Re: the beauty myth

Gerold Firl (
4 May 1995 13:08:20 -0700

In article <3nfmn5$> (absolut skeptic) writes:

> Most studies by biologists and psychologists seem to point
>toward an innate preconceived idea of attractiveness. Babies and people
>across cultural and racial differences seem to agree on who is beautiful
>and who is not. Specific features of the face have also been identified
>as the composites of a beautiful face.

Could you be more specific on this? My impression is that there are
significant interactions between heredity and learned behavior in
establishing norms of beauty. While it seems quite plausible that there are
inate norms, it also appears that they are subject to major modification as
a result of enculturation. We have only to look at the wide variety of body
modifications which are perceived as enhancements to natural beauty; neck
stretchers, ear, lip, and nose plugs; cranial deformation, etc. Individuals
who have not been properly acculturated into these norms often find them
repellant, while practicioners apparently do not. (Anyone know of data on
the subjective experience of the esthetic of body modification? In a
culture where neck lip plugs are the custom, are people without them
perceived as _less_ attractive as a result? Or are lip plugs merely
tolerated? I haven't seen data on this question, but clearly we can
conclude that the beauty norms are malleable.)

> Papers based on these data commonly have a commentary that goes
>like : ... contrary to the common stereotype that "beauty is merely in
>the eye of the beholder".... & ... widely believed that beauty is an
>arbitrary cultural convention may not be true...etc

In my opinion, beauty is a perception based on the evaluation of fitness.
It has instinctive roots, and is directly linked to the endrocrine system.
As such, it is inate and biological. However, the evaluation of fitness
will be influenced by learned behavior, which is formed by cultural
conventions which are, to some extent, arbitrary.

For instance, if distinguishible physical traits can be correlated with
social status, then the cultural ideal of beauty will shift in that
direction. These traits will be associated with higher fitness, and hence
will be perceived as more beautiful. (Note: "fitness" is a term taken
directly from evolutionary biology. It relates to probability of
reproductive success; to treat it within an ethical or moral framework is a

Looking at it from the other perspective, beauty has clear biological
underpinnings. If you've ever seen a human with chromosome damage, you will
note that they are physically unattractive, especially their face. The
perception of beauty (or in this case, unloveliness) is a signal from our
evolutionary past which helps to identify suitable breeding partners.

> Now, I know the cliche "beauty is in the eye of beholder" has been
>a long-held belief in our society, but I'm interested in how the theory
>of beauty being the influence of culture, media and society has become
>a widely believed notion in modern society. Who might be the first to
>suggest it ?? and how have they backed up their theory.

The idea of abstract beauty first appears in the historical record in
classical greece. I'm guessing at around 500 bc. Campbell, in _occidental
mythology_, quotes some of the sources. The idea that beauty is in the eye
of the beholder, and that it is only skin deep, appears to have been around
even then.

Of course, the greeks were a people of nature, and associated beauty with
the natural world (and I'm including the human form as part of the natural
world) more so than we do today. The idea that beauty is a commodity
manufactured by industrial combines is a very recent fantasy, held by a
small minority of alienated mannequins posing in the shop windows of the
Waste Land Boutique.

> Also, I'm interested in how ideas of beauty have changed over
>time. Thanx.

An interesting question. Not just how they have changed over time, but how
they vary across cultures and races.

An obvious reseach technique is to examine representations of individuals
or divinities which are associated with love, lust, and beauty, such as
aphrodite, helen, or the heavenly asparas (sp?) of hindu iconography. Such
comparisons must be made with caution, since stylistic limitations of form
and skill are imponderable, but it's probably the best technique

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
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=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf