The Enigma of Beauty


Nicole Anderson models a pair of Manolo Blahnik stiletto heels and a white shift dress for the fashion press in New York City. A center of sartorial taste making in the U.S., the city attracts the fashion industry’s elite to its week of shows each spring and fall.

Photograph by Jodi Cobb

Written by Cathy Newman

For National Geographic

Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine

Sheli Jeffry is searching for beauty. As a scout for Ford, one of the world’s top model agencies, Jeffry scans up to 200 young women every Thursday afternoon. Inside agency headquarters in New York, exquisite faces stare down from the covers of Vogue, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar. Outside, young hopefuls wait for their big chance.

Jeffry is looking for height: at least five feet nine (1.8 meters). She’s looking for youth: 13 to 19 years old. She’s looking for the right body type.

What is the right body type?

“Thin,” she says. “You know, the skinny girls in school who ate all the cheeseburgers and milk shakes they wanted and didn’t gain an ounce. Basically, they’re hangers for clothes.”

In a year, Jeffry will evaluate several thousand faces. Of those, five or six will be tested. Beauty pays well. A beginning model makes $1,500 a day; those in the top tier, $25,000; stratospheric supermodels, such as Naomi Campbell, four times that.

Jeffry invites the first candidate in.

“Do you like the camera?” she asks Jessica from New Jersey. “I love it. I’ve always wanted to be a model,” Jessica says, beaming like a klieg light.

Others seem less certain. Marsha from California wants to check out the East Coast vibes, while Andrea from Manhattan wants to know if she has what it takes to be a runway star. (Don’t give up a sure thing like a well-paying Wall Street job for this roll of the dice, Jeffry advises.)

The line diminishes. Faces fall and tears well as the refrain “You’re not what we’re looking for right now” extinguishes the conversation—and hope.

You’re not what we’re looking for …

Confronted with this, Rebecca from Providence tosses her dark hair and asks: “What are you looking for? Can you tell me exactly?”

Jeffry meets the edgy, almost belligerent, tone with a composed murmur. “It’s hard to say. I know it when I see it.”

What is beauty? We grope around the edges of the question as if trying to get a toe-hold on a cloud.

“I’m doing a story on beauty,” I tell a prospective interview. “By whose definition?” he snaps.

Define beauty? One may as well dissect a soap bubble. We know it when we see it—or so we think. Philosophers frame it as a moral equation. What is beautiful is good, said Plato. Poets reach for the lofty. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote John Keats, although Anatole France thought beauty “more profound than truth itself.”

Others are more concrete. “People come to me and say: ‘Doctor, make me beautiful,'” a plastic surgeon reveals. “What they are asking for is high cheekbones and a stronger jaw.”

Science examines beauty and pronounces it a strategy. “Beauty is health,” a psychologist tells me. “It’s a billboard saying ‘I’m healthy and fertile. I can pass on your genes.”

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