frowns on premarital sex, a society increasingly characterised by broken marriages, infidelity and single-parent families, getting married and starting a family are no longer top priorities for young people and this is reflected in how they go about choosing their partners.

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A substantial number of young Western women – university educated and career driven – don’t need a husband to help them get on the property ladder or be financially solvent so it is unsurprising that money and societal status is no longer what they prioritise when it comes to selecting a mate. This fact displays a great leap forward in the rights and status of women, which can never be a negative thing; but what could be construed as worrying is the fact that what girls look for in a partner is becoming increasingly superficial and while many of us still hanker for love, our misplaced priorities could be leading us down shallow, vapid paths to spiritual and emotional unfulfillment.
In the era of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen – women we still admire to this day, and for good reason – the idea that we should choose a partner based on looks or “chemistry” would have been deemed laughable, perhaps even blasphemous. In those days women sought to make “good matches”, increasing their position in society by way of their choice of a husband. Men and women had clearly defined roles and premarital sex, divorce and adultery were dirty words; in fact, they were unheard of. In those days people were mostly unconcerned with beauty, though obviously pretty women were celebrated and particularly admired by callow youths. As for men, they were thought handsome if they had most of their teeth and hair, a broad chest and defined chin – there were no male moisturisers, hair implants or steroids in those days.

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Marriages were built on a foundation of mutual dependence, with men needing their wife to give them children, and women needing their husband to give them financial security and a roof over their heads. These days such marriages are still commonplace throughout the developing world, but in Western society marriage is starting to become viewed as unnecessary or, at worst, as an excuse to have a good party with free-flowing champagne, drunken dancing and a pretty white dress. This view of marriage, and our increasing obsession with looks and sex – which blares out at us from a dizzying variety of TV ads, billboards, movies and even books – means that our society is becoming focused on appearances and the surface of relationships, rather than looking deeper at what we really want and need from spouses.
This is a point exemplified by the recent newspaper stories surrounding Newcastle couple Darren Donaghey and his more attractive partner Kate Cathcart, who took part in their local radio’s “Punching Above Your Weight” competition and won, then caused controversy with their comments which included Miss Cathcart’s assertion that her fiancé was “no Tom Cruise” but that they could always “edit the wedding photos”. Why should we be so surprised that Miss Cathcart fell in love with Darren Donaghey? As the hair dresser herself admitted, “looks fade, and personality stays forever”.

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This maxim is a sentiment which sadly our society seems to be forgetting – or at least ignoring – in 2014. These days it seems that beauty is what counts most, an assertion backed up by recent laboratory experiments which found that while singles might say they are looking for someone kind and generous, what they really want most is someone whom they find very sexually attractive. This shouldn’t be surprising when you consider the fact that we place such a high premium on sex, using it to sell everything from cars to soft drinks.
Meanwhile the increasing prevalence of celebrity women with fake breasts, fake tans, fake hair and fake nails is setting an unfair – and highly unnatural, in all senses of the word – standard for “regular” women to emulate. Some women are so desperate to achieve this level of “beauty” they are actually putting their lives at risk; in some cases even dying, through their efforts to have enhanced breasts. Attractive Argentinian mother Sonia Perez Llanzon made headlines a few days ago when she lost her life after injecting her breasts with Vaseline in a form of ‘at-home’ boob job which caused her to suffer a fatal pulmonary embolism after the Vaseline entered her blood stream and reached her lungs.

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It seems that despite our supposedly advanced and enlightened society, which is said to have moved on in great leaps and bounds from the days of corsets and lead-based make-up, we are still causing women to undergo dangerous procedures in order to appear desirable and “nab” a suitable partner.
But what about men; how do they fare? After all, there are very few women in the United States or the UK who will not admit to lusting after Orlando Bloom’s chiselled cheekbones or Brad Pitt’s classically gorgeous features, and as a result modern male “metrosexuals” are starting to feel increasingly insecure about their own looks, leading to a rise in male eating disorders and to operations such as Wayne Rooney’s famous hair transplant. While we may bear the brunt of it, still it seems that women aren’t the only ones suffering from society’s insatiable desire for physical perfection.

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As someone who has never been particularly interested in the contemporary obsession with a plastic Barbie-esque appearance, I find this whole fixation with looks disturbing and, to be perfectly honest, rather tragic. By choosing to place so much of our focus on appearance and whether or not a person is “sexy”, we denying ourselves that emotional and spiritual fulfilment which comes from selecting a partner based on their personality, their ‘spirit’, morals, values, hopes and dreams. While I will admit to finding Channing Tatum, Mr Bloom and Johnny Depp attractive on a shallow level, if given the chance I wouldn’t choose any of them to be my life partner; I would prefer someone like Michael McIntyre or German comedian Henning Wehn, both intelligent, articulate and hilariously funny men who may not be classically handsome but who would keep me laughing and stimulated for many years to come.
This isn’t to say that I am immune to the whole “looks” issue. If a handsome man, particularly one blessed with a mane of rippling black hair – not to mention equally rippling abdominals – happened to walk past, yes, my eyes might stray briefly in his direction. But would his appearance shoot him to the top of my list of desirables? Probably not. As for my own appearance, I am not immune to concerns about that either – very few women are. Yes, there are countless times when I look in the mirror and wish I had a Hollywood smile or a larger bust, or that my skin wasn’t so pale and dotted with random constellations of freckles. But on principle I refuse to resort to inflating either my chest or my derriere with saline or silicone; refuse, also, to enhance my naturally infuriating brown hair with the hacked-off locks of Russian, Peruvian or Chinese women; and refuse, last but not least, to risk skin cancer or orange stains by tanning myself either in the sun or with sprays and mousses.

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In other words, any man with an interest in me will have to take me exactly as I am – to like me purely for myself, as I was created. Yes I have physical flaws, some of them quite obvious – hair that can never be elegant, sleek or shiny; sensitive skin that flushes or burns too easily; and a few pale silvery stretch marks left over from carrying my beautiful baby girl. I will admit to them all and will not resort to trying to hide or erase them, even if they do cause me many pangs of insecurity and unease. After all, don’t we all have flaws, be it cellulite, old scars or love handles? Maybe it’s time we paid more attention to the flaws and issues we have on the inside, such as our vapid obsession with appearances, rather than harping on our outward flaws, which have so little bearing on our character and lives in general.
In conclusion I leave you with a quote taken from the song “Zombie Inc.” by Swedish melodic death metal band In Flames, which perfectly illustrates my point:
“Shallowness and beauty
was all that concerned her body
but the soul, her divine guest
were thrust to the bottom”
What we as individuals have to decide as we live our lives and search for that “perfect” partner is this – do we want someone consumed by an obsession with shallowness and beauty, or someone concerned with bettering their “divine guest”? Beauty on the inside or beauty on the outside – ultimately, which is more desirable? The answer, to me, is crystal clear. Which will you choose to seek?