Toward a theory of beauty (part 1)

I’ve written at length already about how my understanding of beauty and attraction has changed over the last year. Still, I think there’s more than might be useful to lay out. Today I’ll try to map out some thoughts on beauty in a bit more objective fashion, and see where we end up.

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For most of my life, my working measure of the beauty of a woman was how attractive I thought her shape and features were. If we look at our culture’s advertising and media, this seems to be a fair and common conclusion.

But then later, one day in Ukraine, I was walking out of an internet cafe with my friend Jake. In front of us, an attractive girl was crossing the street, and at that moment Jake noted “I bet that girl would be totally normal-looking in the United States.”

I looked at the girl again, and started to understand what Jake meant. On second glance, I realized this girl (we’ll call her Jane) actually had no particularly striking features, much to my surprise. And yet she was dressed confidently and made up with great taste, and so I didn’t even notice her physical features or lack thereof — she was desirable and eye-catching anyway.

We had previously noticed that for the women in Europe, a much more chic and assertive fashion style was common — more so than back home. So I think Jake’s comment was a conjecture: had Jane been born American instead of Ukrainian, she wouldn’t have had the boldness or taken the bother to do herself up so well, and would have consequently looked rather plain. The different culture would have given her a different toolset for composing herself, perhaps. Well, I’m not completely sure. But anyway …

Ukrainian Jane is a useful case study, because her scenario challenges our received understanding of beauty. In Jane’s case, beauty was not an objective metric, nor was it entirely driven by the evaluation of her features or shape. If Jane looked hot as a modern Ukrainian woman, but would’ve looked ordinary if dressed as an average American, clearly there is something more complex, deeper than the skin, that is driving this thing.

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So, what’s driving it? That is my curiosity today. In my reckoning, beauty ends up being a highly composite phenomenon, and it’s a pain to try to pin it down. But I’m going to try. I want to see if I can tease apart the discrete elements that contribute to the perception of beauty, or lack thereof. Separating out these parts may require some artificial differentiation, but hey, come with me anyway.

Today I’ll only have space for a couple of visual factors, by the way. More and deeper stuff tomorrow.

Okay, here we go:

1) Form

By now we have a lot of evidence that there is something real here, not just normative opinion. There’s cross-cultural evidence of e.g. an advantageous waist-to-hip ratio, or facial geometry that even young babies can recognize as beautiful. So yeah, there is an identifiable and objective thing called physical beauty. You can put your finger on it.

But, human cultures have gone quite a bit further in recognizing specific kinds of physical beauty as more or less attractive. For instance larger and curvier women used to be Hollywood’s bombshells, but in recent decades they’ve been supplanted by tiny skinny women — which has American girls struggling to reduce their own waist sizes too. But, even if we ignore the obvious body-image problems that result, I still would say that it’s largely a waste of energy for a woman to try to remake herself after the normative standard of beauty of her age, at least physically. The more universal physical metrics seem to matter more anyway, and I’m betting most men don’t really care about the present norms.

Irrespective of any of that, what ends up being much more important than objective physique is …

2) Style

And by this I mean how a woman dresses and composes herself, just visually speaking. This is a tricky one. There is no objectively advantageous style, but individual men prefer certain styles over others. Why is this?

There are two things that I can discern here.

2a) Style as an affinity marker

First, a woman’s style not only shows an image, but also conveys something about her values, affinities, and cares. If she’s always in a t-shirt and jeans, that could mean she’s easy-going and comfortable with informal scenes, or whatever. That will obviously appeal to a lot of guys. Or if she likes athletic clothes, she’ll draw the eyes of guys who play e.g. soccer … or curling. If she wears clothes from REI, she’ll draw guys who are into hiking and flannel. Or she could be gothic, preppy, fancy, bohemian or business-like … the list continues indefinitely, and there’s really no clear winner.

But the important point is, a woman’s style is like a little flag that men will unavoidably use to make generalizations and appraisals about her, even without saying a word to her. Such judgements are mostly subconscious, but they do affect how we perceive beauty, and in some cases quite dramatically. It’s incredibly shallow, yes. But we can’t always control for it. Anyway, it’s an efficient way for us to prioritize our options, and probably a not-terribly-bad way to avoid barking up the wrong tree.

2b) Style as a self-perceptual marker

Second, style can do something more subtle and possibly more important — how a woman perceives herself inwardly effects how she styles herself outwardly. And in turn, how she styles herself has a significant effect on how men perceive her.

I won’t dig into this too much, but the easy demonstration is Ukrainian Jane from earlier. Let’s entirely sidestep, for just a sec, the problematic womanizing and objectifying culture of eastern Europe, and just say this: for whatever reason, Jane had the courage to inwardly assert that she was beautiful, and that assertion was clearly made manifest in her outward style. That means her makeup, hair, color choices, clothes, and everything, together symphonically declared that she was pleased with herself, and by the way you should be too.

As you’ll recall, Jake and I were impressed. The force of her presentation, you might say, convinced us that she was beautiful, in spite of whatever objective physical beauty she may or may not have had.

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I’m running out of time here, and will continue this tomorrow. One important point before we go, though.

I’ve identified several factors today that I’ve said can create the perception of beauty. Let’s be very clear here: I contend that the perception of beauty, and authentic beauty itself, are entirely the same thing. That’s because the phenomenon itself is subjective, even if there are components inside it that are at times objective.

That means that our attraction to Jane’s style was not a counterfeit thing by any means. The girl knew she was beautiful, and thus, indeed she was.

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4 Comments

  1. “That means her makeup, hair, color choices, clothes, and everything, together symphonically declared that she was pleased with herself, and by the way you should be too.” – I do know several women who dress “up” because they don’t believe they are beautiful. I have had those days where I just don’t feel pretty, so I dress frillier than normal or put on more makeup, and I’ve had those days where I feel really pretty so I don’t even want to mess with makeup. But I’ve also had those days where I feel gorgeous and want to dress the part, and those days where my hair is crazy and useless so I’m just not even going to try. It just depends on my mood, the weather, laundry day, how much sleep I got, what I have to do that day, driving without an A/C in my car- so many different factors. I guess my point is that I don’t think it’s a good idea to always assume that a woman is pleased with herself or displeased with herself by the way she dresses. Just a thought.

    Also. I’ve been wondering how to attract a man who wears flannel and is into hiking. I’m now off to REI. Thanks for the tip. 🙂
    love ya.

    Reply

  2. Hm, ya know … that’s a good point. I guess the theory needs a lot of work.

    Although, my gut feeling is somehow that most guys can intuitively tell the difference between a girl who has dressed up because she believes she’s beautiful, and the next girl who has done the same thing for the opposite reason. That’s what I think, but when I look at this assumption, I must be thinking optimistically.

    Hm. There’s still something in there though. Not sure what exactly.

    Also the REI et. al. thing was obviously a caricature … but in a lot of cases, actually not much of a far reach.

    Reply

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