The questions of what makes a face beautiful and whether our preferences come from culture or biology, have fascinated scholars for centuries. Variation in ideals of beauty across societies and historical periods has led to a long-held view that standards of beauty are the product of cultural convention. However, recent evidence challenges this view.
By Professor Gillian Rhodes. Originally posted at http://www.uwa.edu.au/media/statements/2000/08/20000802-3.html (Retrieved 7-6-06)
Good-looking boys and girls have a much bigger advantage in life than previously realised - because we are all genetically programmed to love a pretty face.
Scientific tests with new-born babies have revealed that they have an instinctive fascination for men and women who look like Hollywood film stars - and an in-built prejudice against more "ordinary"-looking adults.
Dr. Alan Slater notes that "research has shown that if you have attractive individuals, people judge them to be more honest, trustworthy and better in terms of time-keeping - any positive attributes are more likely to be associated with such attractive individuals…. There's no doubt that attractive people tend to do better in life than less-attractive people - nobody ever said evolution was supposed to be fair.
By Sadler, R. (2004). "Everyone loves a pretty face." Originally posted at http://www.scotsman.com/news/uk/everyone-loves-a-pretty-face-1-552088 (Retrieved 7-6-06)
Human culture is a product of human nature. The major studies of the evolutionary significance of beauty in human culture almost always begin with natural selection. However, the evolutionary biologist Leigh van Valen claimed that as different species living at each other's expense coevolve, they are engaged in a constant evolutionary struggle for a survival advantage: "for an evolutionary system, continuing development is needed just in order to maintain its fitness relative to the systems it is co-evolving with".
He named this the Red Queen Principle after a character in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass" who has to keep running to stay in the same place (see extract). According to the Red Queen Principle, evolutionary systems need "all the running they can do" because the landscape around them is constantly changing. In terms of beauty, the Red Queen effect suggests that an enhancement that generates success will lose its advantage when too many people use it. New enhancements have to be made and the beauty rat race begins.
Beauty and Evolutionary Psychology
How can a biological basis, from which the Red Queen effect derives, be ascribed to beauty in culture? Darwin expressed natural selection as follows: "As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurrent struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected." Richard Dawkins argued in the 1970s that the body is merely an evolutionary vehicle for our genes. In other words, genes force the body to do things to perpetuate them, and all human genes must confer reproductive success. An appreciation of attractiveness and beauty in culture is linked to high reproductive potential: women pay attention to cues of wealth and power, men pay attention to cues of health and youth.
Harvard Psychologist, Nancy Etcoff argues that theories of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology explain how sexual preference is guided by common construction rules of features, averageness and symmetry that make us most attracted to those with whom we are most likely to reproduce. She suggests, "Beauty is a universal part of human experience that promotes pleasure, rivets attention and impels actions that ensure the survival of our genes. Our extreme sensitivity to beauty is hard-wired and governed by circuits in the brain shaped by natural selection. We love to look at smooth skin, curved waists and symmetrical bodies because in the course of evolution the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success". In this view, beauty is an essential part of human nature that influences our perception, attitudes, and behavior toward others.
"The Red Queen and the Beauty Rat Race". Originally posted at
There is more to beauty than meets the stranger's eye, according to results from three studies examining the influence of non-physical traits on people's perception of physical attractiveness.
The results, which show that people perceive physical appeal differently when they look at those they know versus strangers, are published in the recently released March issue of Evolution and Human Behavior.
While these past studies do show which features people find physically appealing after just a glance, they overlook the non-physical traits that may influence a person's perception of another's beauty over time. In other words, people may see physical attractiveness differently when they know that person's other qualities, usually invisible to strangers, says Kniffin.
In a world where people are bombarded with messages about physical attractiveness from magazines, television and advertisements, the researchers say their results point to the influence of other traits on people's perception of physical beauty. Kniffin adds that he hopes these findings may encourage the consumers of this information to rethink the value of cosmetic surgery, especially if it involves risk.
At the end of their paper, the researchers offer this beauty tip: "If you want to enhance your physical attractiveness, become a valuable social partner.
Emily Carlson, "Physical Beauty Involves More than Just Good Looks". Originally posted at http://www.news.wisc.edu/releases/9679.html. (Retrieved 7-13-06)
Men are barraged with images of extraordinarily beautiful and unobtainable women in the media, making it difficult for them to desire the ordinarily beautiful.
Psychologists Sara Gutierres, Ph.D., and Douglas Kenrick, Ph.D., both of Arizona State University, demonstrated that the contrast effect operates powerfully in the sphere of person-to-person attraction as well. In a series of studies over the past two decades, they have shown that, more than any of us might suspect, judgments of attractiveness (of ourselves and of others) depend on the situation in which we find ourselves. For example, a woman of average attractiveness seems a lot less attractive than she actually is if a viewer has first seen a highly attractive woman. If a man is talking to a beautiful female at a cocktail party and is then joined by a less attractive one, the second woman will seem relatively unattractive.
The contrast principle also works in reverse. A woman of average attractiveness will seem more attractive than she is if she enters a room of unattractive women. In other words, context counts.
Michael Levine, Hara Estroff Marano, "Why I Hate Beauty". Originally posted at Psychology Today http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-2150.html (Retrieved 7-13-06)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA, October 12, 1998 -- Revealing for the first time surprising differences among women and how they view their bodies, researchers at San Francisco State University have released the results of a groundbreaking new study that continues with an exploration of the relationship between body image and mass media among women and men of different sexual orientations across the life span.
The women in the study were between the ages of 18 and 33. The most startling contrast emerged between lesbian and heterosexual women. Lesbian women emphasized the importance of being a "whole" person, balancing a healthy body with a well-rounded personality. The lesbian women were much less likely in the development of their self images to be influenced by the idealized images of women presented in the mass media.
Heterosexual women, in contrast, were more likely to be affected by mass media and the opinions of others when forming their own views of their bodies. Unlike lesbian women, they internalized to a greater extent the views and perceptions of others, including boyfriends, family members and even complete strangers. Their body images were much more often influenced by advertising, fashion magazines and movies.
Like the lesbian women, the bisexual women focused more strongly on describing the body as a whole, including both outward appearance and inner qualities. Bisexual women, while more susceptible than lesbian women to mass media images of women, were as likely as lesbian women to value traits other than physical beauty.
Rol Risska in SFSU Public Affairs Press Release.Originally posted at http://www.sfsu.edu/~news/prsrelea/fy98/014.htm (Retrieved 7-13-06)
We don't need Afghan-style burquas to disappear as women. We disappear in reverse—by revamping and revealing our bodies to meet externally imposed visions of female beauty.
Robin Gerber, quoted in Media Awareness Network. Originally posted at http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/issues/stereotyping/ women_and_girls/women_beauty.cfm (Retrieved 7-13-06)
In a survey of 232 female undergraduate students at a large Midwestern university in 1994, Harrison found that about 15 percent of the women met criteria for disordered eating--signs of anorexia or bulimia, body dissatisfaction, a drive for thinness, perfectionism and a sense of personal ineffectiveness.
The study, which appeared recently in the Journal of Communication, shows that magazine reading and television viewing, especially exposure to thinness-depicting and thinness-promoting media, significantly predict symptoms of women's eating disorders, Harrison says.
According to the study, women who frequently read fitness magazines for reasons other than interest in fitness and dieting display greater signs of disordered eating than women who rarely read them at all. Further, reading fashion magazines in particular is significantly related to a woman's drive for thinness and her dissatisfaction with her body, although magazine reading, in general, has little effect on body dissatisfaction.
Harrison says that the relationship between mass media consumption and symptoms of women's eating disorders appears to be stronger for magazine reading than for television viewing. However, watching "thin" shows is a consistent predictor of a woman's drive for thinness and viewing "heavy" shows is significantly related to body dissatisfaction."
Bernie DeGroat, The University Record, October 22, 1997. Originally posted at http://www.umich.edu/~urecord/9798/Oct22_97/media.htm Retrieved 7-13-06
Additional Online Resources:
'Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful' - When Beauty Is Bad for You
There are downsides to looking this pretty: Why women hate me for being beautiful
An epidemic of beauty sickness: Renee Engeln at TEDxUConn 2013
The Sexualization of Girls Report by American Psychological Association Task Force
The Psychology of Beauty e-book by Ethel D. Puffer
The Face, Beauty and Symmetry by D. W. Zaidel & J. A. Cohen
Is Feminine Beauty Dangerous: A Brief Look at Our Theological Legacy By Karen Lee Thorp
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff
Mirror, mirror: A summary of research findings on body image- Motives by Kate Fox
Psychology of Beauty, Wiki E-Book
Looking Good: The Psychology and Biology of Beauty by Charles Feng
The Neural Response to Facial Attractiveness by Anjan Chatterjee, Amy Thomas, Sabrina E. Smith, Geoffrey K. Aguirre
Body Image Disturbance in Non-eating-disordered Adolescent Females by Rachael F. Elwork
Advances in a cognitive behavioral model of body dysmorphic disorder by David Veale
In Pursuit of Perfection: A Primary Care Physician's Guide to Body Dysmorphic Disorder by James R. Slaughter, M.D., and Ann M. Sun, M.D.,
Feminine Face Is Key To A Woman's Heart Source: The Sunday Times, 8 December 2002
SF State researchers release study about women, the mass media, and the development of body image Published by the Public Affairs Office at San Francisco State University, Diag Center
Brain Study Shows Difference Between Beauty, Desire
Media influence eating disorders by Bernie DeGroat
Who is beautiful, From Defy Aging Newsletter@AgelessLifestyles.com
Beauty's Beast: A link between breast augmentation and suicide by Colin Allen
Brains or Beauty: New Study Confirms Having Both Leads to Higher Pay
The American Psychological Association
Private and shared taste contribute equally to beauty evaluations by L. Winerman
Teaching truth, beauty and goodness by Marcela Kogan
Plastic surgery: Beauty or beast? by Melissa Dittmann
Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls
Preserving Body Image and Self-Esteem PPT
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