Beauty is Not in the Beholder

The “beauty myth” holds that attractiveness is a cultural construct, a control mechanism of the patriarchy, a way to sell us cosmetics we do not need. Modern social theory says that the beauty of the face and body depends on when and whom you ask, and that we could learn to love anyone if only our iron-maiden social norms permitted it. This is a pleasing thought. It says that accidents of ancestry do not truly count. Unfortunately, when we actually do the experiments and test nature versus nurture in the case of facial attractiveness, genetics wins. Facial beauty is, quite emphatically, not culturally defined.

The best survey is a meta-analysis by Langlois and colleagues, published in the Psychological Bulletin in 2000. They did an exhaustive search of the experimental literature on facial “attractiveness” and ended up including 919 separate experiments on how attractiveness is perceived, how we judge ourselves and others based on attractiveness, and how attractive versus unattractive people actually behave. It turns out that facial beauty is “real” in the sense that it does not depend on who you ask; ratings of attractiveness are very stable across ethnicities, cultures, age, and gender:

Both our cross-cultural and cross-ethnic agreement effect sizes are more than double the size necessary to be considered large, suggesting a possibly universal standard by which attractiveness is judged. These analyses seriously question the common assumption that attractiveness ratings are culturally unique and merely represent media-induced standards. These findings are consistent with the fact that even young infants prefer the same faces as adults.

If beauty was a cultural construct, we would expect different cultures to rate the same people differently. However, we might imagine that global media has erased the diversity that used to exist. This is why the experiments with children and babies are so important: if beauty is learned, then children would have to learn it, presumably beginning in early childhood. Yet the age of the beholder seems not to matter at all in subjective rankings of the attractiveness of others, and even newborn babies will look longer at photographs of people that adults have judged “attractive.” This cannot be learned behavior.

When we check the evidence, (facial) beauty standards seem to be universal and innate (biological). Doubtless, this is going to upset some people.

Here is what I think happened: we saw beauty used as a weapon. We saw women especially destroying their self-image under the assumption that they were ugly. Capitalism grew up around selling to our insecurities, and yes, the patriarchy said that girls were only as valuable as their looks. In defense, we decided that beauty was a myth. We tried to escape from these traps by telling ourselves that the object of contention didn’t exist.

But it does. Some people really are more beautiful than others, says our universal physiological nature. Accepting this implies a new social project. Rather than trying to teach ourselves that beauty does not exist, perhaps we should be trying to decouple value from beauty. It’s not that everyone is equally attractive, it’s just that attractiveness, like intelligence, doesn’t actually make you a “better” person. The corollary is that it’s worth understanding what roles beauty actually plays in human life, both cultural and psychological. What emotions does a beautiful face trigger in others? What assumptions are made? What does beauty actually do? While beauty may be objective, our reactions to it may still be learned.

The situation is somewhat analogous to the violent impulses that everyone is capable of: rather than pretending that anger doesn’t exist, we learn to deal with it in some healthy way. Similarly, it seems to me to be far healthier in the long run to acknowledge that beauty, at least facial beauty, is real and universal. To the best of our knowledge so far, this also has the advantage of being true.