Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Of the Quantification of Beauty, Part 2

"I'm happy people find me attractive, but really it's a matter of mathematics: the number of millimeters between the eyes and chin." - Paulina Porizkova

                                           Porizkova. She's interesting to listen to, too.

In 1960 a London newspaper published the pics of 12 young women, asking who's the prettiest. Over 4000 people responded, from all over Britain, every social class, ages from 8 to 80. The unanimity about who was prettiest was consistent to a remarkable degree. In 1965 a similar test was done in Unistat, with over 10,000 responses, with again a very high degree of consistency as to who was the fairest of them all. A few years later the psychologist's lab studies on prettiness/beauty began, and hasn't stopped.

What's another remarkable thing is that almost everyone agrees that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," but then they pick the same pretty face that everyone else does. After a good 30 years of various tests of beauty - including cross-cultural studies - it seems safe to assert that we are all attracted to the beautiful, even though we're uneasy about it, for various reasons.

In 1984, Raquel Scheer and Robin Lakoff (then George's wife) published a book, Face Value: the Politics of Beauty. They asserted that beauty was a social construction, and that, "Beauty is not instantly and instinctively recognizable: we must be trained from childhood to make those discriminations."

Do you agree?

In another 1984 book, Forbidden Fruits: Taboos and Tabooism in Culture, ed. by Browne, another female academic, Jane E. Caputi, wrote an essay, "Beauty Secrets: Tabooing the Ugly Woman," in which she asserted we acquire our tastes for beauty via acculturation.

Are you on Caputi's page?

Eight years later and probably most famously, Naomi Wolf penned The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. For Wolf, beauty was not a universal and objective thing, but a myth foisted on us by The Man. Here's classic Wolf: "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."

Are you with Naomi, Dear Reader? Here's a pic of Wolf, just for kicks:
                                  Sisterhood must really be powerful. Wolf is pretty to me, I find her 
                                             comely and smart and her politics has drifted closer to mine over the 
                                             years, which makes me wonder....Does she seem ambivalent about
                                             having her picture taken here?

Enter a psychologist named Judith Langlois, now at the U. of Texas. She's studied social perception, with an emphasis on perceptions of physical attractiveness. She did a study in which she collected hundreds of pictures of faces and asked adults to rate them regarding degree of attractiveness. Then she showed the same pics to babies aged three to six months, and the babies found the same pictures attractive that the adults did! Q: How did she and her colleagues know what the babies thought? Answer: The babies spent much more time looking at attractive faces than unattractive ones. Even if the baby's parents were white, the babies lingered over pretty African faces, attractive men, attractive other babies, good-looking Asians from all over the world...

There's no blank slate, here: we seem to be born with some predisposition towards liking symmetry, proportion...I don't think the media or the Male Gaze did this to us. It made for some heated politics of "gender" and of questions about what's socially constructed, to what extent, how, why, etc. But I think the "brainwashing" idea about beauty is moribund, if not kaput.

Are you still with the postmodern politically-correct academic women? (If you ever were...)

HERE's a 2006 article discussing Langlois's work, surmising that pretty faces take less information processing power, and so are pleasing - a sort of literal take on "easy on the eyes," - etc. A profile of Langlois and how she got into this line of inquiry, etc, is HERE.

What about the idea that advertising has hypnotized us into a Madison Avenue world of beauty? We've seen this argument before, and once I started reading all those studies on symmetry, the phi ratio, and fer crissakes, babies?, I can't believe how utterly lame that argument is/was. Yes, we only drink sugary sodas because Coke and Pepsi and their ads have brainwashed us! We only love fatty food because of all those McDonald's ads.

But then where did so many smart people get such bad ideas? I'm not sure, but there certainly seems like there's DANGER lurking in beauty. In King Kong it killed the Beast, remember? Recall that the Judgement of Paris was a beauty contest instigated by the spurned goddess Eris, which ultimately started the Trojan War and made James Joyce's Ulysses possible... Beauty's not only dangerous but unfair: with regards to one study, attractive men earn $250,000 more than their counterparts over a lifetime, according to economist David Hammermesh. Attractive women will earn 4% more over a lifetime than not-so-attractive women in the same lines of work. Managers admitted in a survey published in Newsweek that, in this bad economy, pretty people's luck was better in getting hired. The most important thing was experience, followed by confidence, then attractiveness, then what school the applicant went to. The lesson: it's better to be average and attractive than brilliant and unattractive.

Scads of the research talk about a "Beauty Bias," "Beauty Premium," "Beauty Advantage,"or "Beauty Bonus." This stuff has been known forever, but we still like to say "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and we probably think we really believe it when we say it. See, for example, Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, by Deborah Rhode. She's at Stanford, and wants to make "lookism" tougher, legally. How this can be done, I have no idea. I have not read Rhode's book, but the Slate article and other reviews make me want to get to it if I find the time. The City of Santa Cruz, California has tried to make "lookism" illegal, and Robert Anton Wilson - who lived at the edge of Santa Cruz - wrote one of the most devastatingly LOL-funny Swiftian satires on that that I've ever seen; unfortunately it hasn't been collected in any of his books, but if you find the collection Popular Alienation: A Steamshovel Press Reader, ed. Kenn Thomas, look for "A Modest Enquiry: Some Possible Problems With a New Santa Cruz Anti-Discrimination Law," pp.67-70...

[And yet: Ugly People strike back in beauty-obsessed Buenos Aires. Good luck with that...]

I think most of us are a bit mixed-up about beauty. It's so pleasant to see a beautiful person. We're probably wired that way. In fact, I'd bet on it. But we don't like unfairness, and most of us sense that the beautiful get an easier ride, through no merit of their own. Especially liberals: we believe in meritocracy over birth, beauty, inherited money and privilege. We highly value merit, knowledge, real work. 

And yet...the beautiful enchant us. We can't help it, and I suggest we give over to it, as part of the payback of the whips and scorns of time and general difficulties in life. Eleanor Roosevelt was asked about regrets in life and she said she wished she'd been prettier. Count Tolstoy mourned the good looks he never had. I harmonize with Tolstoy on this. Men wish they were prettier, too. On the other hand, when Woody Allen was asked if he had any regrets in life, he said his only regret was that he wasn't someone else...

A shout out to Nancy Etcoff's Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, which I found in 1999, and it's therefore "dated": so much more science has been done on the topic since then, but Etcoff's book is still a well-written and researched and delightful, funny, and candid text well worth reading on the topic.

Indonesia is the country with the most Muslims in the world, so on a lark, because I know no one from Indonesia, I Googled, "Beautiful Women of Indonesia" and got this.
Here's People magazine's "Sexiest Man Live For 2011," an actor named Bradley Cooper, who I'd never heard of.

Part 1 of my musings and gleanings on beauty and its measurements, etc.


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Slowness is beauty. - Laurence Binyon

Only sequoias are slow enough. - Ezra Pound

michael said...

I love both of those quotes.

To suggest that anything slow is somehow "good" in any way seems to go against the grain of everything the stressed-out and lost and confused I Want It Now people, who seem almost everywhere.

Deeeeeep breathhhh...hold, two, three, four, five...exhaaaaaaaale...again...

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

If lookism is "unfair," should there be affirmative action for the ugly, i.e. beautiful women should have been made to date me when I was single, and good-looking men should be required to date ugly girls?

Or should we just accept that the world is not fair, and that we should deal with life as it is rather than looking for things to complain about?

michael said...

In the cases I've seen, "lookism" always implies affirmative action for ugly people. Now: we're talking the truly Appearance Disadvantaged. It's hilarious, but some liberal types have fought for this. I see where they're coming from, but gawd, what a Fool's Errand...

I had a paper somewhere in my notes, can't find it now, that a psychologist had tried to place looks/appearance on a Bell Curve.

I think the complaining mostly comes from a desire for justice, but that's the funny thing to me: biology will see whatever our social justice ideas try to do, then laff, and just shred right through it.

Some humans will try to legislate just about ANYTHING. If they think it's possible, they'll try it. It seems both a romantic notion and an embarrassingly dumb one too.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I liked your article on beauty, Dr. Johnson. I think when it comes to perception of other kinds of beauty, beauty seems more in the eye or ear of the perceiver. In terms of music, much music I find beautiful (the Art Ensemble, the Grateful Dead, etc.) annoys a lot of people. Much writing I find beautiful doesn't work for a lot of people (RAW, Zukofsky, etc.).

michael said...

@Prof. Wagner: What can I say. I totally agree. The paintings, music, and literature that I have found beautiful and profound, and which fed into what some might call "spirituality" has often been art that others dislike, sometimes intensely.

This beauty of other people - even mammals and other animals - seems far more biologically based, and indeed I see the term Darwinian aesthetics quite often when I read cognitive scientists on this topic.

An interesting question for me: what about our apprehension of the beauty in the natural environment? One thinks of pics from NatGeo, but what about architecture, cityscapes, etc? My preliminary grasp of this says this sort of beauty is biologically based, too, but not as much as the personal appearance stuff, yet stronger than your love for Grand Canyon while I say Yosemite "is" more beautiful. Kandinsky or Cezanne? Roses or crysanthemums? Vancouver or Manahattan?

Psuke said...

I find myself quite often being enormously pleased that I am only reasonably attractive...this means I have the luxury of getting to ignore my looks entirely.

Linking this to your earlier article regarding attraction and biology, I wonder, if those same people were asked (maybe later) to rank those photos for who they'd like to meet, or who they'd like to sleep with (given the option), if the ranking would have been the same? I find the Calvin Klein underwear model as aesthetically attractive as the next hetero female does...but the thought of sleeping with one makes me sort of ill. And I wonder if that makes me weird, or if it's only that I'm willing to say so that makes me weird.

michael said...

Your PERCEPTION of your attractiveness seems so, no?

For whatever level of beauty I had..."attained" (?) in my youth, I now mourn for what's lost, not that I ever was all that hot. I'm okay with this amount of personal narcissism.

I've found I'm prejudiced toward beautiful women: I automatically assume they're shallow, entitled dolts. Being aware, I sometimes get the chance to "test" this out - being very aware of my biases - and find my prejudices seem usually fairly accurate.

However, a stunningly gorgeous woman with a wit, sense of humor, or a high level of verbal articulation? I find her devastating. In a culture that screams at beautiful women: You don't need to even try to be nice or cultivate your mind: guys will throw money at you!, the gorgeous intellectual just kills me.

Part of my brain protests..."But it's...nor fair...this is unnatural," but it's only that part that's listening to another part, the one that says, "You're never going to bed with her. She's out of your league, dude."

OTOH, I find I've gained a lot over my cultural conditioning after the age of 30: I appreciate the "ordinary" beauty a lot more. And I appreciate the beauty of women 40-60 much more now. And an "ordinary" female, beauty-wise: if she's funny or likes herself and is geeky about something like science or literature? She automatically begins to appear prettier to me.

I wonder about beauty tests and numbers too, especially if it's women being studied about how they perceive male beauty. My female friends seem wired differently than my male friends: they find the underwear model dudes hot, but don't express anything like, "Oh hell yea I'd do him!" (Although some do say that, in front of their hetero male friend.) ALL of my male friends seem to think any women of any level of sufficient beauty is _of course_ someone they'd like to share hot juices with.

So: maybe you're not as weird here as you think?

A trope about bookish guys seems true enough: the slightly neurotic, no-makeup, no-girly-girl clothes: HOT!

Woody Allen wrote about this in his hilarious piece "The Whore of Mensa" from Without Feathers, a put-on of hardboiled detective stories, only this is about a call-girl ring that provides female intellectuals to guys who aren't mentally stimulated by their wives or girlfriends. Viz:

The detective makes a call to the Madame, saying he'd like a girl to come over and discuss Melville with him. They discuss price. Symbolism's extra. Comparing Melville to Hawthorne is extra.

"You want a blonde or a brunette?"

"Surprise me," I said, and hung up.

I shaved and grabbed some black coffee while I checked over the Monarch College Outline series. Hardly an hour had passed before there was a knock on my door. I opened it, and standing there was a young redhead who was packed into her slacks like two big scoops of vanilla ice cream.

"Hi, I'm Sherry."

They really knew how to appeal to your fantasies. Long straight hair, leather bag, silver earrings, no make-up.

"I'm surprised you weren't stopped, walking into a hotel dressed like that," I said. "The house dick can usually spot an intellectual."

"A five spot cools him."

Psuke said...

OMG, as a female, I'd totally love something like that for myself! I thought, once, that maybe OKCupid might manage, but was devastatingly disappointed. What can I say? I was desperate for a *conversation.* And I find, generally, and more so as I get older, that I am like Roxanne in Cyrano de Begerac: a "unattractive" person can become far more appealing and an "attractive" person can become a troll depending on what comes out of their mouth. Often I don't even consider a person "attractive" on that level *until* I've heard them say something interesting.

I do suspect I am not that weird (concerning aesthetically attractive vs. sexually attractive), but it's hard to know, since pop kulchur (what I bother to pay pay attention to, anyway) sort of screams the opposite.

It's hard to speak to the "perception" of my attractiveness, since as an adolescent I suffered the "normal" condition of thinking myself "ugly", even while being aware that others didn't think me so. It took a lot of effort on my part to break that perception. But I consider myself lucky to be "reasonably" attractive inasmuch as I can clean up nice when I want, and the rest of the time I can sort of fade into the background, and as a woman who likes her private space even in public that is an amazing gift.

michael said...

My single female friends call it "OK Stupid" but they still seem to think it's their best hope.

I'm not sure if Amanda Hess is right here: Tinder plus FB will make online dating obsolete soon?:

My take on a lot of this perception/beauty/stuff: we ought to always be as aware as we can possibly be about what pop kulch has done to us, consider some evolutionary biology fudge factor, then just be who we are, and not worry about being pretty...

...Easier said than done when our erotic lives aren't seeing the action they need.

I remember growing up with some girls who kept saying they were ugly or unattractive, while I thought they were quite arresting. And so I thought they must be fishing for compliments, and I always gave them. Therefore, I was "nice" and never "got any".

It took me years to realize they probably really did have a warped perception of their own beauty. This really made me think: what was it about our kulch that would make pretty girls believe they weren't good enough?

I wish I knew then what I do now: for one, goddammit: throw away those fashion magazines: you have gay males deciding that hetero women aren't beautiful unless they're a size zero, at least 5'10" and with little-girl-like cheekbones. It's insane!

But it all marches on. This ongoing thing of young girls making YouTube vids asking, "Am I pretty?" Oy vey ist mir!

As a guy who always had a very rough time approaching women, I often wonder about the opposite: very pretty women who get hit on 20 times a day, everywhere they go. What's it like?

I have _some_ relative insight here: when in my early 20s women watched me rehearse with my rock bands...they came on strong to me; I was some piece of meat (with massive hair but not-very-good skin); it was really pleasant. But then at some point I wondered: WHY is me holding/playing a guitar such a game-changer? It's absurd.

There is no democracy in beauty, and I don't expect any sort of fairness in that whole system. What I want is some obvious flaws with intelligence, kindness, sex-positiveness and a sense of humor...maybe because that describes myself? (HA!)

Thanks for your thoughtful comments here, Roxanne...errr...Psuke I mean.