Academic Abominations (Or: Poor Papers From College) #6: “Beauty is in the Mind of the Beholder”

Beauty is in the Mind of the Beholder:

       Beauty, Idealism, and Consumerism in Survival of the Prettiest, and Spent

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Beauty is all around us: it fills up screens and magazines; sells creams and lipstick and razors; we long to surround ourselves with it and long to have it in ourselves. We love it and we hate it for being so appealing, so elusive, and so unfair. In their books Survival of the Prettiest and Spent, Nancy Etcoff and Geoffrey Miller examine the evolutionary origins of beauty and our desire for it, and the methods (sometimes worthwhile, sometimes disastrous) we utilize to achieve and acquire beauty. In beauty we find a great struggle between the evolved instincts of human beings, and our will to resist those instincts through our understanding of the origins of such desires. Beauty itself is not bad, but it is real, and there are consequences for its pursuit and portrayal. Using the discoveries put forward by Etcoff and Miller we may be able to find ways to appreciate beauty without succumbing to its more unfortunate temptations.

To look at beauty with a healthy mind we need to understand what the mind sees as beautiful. Human features are remarkably uniform, but it is the subtleties that grab our attention: “overall, human bodies are really pretty similar, and that we make an enormous fuss over what are essentially minor differences… tiny differences in DNA sequences lead to subtle differences in proteins, cells, tissues, organs and bodies, which lead in turn to different average levels of reproductive success. We evolved to notice these apparently trivial differences because in the evolutionary long run, they matter enormously.”[i] In looking at the universal features that all humans are expected to possess, we have developed an eye for discovering health. The features that we identify with beauty are often directly related to physical health and reproductive fitness: fair skin and good hair indicate a lack of parasites; hourglass figures suggest fertility. Such arguments fly in the face of the common perception of the “beauty myth,” the claim that “’beauty’ is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact. In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves.”[ii] Beauty is an economy, but it is just as much a genetic one as a political one, and it is one that men and women compete over: “Human sexual displays are specifically designed to inflame our desires, and therein lies the secret of their unnerving power. Beautiful human features are a language, devoted to the adaptive problem of how to visually signal one’s own value as a potential mate.”[iii]

Beauty in a partner is a quality that men and women desire, although men often desire it more. “Men value looks more that women do in virtually every culture where the question has been asked… In his 1990 study David Buss found that men valued physical attractiveness and good look sin a partner more than women did in thirty-four of the thirty-seven cultures he studied.”[iv] But men’s desire to look at beautiful things does not always degenerate into sexist fetishism, “The evidence from same-sex partners suggests that the male interest in a beautiful partner is not just men’s way of objectifying and denigrating women. Men interested in men are just as interested in the beauty and youth of their male partners. Women, whether straight or gay, desire beauty but they are less likely to see it as important in a partner. For both sexes, looks are more important for short-term casual relationships than for more serious relationships.”[v] Beauty is an attractor, and it happens to attract men more than women, but it isn’t all that matters: if we weren’t attracted by other people in one way or another we would have no reason to meet at all, “we don’t form friendships with people based on the curve of their lips or the slimness of their waists, but we might we attracted to someone because of such a physical detail.”[vi] Beauty can be appreciated superficially, but it can also bring us closer.

What makes the allure of beauty so difficult is that it triggers certain assumptions and behaviors without our knowing it. “We expect attractive people to be better at everything from piloting a plain to being good in bed. We guess that their marriages are happier, their jobs are better, and that they are mentally healthy and stable. For practically any positive quality you can think of, people will assume that good-looking people have more of it, do it better, and enjoy it more.”[vii] If certain features promote signs of good health and fertility, we will come to desire those traits, and we may entangle those signs of good health with good personhood. Our sexual signals cross wires with other quality signals. In addition to beauty we use other signals to acquire companions “we have evolved irrepressible instinct to display our individual qualities to any potential supporters, allies, or friends who can offer us social benefits. This is the most ancient form of charisma-based politics…”[viii], but even if beauty, charisma, and kindness may be confused, these assumptions don’t always pay in the long run. When we expect beautiful people to be kinder, smarter, or sexier we build an ideal that must be tested against reality, if our expectations are not met, the benefits of beauty may wear away and beautiful people may be treated as “sheep in wolf’s clothing – when they [dominant-looking men] failed to show the leadership their faces advertised, they were punished, just as if they had lied about their abilities or potential.”[ix] The limitations of reality and experience may be our greatest shield against the assumptions of beauty, but even this can be confused in a world of mass marketing.

In the world of consumer capitalism, products are sold on beauty. Comparative standards of beauty are used to appeal to the competitive drives of consumers: “This is why the typical luxury ad includes a highly attractive model dressed up as a high-status heiress, wearing an expression of contempt and disdain for the viewer. The ad does not say ‘Buy this!’; it says, ‘Be assured that if you buy and display this product, others are being well trained to feel ugly and inferior in your presence, just as you feel ugly and inferior compared to this goddess.’”[x] The utilization of Photoshop and staged photography has created a hyperreal expectation of beauty in our images and in the real world. It is one thing to see unrealistic beauty in a classic Greek statue or Renaissance painting, it is another to see it in a photograph of a supposedly flesh-and-blood person. Everybody has an idealized partner in their head, but when we venture into the real world we are forced to compromise with what surrounds us, and in this compromise we learn to interact with and grow with people. We learn to see our ideals in people, and learn to outgrow our ideals as well. “Beauty preferences would not be important unless they had consequences in the real world. We can advertise for a dreamboat and pay our money to indulge fantasies, but the key issue is what decisions we make given the choices we have.”[xi] We may try to draw each other in with our beauty, but it is not beauty alone that determines if someone will stay with us or care about us.

In our consumption of products and attempts to signal to potential partners we may end up cornering ourselves, we may catch ourselves into a cycle of needless beauty-buying: “branded products lead the consumer to feel higher in status, sexiness, or sophistication – feelings that are ultimately either oppressive (if observers grant higher status to the product displayer, and thereby feel inferior) or self-deluded (if observers do not actually grant the higher status). In either case, the branding seems iniquitous – a waste of human effort, attention, and vanity in the zero-sum game of social status.”[xii] Continuous beauty branding emphasizes the belief that idealized beauty is not only real, but also buyable. In the rush to brand ourselves as beautiful, sexy, and sociable we can forget that putting everything up front leaves nothing to be uncovered: “we put too much of ourselves into our product facades, spinning too much mass to our outer edges where we hope it is both publicly visible and instantly loveable. One problem with this strategy is that it leaves too much blank space in the middle, so there’s not much of ourselves left for lovers or friends to discover in the longer term. This could be called the centrifugal-soul effect: runaway consumerism leaves us feeling superficial and empty, because we project ourselves outward to observers too promiscuously and desperately.”[xiii]

We risk mistaking the playing of the beauty-game for the rewards itself, but beauty is not simply a virtue in and of itself, “Our beauty as others judge it is linked to social ease, but it is not linked strongly to self-esteem. Even if others think we are beautiful, we may not if we are constantly comparing ourselves to the even more beautiful. But our beauty as we see it is linked to self-esteem.”[xiv] With this lens we may see more truth in The Beauty Myth: “The enemy is not lipstick, but guilt itself… the harm of these images is not that they exist, but that they proliferate at the expense of most other images.”[xv] If we want beauty to be meaningful, we need to learn to think about it differently, or at least think differently about the way we think about beauty. We do not need to shun or discourage beauty, but see it as one element of our being. When we buy products that are advertised with beauty, or promise to improve our own beauty, we should ask what specifically they are doing. Eyeliner may emphasize our eyes, but mustn’t our eyes have some beauty already for us to emphasize it? When we seek to project our beauty, to please others, we may ask ourselves what form that beauty shall take: does it need to be in our flesh? Can it be in scent? In skill? In speech? Perhaps, just as Miller argues for products, we can “find what we already own” in beauty as well.

Idealism informs us of a natural inclination for beauty, health, morality, but it is the way that this idealism interacts with the limitations of reality that really matters. If cultures can pick and choose features to emphasize beauty, and marketers can sell products to bring out the eyes or the lips or the jaw, perhaps we can try and see what features we want to emphasize in ourselves. We may not be able to escape the impulses that create our universal standard of beauty, nor should we, “we will only make our world a drabber place by not enjoying it, as long as we are not limited to it.”[xvi] In making ourselves aware of our impulses for beauty, we may better control our instincts and appreciate what we have. We can begin to see through the façade of the manipulated images in magazines and screens, we can begin to appreciate beauty for the experience it provides in its presence, “perhaps it’s best to enjoy the temporary thrill, to enjoy being a mammal for a few moments, and then do a reality check and move on. Our brains cannot help it, but we can,”[xvii] and if we can see through the façade of the beauty around us, then perhaps we can build up real beauty in ourselves.

[i] Geoffrey Miller, Spent (New York: Penguin, 2009), 130-131.

[ii] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1991), n.p.

[iii] Nancy Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest (New York: Anchor, 1999), 70.

[iv] Ibid 61.

[v] Ibid 62-63.

[vi] Ibid 71.

[vii] Ibid 48.

[viii] Miller, Spent, 102.

[ix] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 75.

[x] Miller, Spent, 126.

[xi] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 65.

[xii] Miller, Spent, 126

[xiii] Ibid, 255.

[xiv] Etcoff, Survival, 87.

[xv] Wolf, The Beauty Myth, n.p.

[xvi] Etcoff, Survival, 244.

[xvii] Ibid, 242.

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