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Originally published on September-October 2001

Survival of the Prettiest

The Science of Beauty

          Forget the myths about beauty; it isn’t skin-deep, or in the eye of the beholder, or ‘culturally constructed.’ Our notion of beauty is ancient and universal, embedded in our genes, a Stone Age body scan brimming with information about health and fertility. Nancy Etcoff, in her thought-provoking and hugely entertaining book Survival of the Prettiest, provides a lucid, authoritative guide to these latest insights of Darwinian science.

          Philosophers ponder it and pornographers proffer it. Asked why people desire physical beauty, Aristotle said, “No one that is not blind could ask that question.” Beauty ensnares hearts, captures minds, and stirs up emotional wildfires. From Plato to pinups, images of human beauty have catered to a limitless desire to see and imagine an ideal human form.

          Many intellectuals however, would have us believe that beauty is inconsequential. Since it explains nothing, solves nothing, and teaches us nothing, it should not have a place in intellectual discourse. And we are supposed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. After all, the concept of beauty has become an embarrassment.

          But there is something wrong with this picture. Outside the realm of ideas, beauty rules. Nobody as stopped looking at it, and no one has stopped enjoying the sight. We can say beauty is dad, but all that does is widen the chasm between the real world and our understanding of it.

What is Beauty and How Do We Know It?

Beauty is a basic pleasure. Try to imagine that you have become immune to beauty. Chances are, you would consider yourself unwell – sunk in a physical, spiritual, or emotional malaise. The absence of response to physical beauty is one sign of profound depression – so prevalent that the standard screening measures for depression include a question about changes in the perception of one’s own physical attractiveness. But what is beauty? As you will see, no definition can capture it entirely. Aaron Spelling, creator of “Charlie’s Angels”, “Baywatch” and “Melrose Place”, said, “I can’t define it, but I know it when it walks into the room.” A top modeling agency executive was more descriptive; “It’s when someone walks in the door and you almost can’t breathe. It doesn’t happen often. You can feel it rather than see it. It’s someone you literally cannot walk past in the street.”

Beauty as Bait

Queen Victoria of England, mother or nine, once said, “An ugly baby is a very nasty object.” Perhaps she was just voicing her Victorian disdain for untidy, ill-mannered creatures. For most people, there are no ugly babies, just as there are no ugly puppies or ugly brides. All babies are cute, or at least to their parents, who find them so from the second they are born.

However, there are slight differences in the way mothers act during their newborn’s first few days of life, and some of this behavior is in response to the baby’s appearance. Psychologists videotaped mothers and infants within days after the baby’s birth and then three months later. They also had a separate set of observers look at color photographs of the babies and rate their attractiveness.

They found that the mothers of the most attractive newborns spent the most time holding the baby close, staring into the baby’s eyes and vocalizing to the baby. They needed to be forcibly unglued in order to pay attention to anyone else. The mothers of the less attractive newborns spent more time tending to the baby’s needs (wiping, burping, checking, adjusting, and so on) and had their attention deflected more easily. They were not neglectful, but they seemed more reserved in their affection and a little less swept of their feet.

Appearance and Reality

Life would be much easier if we retained the compelling power of appearance that we have as babies. As we leave infancy, we lose the protection cuteness affords. Our white tail tuft gone, we face the world unshielded; adult beauty is a great advantage, but it protects few, not the many.

We face a world where lookism is one of the most pervasive but denied of prejudices. People like to believe that looks don’t matter. But every marketing executive knows that packaging and image are as important as the product, if not more so.

Beauty as Status

Whether or not beautiful is good, beauty seems to bring goodness in others. In one psychologists study, seventy-five college men were shown photographs of women, some of whom were very attractive and others less so. They were asked to select the person they would be most likely to do the following for: help move the furniture, loan money, donate blood, swim one mile to rescue her, save her from a burning building, and even jump on a terrorist hand grenade men were most likely to volunteer for any of these altruistic and risky acts for a beautiful woman. The only thing they seemed reluctant to do for her was loan her money!

Good-looking people are more likely to win arguments and persuade others of their opinions. People divulge secrets to them and disclose personal information. Basically, people want to please the good-looking, making conciliatory gestures, letting themselves be persuaded telling them informative gossips, and backing off from them, literally as they walk down the street.

But perhaps people are awed by their confidence and assertiveness, not their looks. Perhaps they persuade by intelligence or force of personality. In fact, attractive people do tend to be more at ease socially, more confident, and less likely to fear negative opinions that unattractive people. They are more likely to think than they are in control of their lives rather than pawns of fate and circumstances, and they are apt to be more assertive.

To Whom Much Is Given, Much is Expected

We expect attractive people to be better at everything from piloting a plane to being good in bed. We guess 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.

The expectations start in childhood. Teachers in four hundred classrooms in Missouri were given a report card of a fifth-grade student, including grades, evaluation of attitude, work habits, and attendance. The only variant was the attached photograph of the child – an attractive or unattractive boy or girl. Despite the wealth of information about behavior and performance, looks swayed opinions. The teachers expected good-looking children to be more intelligent and more sociable and popular with their peers. What is more disturbing is that good-looking students often do get better grades. When the subjective aspects of grading are removed and grades are based solely on standardized texts, the advantage disappears.

Packing Heat

But in the sexual domain, the importance of looks cannot be overestimated. People expect attractive people to be very popular, socially confident and at ease. They also expect them to be sexually exciting, responsive, experienced, and adventurous. Men expect beautiful women to have a high sex drive and prefer variety n sex. People assume that good lookers of both sexes have more dates, fall in love more often, and start their sex lives earlier.

As we have seen, the expectations for social confidence and social ease are true, even if they are just self-fulfilling prophecies. Even four-year-olds and ten-year-olds desire good-looking children as friends. Once they reach dating age, both good looking men and women are more popular with the opposite sex. They have more dates, more opportunities for dalliance, and they get more attention. Friendship is another story. Good-looking women in particular encounter trouble with other women. They are less liked by other women, even other good-looking women.

People have high expectations of beautiful adults and children, men and women. But as we shall see, beauty plays at a particularly important role in sex and reproduction. We will look more closely at this advantage. And after cataloguing the privileges of beauty, it may seem silly to as if beauty makes us any happier but I will pose the question anyway. (to be continued…)