Overweening Generalist

Monday, February 13, 2012

Of the Quantification of Beauty, Part 3

Before I do my usual and write far too much (let's face it: you have better things to do), make sure you come back to the top of this post (which means right where you're reading now), and find out, via some pretty well-established neurobiological data, what your own "Sex I.D." profile is, by doing a series of tests that will last around 20-30 minutes. I've seen a lot of this kind of stuff in my research, but this one is the best. It's HERE. At the bottom, click on "Take the Sex I.D. Test" I'll show you my androgynous results if you're interested...

                                 Miss Venezuela/Miss World 2011: Ivian Sarcos: get a load 
                                                of that "symmetry"!

Sexual Dimorphism and Facial Symmetry
In my previous riffings on beauty and the attempt to quantify it, we found that a certain symmetry seems to hold. But what is "sexual dimorphism"? Basically: males looking "masculine" and females looking "feminine." For example: a guy with a pronounced brow and square jaw with his arm around the waist of a female with big eyes and full lips. This is a noticeably sexually dimorphic couple. But why are these phenotypic characters attractive? Well, it's a hot topic, and Anthony Little and colleagues think they might have the answer. Do the attractive features you see in another indicate 1.) their genetic quality? 2.) fertility? or maybe it's 3.) visual experience simply; seeing someone hot is simply that: it's not about some "occult" or hidden or unconscious signals from the genotype?

Turns out - according to Little and his team - that it's #1 and #2 above. Symmetry and sexual dimorphism  seem linked, too. There seems to be a biological mechanism that links them, not only across cultures, but in primates. Facial symmetry and sexual dimorphism do indeed seem to be markers for health. Another study about females along these lines is HERE. Note this last one has a twist: female facial femininity may be linked to some aspects of disease resistance but not others. There's a test at Little's site and I took it, but it seemed like the silent videos of young people talking, where you rate them on a scale of attractiveness from 1 to 7, loaded far too slowly. His test stuff is HERE.

What about checking out bodies? For going on four years now, 3-D imaging of entire bodies - to more precisely assess symmetries and asymmetries - have been studied at places like Brunel University in London. They developed what they call "body masculinity," which means, roughly and as I understand it: if you're a female you tend to prefer males of greater height, wider shoulders, smaller breasts, and shorter legs; where males look for someone shorter, not wide shoulders, larger breasts (duh?), and longer legs. The researchers there are saying that we may not notice asymmetries, so nature has also plugged in some extra "hints" for us: curvy waist lines, broad shoulders, smooth dance moves, etc.

If you've read Plato, for example, you might be saying to yourself, "What's the big deal with all this hoo-ha about symmetry and beauty and and all that? Plato was writing about it in the 4th century BCE." Yes. But it wasn't a precise "science," as it supposedly is now.

By the way, the bigtime Chinese philosopher Mencius also thought we had an innate feeling for symmetry and beauty. See HERE.

A Dissenting View
Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian says that symmetry and perfection can be disturbing. Yea, but just look at his tiny mug shot next to his column. (Or look at mine, on the right side of this page.) Of course he'd say that, you may be thinking, 'cuz he's no George Clooney/Daniel Craig/nameyourfavoritehunkhere. Right, but I also see his point. Let me elaborate a bit.

I have known women who had big noses and for some reason I found them attractive. I knew a Dutch woman in college who was over 6 feet 2 inches: taller than me, and she had small breasts but she was sort of big-boned and clunky. And I thought she was hot. I could go on with my personal stuff here - a gal with a prominent mole that somehow seemed to improve an average face - but I'll stop. I think I asked myself, "Am I really attracted to these features, or have I picked up a fairly strong vibe that she'd be open to a roll in the hay with me, so I seem to find her flaws 'attractive,' or am I truly attracted to these 'flaws'?"

I don't know, but it seems a good bet that - and this is based on research too - her seeming "open-ness" made me find her flaws engaging.

I like how Burkeman brings up the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, or the beauty in imperfection. But then there's a trick there: we have to decide to not analyze too much if something seems  faux wabi-sabi or not. And as he says, far too many things are (faux) these days.

I've noticed something "disturbing" about my seeming inability to give a beautiful female (stand-up, sketch, sitcom) comic performer the "room" they deserve, as comediennes. I don't like it, it's unfair to Olivia Munn, Aisha Tyler, Laura San Giacomo and a few others. If I find them gorgeous enough, those circuits in my brain seem to inhibit the "hey, that's funny" circuits. It's weird. Every time I see Aisha Tyler, I say to myself, "Now, forget she's that gorgeous. She's funny too. She's hilarious, witty, snide..."
And I fail. Time for another pic, so may as well be Aisha:

The Unit of Measurement of Beauty
It's the Helen. One millihelen is enough to launch a ship; let the math follow from there. I read most of the Wikipedia article I linked to two sentences ago; I didn't see Robert Anton Wilson mentioned; I thought maybe he had coined the "Helen" as a unit of measurement for beauty, but I couldn't confirm. He did make the "Spelvin" the unit of measurement of "sincerity in sexual pleasure," from Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy.

Fashion Models and Barbie
Regardless all this positivistic measurement and biology, there seems at least some aspect of culture that has some gravitational effects on all...this. Let's look at fashion models and how they've changed since 1992. According to this article from Plus Model/Utne Reader, the average fashion model weighed 8% less than the average woman in 1992; today she weighs 23% less. Today's models very often meet the criteria for anorexia nervosa. WHO is choosing these models? Is this overweening skinniness being foisted upon the public? Do we really like that look best? Or is the fashion-model business sort of like the Art World: insular and to be admired from outside for their "show"?

Check out the lower half of this article. I find it amusing, but I found almost everything by the late William R. Corliss, amusing. Died in 2011. He was one of the great compilers of information that was representing something against-the-grain, anomalistic, or enlightening in some way. I marvel at a Corliss book. To me, he's right there with Charles Fort. Anyway: Barbie. We have, as a species, selected for these beautiful attributes, and at one long, long time ago, our ancestors were pug-fugly. Ken and Barbie are exteriorizations of our collective yearn for oodles of symmetry and sexual dimorphism. Or something like that. But because of symmetry and sexual choice (mostly by women), we have Barbie (and Ken) as ideals. (There may have been a tricky logical fallacy in there somewhere, so watch out!) And sombunall postmodernist/Culture Studies professors would say Barbie and Ken are about the White Male power structure, but all our symmetry studies say: no...

Because "it's hot in here" only because we have a sense of what "it's cold in here" might be like, I must discuss ugly people - or the non-beautiful, or those with "appearance deficits" - in order to leave this all properly aligned in some way.

Next time. Now go back uptop and do that BBC "Sex I.D. Test" thingy.

Here's Aisha Tyler doing stand-up for 50 seconds, in time for Valentine's Day:


brev said...

There could be a memetic aspect that goes along with the genetic aspect: If the Left/Right brains control the Right/Left body, then perhaps the more balanced the brain duality is, the more symmetrical the body muscular tension will be, thus, more beautiful. Someone firing on all 8 circuits would be more "beautiful" than someone firing on only the 4 "larval" circuits? Maybe.

michael said...

I like this idea a lot. I'm not sure when anyone will do a study on it, but why wait for studies, really? We have our intuitions and quirks. Leary and especially RAW emphasized that people who have taken a heavy imprint on the 5th circuit are "beautiful" and really sexy; they make us feel good just being in their presence. I saw Drew Barrymore on The Daily Show not long ago, and thought, "She always seems 'turned on': happy in her skin, smiling, a smile in her speech, playful, and glowing." And no doubt she's "experienced," in the Hendrix sense...

Psuke said...

I am always very leery about the claims of Evolutionary Psychologists...it looks good on paper, but it seems that there is too little account taken of modern bias and other hidden assumptions.

Just how "sexually" attractive is a face floating in a void? And babies may like to look at symmetrical faces, but I highly doubt they are getting turned on...in a mating sense. The plumbing isn't really hooked up for that yet.

Then, of course, you've got the problem that Mary roach talked about in "Bonk" - what you get in a lab isn't really what you get in "the real world". The artificiality of the lab (or a study devoid of the usual social and physical contexts) is going to skew the results in odd ways.

I also wonder how many people, if they met someone/thing that looked like Barbie on an adult scale would actual be repulsed? My guess is (based on the unnaturalness of her proportions) most. What works for a doll or a cartoon probably doesn't work for a flesh and blood person.

michael said...


I see Ev Psych as potential Just-So stories, but also as a legitimate competing - and at times quite edifying - set of discourses.

What so much of this Heideggerian mathematicization of the world misses is: why do we find beauty in something that most other people miss? (I would bracket mom's love for ugly offspring.)

I loved Mary Roach's Bonk. Gawd, she's funny, and a wonderful gonzo-ish popularizer of scientific ideas.

I recall a bit in that book where she convinced her husband to take part in a study of sexual arousal - or intercourse? - in some confined tube, so the sexologist can measure the blood flow or something...It reminds me of when I watch porno and find myself saying, "I could do that! I'm just as good as that guy!...I wonder what it pays?", etc: and then I think about the director, boom operator, camera people...could I really perform under those conditions? Probably not. Probably not very well for porn's requirements. The context is all wrong.

In fact, when I was much younger I could meet some gal and have sex immediately: she's hot, she's into me, no problem. Now: this seems almost unthinkable. Almost. I seem to really need to have some emotional connection first, which takes much more time than "Hi I'm Michael, how are you doing?" to clothes-off and...bonk.

There is some horrid chick named Heidi something that looks like Barbie. She's young and has had all sorts of plastic surgery. I think if I were in the same room I'd be creeped out. But she's also an idiot when she opens her mouth, so...

Psuke said...

I suspect that there is a certain...questioning of pop kulchur and the "givens" of the subconscious that turn us on, as it were, to thing overlooked by others. Or at least it contributes. Steps on the path of individuation? Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part?

michael said...

My perception is that the majority would barely understand what we're talking about.

"You're talking about who hot and who not, right? Well lemme tell ya man: [celebrity X] and [celebrity x1] are hot; people be thinking, like [celebrity x2] be all hot 'n shit, but she ain't. Word!"

I hear variations of this all the time: naive realism: what MY perceptions tune into is The Reality; everyone who differs is wrong, crazy, stupid, obstinate, etc.

Neither you nor I, Psuke, are "normal." Thank Gawdess! I confess I do worry about the clueless, but I'm wasting energy when I do so. If someone gains insight or perspective from something I said or wrote, cool. But I can't let my..."self esteem"? be affected by my not fixing the world enough.

I'm bothered that certain of the weird ones - the creative class - are not only not being nurtured by the society our class is supposed to benefit, but society seems to be putting much of its creative class in biosurvival jeopardy, mostly through hellaciously unjust economic ideas.

I don't see anything wrong with wishful thinking; it seems to be a potentially progressive mode of creativity. Once you're on the path of conscious individuation, you're already alienating yourself from the mainstream.

I'd like to THINK my idiosyncrasies and eccentricities are part of individuation, but I suspect whatever story I tell myself is part of my own...narrative.

Psuke said...

I definitely agree with your perception regarding the "creative class" in this country at this time. If it cannot be immediately commidified, it seems, it cannot get funded. Which is both sad and terrifying given how many creative ideas do fuel economic boosts of some stripe or another further down the line...how many opportunities are being flushed now, I wonder?

Not that I think an economic justification ought to be *necessary*, mind you. That kind of puritanical, capitalist superstitious twaddle should have been thrown overboard *ages ago*, IMNSHO. But try getting even most "creative" people to agree with you, if you bring it up...


michael said...

Psuke: before I forget: feel free to drop a link to your own blog or writing here; I for one would love to read your stuff.

Yes: with the creative class (of which we're talking about those not adept at writing code and inventing video games or new technology, with is obviously creative and pays at times insanely well...oh hell: let's generalize it for possibly heuristic purposes: we're not talking about the technical intelligentsia here) we seem to be relegating an entire mass of adepts in poetic writing, dance, MUSIC, theater, painting and plastic arts...into the margins of history. For all but a tiny percent of this class it's a constant hustle. And I see no signs of anything balancing things out on the horizon. We're wasting the talent of a very large group of people in the omniephemeralization effort: if you're not working for Google or Apple or Twitter or Facebook or some other company that uses computers, codes and math at a high level, designing genetic algorithms to model nanotech applications in the field of informatics...no one wants to know about you. And good luck paying your rent.

But you hit on an issue that's huge for me lately: this posited creative class (I obviously mean a slightly different "creative class" than Richard Florida means when he uses the term) seems to not know enough about the material underpinning of its own already marginal existence. So when you talk about Basic Income they think you're putting them on. Cite thinkers on the "right" "left" and in between who've taken the idea seriously and they often don't know who they are. Various ideas surrounding a Universal Basic Income seem to me to reside at the center of the world of the creative class, but possibly because of deeply ingrained Protestant Work Ethic or basic cultural brainwashing - I'd eat Werner Herzog's shoe if 60 Minutes does a segment on UBI and gives it a fair hearing - it's not going to be a popular meme, reflected in popular kulch...unless we make it a meme.

There's a lot riding on how we use metaphors and explain what Real Wealth is vs. Money, it seems to me. How to cut through all the "puritanical capitalist superstitious twaddle"?

Psuke said...

If I had a blog (or other online version of sustained writing) I would! I suspect the cross-commenting would be highly mentally stimulating...but so far I have not yet made the blog plunge.

I hear you in regards to the metaphor. It does not help at all that most of the popular of the pop kulchur "discusses" these ideas in such a way as to be entirely dismissive, and I have noticed that most of the time, when characters are interested in coming up with a new way of organizing society they are portrayed as a) pathetically idealistic or b) fanatically violent and narcissistic. This drives me up a tree as I suspect this colors the watcher's subsequent forays into research of these topics. Assuming they ever do research, that is.

michael said...

I think you're right - based on my own experiences - but I think when things get really bad and more and more educated people who "played by the rules" find it more and more difficult to make ends meet, their minds will open up to any ideas that promise a measure of succor and relief.

"Capitalism" and "Socialism" being merely very highly abstracted words, almost meaningless, the biological imperative seems to override prior conditioning about abstract nouns, or what is Human Life for?