What It Means to Be Beautiful
At the trial of Phryne in 350 BC, the courtesan, who was acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful women in Athens, had been accused of defaming the gods and was losing the case, and was about to be sentenced to die. Standing before the jury, she shed her clothing and stood before them naked. Would the gods, she asked, have created something so beautiful and allow her to do anything that would merit its destruction? The jury acquitted her, and the term “Phryne’s trial” went down the centuries and came to mean equating beauty with truth or goodness. The Athenian courts also went on to ban “defense by nudity.”
Although it goes by different names these days (psychologists call this cognitive bias the physical attractiveness stereotype or the “halo effect”), we still tend to believe beautiful people are not just smarter or more successful, but also more honest, trustworthy, and virtuous, while those on the other end the scale are “ugly as sin.” This isn’t true, of course: good-looking people can be as good or as mendacious and mean-spirited as anyone, and are often narcissistic and manipulative; it’s just that they can get away with it more because we let them. What has changed, though, is the idea of beauty as a divine gift: if not from the Greek gods, then from a creator who makes good and beautiful people on one hand and wretched and ugly people on the other. A consequence of the theory of natural selection is the secularization of beauty: it’s not a gift from God, but simply good genes.
Although it goes by different names these days (psychologists call this cognitive bias the physical attractiveness stereotype or the “halo effect”), we still tend to believe beautiful people are not just smarter or more successful, but also more honest, trustworthy, and virtuous, while those on the other end the scale are “ugly as sin.”
Our modern understanding of what makes a woman beautiful stems from this. The current trend is for beautiful women to be tall, fair but tanned, and thin (think Karlie Kloss); the de-emphasis on large breasts and wide, fertile hips may reflect the trend against reproduction in contemporary developed countries. The desire for thin over fat, for tanned skin over pale white, for strength of over delicacy might seem very current and anchored in the early 21st century, but they have been present at some point or another throughout history. Ancient Egypt and Victorian England both esteemed a slim silhouette; the Roman Empire equated paleness with the barbarians of the north; Mongolian nomads preferred a woman with strong legs who could move quickly on a horse. So any delusions we might have that we have emerged into a contemporary and enlightened idea of the feminine ideal are entirely false; ours is simply the current iteration of a combination of cycles that have been recurring over the ages.
But what has changed, though, is the demography of modern societies, which are much more heterogeneous than they have ever been. We are programmed to like people who look like us. This has been confirmed by studies of dogs and their owners. If you’ve ever been amused at owners who seem to look like their dogs, this is not random; when choosing a breed, people naturally gravitate towards dogs that share their physical characteristics. Similarly, people tend to date people who are rather like themselves; not surprisingly, we tend to be attracted to our own kind. Mass migration, the diffusion of the image, and cultural dominance have changed all that. Although we are instinctively attracted to people from the same ethnic background, we are also attracted to the tall, light-skinned, blonde or brunette women who dominate television and movies, magazine advertisements, and of course pornography. There is a global normative idea of beauty, propagated by media, bolstered by cultural dominance.
So any delusions we might have that we have emerged into a contemporary and enlightened idea of the feminine ideal are entirely false; ours is simply the current iteration of a combination of cycles that have been recurring over the ages.
Race continues to be the elephant in the room when it comes to any discussion of beauty: specifically, a white elephant. China might make 75 percent of the world’s toys, but the dolls that come out of the factories, even for the domestic market, have the traditional blue eyes and blonde hair that Western-manufactured dolls have always sported. From an early age, both boys and girls are embedded with the specific idea of the female form: not just the hair and skin color (until recently, crayons included a color called “flesh”) but also the exaggerated slim silhouette, absurdly long legs, and long straight manes that these dolls have. The simple truth is that, ever since the easy diffusion of the image allowed beauty to become global, the norms of beauty of the regions that held political power during the post-industrial revolution (Northern Europe, and subsequently America through the lens of Hollywood) made white Caucasian the global standard of beauty.
For those outside of these regions, men were presented with a dual standard of beauty. For centuries there was no confusion about the duality: one was a mythical goddess, even if part masturbatory fantasy; but we are also naturally predisposed to be attracted to our own kind. The wall between the two came tumbling down because of exponentially increased migration because of globalization. In today’s large, cosmopolitan cities it is normal to meet and interact with people of different races on an everyday basis. Marital exogamy, or marrying outside one’s social group, is not just more common, but is increasing at an increasing rate. Mixed-race children will be more and more common as long as the trend for global migration continues. Although it seems crass to look at it this way, sociologists studying mating patterns view marriage in terms of a market: whiteness is an asset, but so are wealth, intelligence, and high status in the community (though unfortunately, being “just a really nice normal guy” isn’t). Beautiful people, somewhat unfairly, also tend to be more intelligent. This was the conclusion of a 2004 study by Prokoch, Yeo, and Miller, who found significant correlation between symmetry-an accepted proxy for beauty-and general intelligence.
There is a global normative idea of beauty, propagated by media, bolstered by cultural dominance.
The moment you see beauty as a form of capital, then you can see how it interacts with other forms of capital to replicate and accumulate itself. Beautiful women will attract (or, more properly, will choose from those whom she attracts) intelligent, successful, wealthy men. The next generation of good-looking children will have the advantage of a high household income and status, will attend good schools, and will in turn couple with good-looking and intelligent mates, creating an elite. In a perfect free market exchange model, beauty, intelligence, power, status, and class would consolidate themselves. Thank heavens, then, that the mating market is highly imperfect.
Meanwhile, the concepts of beauty have been mutating as well as the world shrinks: although still primarily white, the dilutions of the white gene pool that are the result of more liberal attitudes towards mixed marriages have resulted in arrestingly beautiful faces and figures. The popularity of Brazilian women like Alessandra Ambrosio and Adriana Lima who dominated the magazine beauty pages in the early 21st century actually shows what the future will look like: Brazil and many other countries in South America have been crucibles where white colonizers mixed freely with locals, as well as blacks, Arabs, and Asian immigrants. Olivia Munn’s diverse parentage has led to unexpected popularity across viewer demographics. This is where the relatively new understanding of beauty as a product of genetics rather than a gift of the gods bestowed on a favored individual comes in.
The moment you see beauty as a form of capital, then you can see how it interacts with other forms of capital to replicate and accumulate itself.
But if beauty is a product of good genes, then it can be manipulated. Eugenics has been the radical stepchild of the theory of natural selection. We remember it most as the driving force behind the genocide of the Jews in Germany and its surrounding countries, but it has had many incarnations in industrialized societies; many of them, actually, starting out with only the best of intentions to create a better kind of human being. But whether it is negative in execution (forced sterilization, mass murder) or positive (China and Singapore have incentives and subsidies for PhDs to mate, such as state-sponsored cruises where they put smart people out on a boat in the middle of nowhere and hope they copulate), the goal is the improvement of the genetic stock of a society.
But eugenics does not have to be state-sponsored; the idea of creating beauty has already embedded itself in the way we mate. In countries such as the Philippines, there are obvious advantages to having one’s children look more like the still-dominant ideal of beauty. Having a child with a (white) foreigner not only translates to a second passport and therefore opportunities for migration, but having a child with the natural advantage of good looks: Filipinos, like vodka, mix well. If you look at a photograph or illustration of a Manila street scene from the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th, Filipinos looked very different from the average mix you’ll find today, after the social walls between Filipino indios, Chinese immigrants, and previous Spanish colonizers collapsed. With around 10 to 12 percent of the population working abroad today, the racial profile will continue to change. The good news is that Filipina women will only get prettier; the bad news is that the same globalization will allow the prettiest ones to choose mates from a far wider international market. The French-Filipino Solenn Heussaff married an Argentinian industrialist, while Georgina Wilson, daughter of a British father and Filipino mother, married a posh British businessman.
Wurtzbach and Young have created a new Filipino dream, and millions of Filipino men and women see beauty-foreign-infused beauty-as a way to escape the cycle of poverty.
But while Heussaff, Wilson, and the still unmarried Australian-Filipino Anne Curtis might dominate the billboards by sheer number of ads, it’s the story of beauty pageant stars Megan Young and Pia Wurtzbach that dominate the popular imagination. While the former were all born into privileged backgrounds, Wurtzbach and Young were both children of middle or working-class women who married white foreigners: German and American, respectively. This genetic advantage translated into financial gain: Wurtzbach began working before her teens and supported her family after her parents separated. By riding the showbiz machinery all the way to the Miss Universe crown, Wurtzbach thumbed her nose (not that a beauty queen would ever stoop to that sort of behavior, of course) at all the old Spanish families who believed they had a premium on beauty in the Philippines; at the history of the Miss Universe title, which had been about breeding and manners and culture; and at the old fusty conservative Filipino middle class who still believed that the way forward was meritocracy, education, and a good husband. Wurtzbach was from a developing country, an unsuccessful marriage, and the poised, confident contestant was not the product of long sessions at boarding schools and salons, but a huge moneymaking showbiz machine. For better or for worse, Wurtzbach and Young have created a new Filipino dream, and millions of Filipino men and women see beauty-foreign-infused beauty-as a way to escape the cycle of poverty.
By riding the showbiz machinery all the way to the Miss Universe crown, Wurtzbach thumbed her nose (not that a beauty queen would ever stoop to that sort of behavior, of course) at all the old Spanish families who believed they had a premium on beauty in the Philippines; at the history of the Miss Universe title, which had been about breeding and manners and culture; and at the old fusty conservative Filipino middle class who still believed that the way forward was meritocracy, education, and a good husband.
If beauty is not ordained by the gods, and is the result of genetic selection, this means that anyone has the right to be gorgeous. As it so often happens, technology keeps pace with social changes, and the tools for physical transformation have never been so readily available. One of the more recent trends in beauty is the breaking of the taboo on plastic surgery. Even less than two decades ago the idea of dyeing one’s hair blonde was considered a little bit gauche; but today, plastic surgery, hair extensions, colored contact lenses, are all part of the dating arsenal. It is not so much that the line marking the boundary for artifice in beauty has shifted but has been rubbed out: it’s okay for women to look completely constructed, as long as they look hot.
Photoshop probably has something to do with it. While photographers will insist that image manipulation is as old as the darkroom, the ease and verisimilitude afforded by digital pixel editing is one fundamental cultural shift in the projection of beauty. While plastic surgery can only create a more beautiful artificial version of a woman, Photoshop can create an entire fantasy of perfect and unattainable beauty. Its power has rattled enough people to spark cultural wars, with opposers crying that the liquefy tool causes bulimia, and some magazines even gamely playing along by only publishing “real women”. But as long as it makes women look better, there’s no going back; it would be like asking civilization to continue using stone tools after the discovery of iron.
Those who defend the use of Photoshop usually fall back on the promise of moderation, or an obligatory disclaimer that the image being printed is not what was captured “in camera.” This is, ultimately, futile. The line between beauty that resides in the woman, however enhanced, as opposed to one that resides in the image of the woman, continues to grow less clearly delineated. By the time a magazine model is photographed she will have spent hours in hair and makeup, and before that weeks or months at the gym. They only look like that for a few seconds-or, with modern shutters, 1/125 of a second. Further darkening her eyelashes or enhancing the contour of her leg is simply continuing the work of building an illusion of beauty that began with selecting unnaturally tall and symmetrical persons to photograph in the first place. All beauty is contrivance to begin with; all that we see in magazines and billboards are fantasies. Photoshop places the ability to create a deity in the hands of the art director and his stylus.
Try as we might, the conflation of beauty with the divine continues in a secular age, when beauty has been democratized and everyone feels that they have a right to be beautiful.
The ultimate in the mise-en-scène of feminine beauty finds its expression every year in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which of late has gotten even slicker, showier, and sexier than ever. The last thing that the absolute top tier women of the modeling world are doing is presenting undergarments, just as the last thing that anyone is looking at are the clothes. The show is pure pageantry, the ultimate fantasy of heart-stoppingly beautiful women flaunting their unattainability with winks and air-kisses at the audience. One of the trademarks of this yearly ritual is that the models who walk this show are called “angels” and wear elaborate costumed wings, made of anything from real feathers to rolled gold. To present these women as mythical religious creatures makes no sense, but feels absolutely right,
Try as we might, the conflation of beauty with the divine continues in a secular age, when beauty has been democratized and everyone feels that they have a right to be beautiful. The stories of how the models were “discovered,” many in their early- to mid-teens, parallels the stories of divine apparitions or calls to sainthood, which in many mythologies happen during late childhood or early adolescence. The encounter takes place in the most prosaic of places, such as a supermarket or bus terminal, but the story is always the same: that they were gifted with extraordinary beauty and were found and brought into the light, to fame and adulation. They are like the incarnations of the Kumari, a pre-pubescent Nepalese goddess who must possess the 32 perfections: “a body of a banyan tree; the neck like a conch shell,” and must conform to certain measurements of the thighs and body, which must be free from physical blemish- not unlike what a casting director would look for on a model’s set card. The human propensity to worship the beautiful, to seek out the divine in physical beauty, continues to haunt us.
The human propensity to worship the beautiful, to seek out the divine in physical beauty, continues to haunt us.
Phryne lived out her life as a courtesan, and became so rich that she offered to pay for the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes after their destruction by Alexander the Great. Her likeness survives as the model for the statue of Aphrodite by Praxiteles, which became the basis for subsequent sculptures. You will recognize it easily-it is everywhere.