If you ask people to describe what they consider makes a woman beautiful, you're likely to get a lot of different answers. But if you look at the glossy fashion magazine pages, or check out Hollywood's big-screen movies, you'll be hard-pressed to find much variation on beauty that goes beyond young and thin.
"Many people define beauty very narrowly," says Dr. Nancy Etcoff, psychologist and the author of "Survival of the Prettiest: the Science of Beauty." She explains beauty as often defined "as a physical stereotype, as a woman who is tall, thin, young and blond."
Along comes the August issue of Vogue magazine to challenge at least one of those stereotypes. On the cover is 41-year-old former supermodel Linda Evangelista, and pregnant to boot. Inside the magazine, some of the other supermodels of her day -- 36-year-old Naomi Campbell and 37-year-old Christy Turlington.
'We Can All Aim High in Life'
Vogue's director of communications, Patrick O'Connell, admits most of the models that appear regularly in the magazine are in their early 20s. In fact, the magazine has had only one other cover model who was in her 40s -- 45-year-old Iman, who was pictured with other younger models.
The August issue is dedicated to aging gracefully and even features women in their 90s who are still described as beautiful. When asked if older cover girls are a trend, O'Connell candidly replies, "Let's put it this way, chances are higher we wouldn't do it, but that doesn't mean we wouldn't."
But Vogue also recognizes its readership is aging. This is Vogue's fifth annual issue focusing on aging, and O'Connell says it grows more popular every year.
"The reality is," he points out, "women who read Vogue come in all ages and they want to look great, no matter how old they are."
Which brings out another reality about older women gracing the pages of Vogue. They have the money to pay for personal trainers, the best fashion, nutritionists and cooks, and of course, cosmetic surgery. All of which makes "aging gracefully" a whole lot easier.
Not a lot of women who are 41 look like Linda Evangelista at 41. But then, magazines have never been about portraying reality. As Patrick O'Connell says, "we can all aim high in life."
These days, even men are bombarded with images of male perfection they might find tough to match, such as models with sixpack abs, O'Connell says. "I walk around and see the cover of Men's Health and think I need to work on my abs."
The media often portrays women as ideal perfection -- almost Stepford wife-like. Case-in-point: one of America's most popular TV shows, "Desperate Housewives." It features four women, three of them in their 40s. All of them are personally flawed, but all of them are physically beautiful.
Again, older women may take comfort in these characters who are in their 40s, but the average housewife does not look like Teri Hatcher.
Looking for 'Real Beauty'
Average usually doesn't "sell more soap," as the saying goes. But at least one company set out to challenge that belief.
Two years ago, Dove skincare products launched its Campaign for Real Beauty, using real women of different ages, sizes, and ethnicities to sell Dove products. And it chose, of all days, Superbowl Sunday, with a huge, primarily male, audience, to debut its ads of women with imperfect bodies dressed in their underwear, selling firming lotion.
The ad campaign gave Dove what every company wants -- a lot of attention.
"We have received an overwhelmingly positive feedback," said Philippe Harousseau, marketing director for Dove. And he credits the Campaign for Real Beauty with boosting global sales between $60 million and $70 million in the first year of the campaign.
Etcoff views the company's profits as secondary to the courageous message sent to women across the country. She has done research into women's body image and found only 2 percent of women around the world felt comfortable describing themselves as beautiful when beauty was defined as physical attractiveness. Yet her research also found women wanted to embrace a wider definition of beauty.
"Beauty that comes in all sizes and shapes," says Etcoff. "Beauty that comes in different ethnicities, different ages."
In our youth-obsessed culture where image is everything, Etcoff says her research proves there's more to beauty than meets the eye.
"People rated kindess, confidence, happiness, and other factors, as even more important attributes of real beauty than physical appearance," she said.