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Michael R. Spicher on the Origins of Beauty Standards

Published August 7, 2022
Published August 7, 2022
Alexander Krivitskiy via Unsplash

In the first installment of his ongoing series for BeautyMatter, academic and Aesthetics Research Lab founder Michael R. Spicher delves into the science and philosophy of beauty.

Beauty standards dominate many discussions about the fashion and beauty industries. The discussions home in on people employing standards to oppress, control, or influence women. Or some accuse companies of lying about the benefits of their products to enforce a standard. Regardless, people’s use of “beauty standard” encompasses too wide a field of rules, guidelines, or suggestions. But discussions about beauty standards rarely delve into their origin. Whatever we think about any specific standards—like a company declaring the fall color is cerulean—the basic ideas about beauty did not arise in a boardroom. Well before marketing teams and modeling agencies existed, people thought beauty consisted of things like proportion and radiance. Rather than being invented, recent science claims that beauty standards originate in our biology and psychology. How these standards are applied in particular times and contexts, however, is a matter for the various industries and cultures.

By the early ’90s, beauty as merely socially constructed rose to dominate culture. Backed with longstanding clichés, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, people believed they had, perhaps, solved the beauty conundrum. It was pure figment. This development culminated after a couple hundred years of philosophy that pointed the way to this belief. All of this helped undo the longer history that largely asserted an objective notion of beauty, from ancient philosophy through the Middle Ages and beyond.

With this backdrop, psychologist Nancy Etcoff challenged this understanding with her book The Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, published in 1999. In this book, Etcoff offers another picture about beauty. She’s concerned that thinking these industries dictate women’s behavior and preferences “is tantamount to saying that women are not only powerless but mindless.” While we should be concerned if industries are deceiving about their products, they did not create the core instincts and preferences that comprise beauty. We should seek out this basis for beauty to better understand the impositions of industry.

Etcoff illustrates through an insightful discussion that industries employ and exploit beauty standards that attract people, based on their biology and psychology. She highlights that knowing about our natural drives toward beauty helps us overcome the attempts of others to manipulate our drives and our own tendencies to favor “more attractive” people. To clarify the meaning of “attractive,” the beauty of human faces has been well established for a long time. Based on studies from different cultures over time,  when presented with different faces in a test setting, people repeatedly pick the same kinds of faces as most attractive.  Therefore "attractive" in this context is more descriptive, rather than a definition. Part of our current problem is that medical and scientific knowledge progressed much faster than the evolutionary development of our genes and brains, which partially explains why we continue to have instincts that may no longer be necessary.

For decades, perhaps beginning with Twiggy, models maintained thin bodies that seemed almost unachievable by the average woman. Only recently, companies started showing models with different-sized bodies a little more regularly. To counter this preference, people often point to times in the past or to other cultures where more voluptuous women were the preference. Anjan Chatterjee, in The Aesthetic Brain, offers a partial explanation of why these differences occur. Scholars call it the environmental security hypothesis. People associate lower weight with high status in societies where food and resources are plentiful, but the preference for larger women exists in places where food and resources are scarce. In these regions with scarce resources, a woman with more body fat will have the extra bodily resources to bear children. These subconscious instincts nudge us toward these preferences. Our brains understand that a man’s relationship with a woman is not solely about reproduction, but instincts are not rational. We need both.

As further evidence that beauty is not solely created by culture, Etcoff and many others have shown that when babies’ brains are scanned, their brains exhibit the same behavior as adults when shown attractive faces. And babies stare longer at pictures of attractive faces than less attractive faces. It’s a bit disturbing that babies, in a sense, are judging our looks too—although not so much the looks of their caregivers. (Don’t worry, parents.) But even though we possess an affinity toward certain faces at birth, as we perceive more people in the world, some details shift or become more prominent in our minds.

This works because our brains collect the data of every face we see and determine an average based on all those faces. That average, in a sense, becomes the standard of a beautiful face for us. But Etcoff explains that the mechanism that averages the beauty of faces works the same way for each person, but each person possesses a different set of faces in their mind’s dataset. If your brain’s set of faces comprises mostly people of a given ethnicity, then you’ll favor people from that ethnicity. But, according to research, you’ll still, more or less, rank faces from another culture the same way as anyone else from any other culture.

To help explain why, G. Gabrielle Starr offers this explanation in Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience: “Facial symmetry, in this view, signals reproductive health, and facial attractiveness is the felt consequence of the value of reproductive success; a sinuous line of trees in the distance signals a fresh watercourse and so on.” People’s biology possesses instincts about the appearances of other people and environments, which were necessary for survival in the distant past. We cannot control that we have these instincts. With new understandings and developments, we overcome some of the issues that previously we would have fled from. For example, imagine a visible skin condition that at some point scared people away because they didn’t understand it. And now medical knowledge shows us that some of these ingrained aversions or fears are unwarranted.

By exploring the basis of our drive for beauty, I do not claim that the industries are innocent. They have exploited this common human drive for profit. Since beauty drives people so potently, companies can manipulate people fairly easily. In all this, beauty is innocent. Our instincts for beauty remain neutral as well. How we respond to and shape these instincts takes the greater place of importance than the instincts themselves. Whenever you feel that pull toward beauty or away from perceived unattractiveness, you realize these tendencies arise from your pre-scientific ancestors' struggle for self-preservation. That isn’t the end of it. By thinking about why you have these tendencies and by being intentional about developing your taste through experiences, you nudge your instincts in new directions and form new habits.


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