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Does beauty lie in the eye of the beholder?
Some readers have left comments saying that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Information addressing this issue has been scattered over multiple pages, but instead of linking to these pages everytime someone raises this issue, it is best to come up with a single page where a brief summary with links to the details is presented. This entry will also be addressing some topics that have not been addressed previously.
How does one go about showing that there are objective correlates of beauty?
This is easy to answer. One should show universal agreement and provide evidence that these correlates have some biological significance other than merely helping attract more potential mates and/or show that these correlates are sufficiently abstract in order to render implausible the notion that universal or broad agreement as to what constitutes beauty does not merely reflect social conditioning.
There are numerous correlates of beauty. It is common observation that people do not unanimously agree about the minutiae of what constitutes beauty. However, some people have defective eyesight/vision and/or a variety of brain abnormalities. Therefore, universal agreement cannot be expected, but one should still consider whether there is broad agreement and how mentally normal are those who deviate from the broad agreement.
Here are some objective correlates of beauty addressed within this site so far, where objective is understood as broad agreement in the population:
- People strongly and overwhelmingly aesthetically prefer above average femininity in the looks of women.
- The page linked to in point #1 addresses other objective correlates of beauty such as averageness and fluctuating asymmetry.
- A page addressing aesthetics in international beauty pageants discusses the components of beauty mentioned in #1 and #2 above in the context of correlates that cannot be explained in terms of social conditioning because they are either sufficiently abstract or are known to have biological significance other than merely helping attract more potential mates, as in above average femininity in women corresponding to higher fertility and fecundity. This page also addresses whether pedomorphy is a correlate of beauty and the correlate of beauty concerned with placement of face shape along the overall ancestral-to-derived discriminant.
- Most people in Western culture find neither skinniness nor obesity socially acceptable.
- Most men and most women judge the attractiveness of women similarly; this has been reported for evaluation of facial attractiveness (see #1 above), waist-hip proportions and physique.
Masculinity-femininity and attractiveness in women
The major correlate of beauty that this site is focusing on is masculinity-femininity as it pertains to attractiveness in women. Given that the general public overwhelmingly and strongly aesthetically prefers above average femininity in the looks of women, one could ask whether this is a normal preference.
For starters, between men and women, it hardly needs to be mentioned which group is supposed to look feminine by design. It is also the case that more feminine women also tend to be more fecund and fertile. Therefore, the majority preference, i.e., a preference for feminine looks in women, appears to be normal -- as in resulting from design -- and an aesthetic preference for masculinized women appears anomalous. This suggestion should be assessed in light of the characteristics of people who prefer masculinized looks in women. Masculine looks in women are disproportionately preferred by homosexual/bisexual men, lesbian/bisexual women, women with gender identity disorder, anorexics, bulimics and masculinized women (anorexic and bulimic women tend to be more masculine than normal women, on average; see evidence from sex hormone profiles).
Gender identity disorder, anorexia and bulimia are bona fide mental disorders. Based on random, population-based sampling, it has also been shown that nonheterosexuals have a 2-3 fold higher prevalence of mood disorders, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders compared to exclusively heterosexual individuals, which is largely unaccounted for in terms of stigma, prejudice, victimization and discrimination, and is basically intrinsic to nonheterosexuality. Therefore, a preference for masculinized looks in women has an association with mental abnormality. Now, it would be a stretch to expect every single incidence of a preference for somewhat masculinized women on the part of exclusively heterosexual men as abnormal since there is a possibility that a man could produce a more masculine son than himself by reproducing with a somewhat masculinized woman. Therefore, whereas every single incidence of a preference for masculinized features in women cannot be called abnormal, given the association of the latter with mental abnormality and its statistical atypicality, this preference is appropriately designated anomalous and is abnormal in a number of cases.
It also needs to be pointed out that a number of masculinized women appear to go through an agonizing period in youth where they are not comfortable with their masculine looks, but eventually learn to live with it and may even end up regarding soft and feminine features as less desirable (a case of sour grapes as in the classic Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Grapes).
Cultural differences and beauty
Some may attempt to point out examples shown in Table 1 to argue for cultural determinants of beauty/good looks and therefore the historical and geographical arbitrariness of beauty standards.
Do the examples shown in Table 1 justify the arbitrariness accusation? Think again. Body adornment/modification/fashion wear should be distinguished from appreciation of the body as it comes. In contemporary Western culture, fashionable wear that was in vogue two decades ago may be a fashion faux pas today, but a general public preference for above average femininity in the looks of women has remained, notwithstanding the gay domination of the fashion business leading to masculinized women ending up being the most well-recognized/top models.
Shamans are the holy men in hunter-gatherer societies, and are disproportionately psychotic. A deranged and influential shaman could lead his followers to adopt and pass down a variety of bizarre practices. In the beginning, reluctant individuals could be initiated into a weird practice upon fear of divine retribution/possession by demons, but later it would simply become tradition/initiation rite that people have to comply with if they are to remain members of the tribe/prove tribal allegiance, wherein some form of pain would come in handy to break down an individual and make him part of the group, ready to fight for the tribe if needed. People could even come to appreciate a bizarre form of body modification because it supposedly keeps evil spirits away or something equivalent. The variability of the practices adopted can be assumed to reflect the variability of the specifics of the mental illnesses of the shaman founding fathers of the cultures, but the general theme -- i.e., schizophrenic powerful shamans founding bizarre behaviors -- would hold across cultures.
One type of mental illness among shamans is of special note when it comes to the establishment of body modification practices involving pain, namely sadomasochism, wherein sadism refers to deriving pleasure from delivering pain unto others and masochism refers to deriving pleasure from being subjected to pain; such pleasure may be of a sexual nature. Western individuals into sadomasochism are disproportionately found with piercings and tattoos.
Note also that some practices -- such as wearing a penis sheath or elongating the female neck -- serve to exaggerate sexual dimorphism. In other words, there is a common underlying principle but different forms in which it manifests itself.
In short, it is not all arbitrary. There are common underlying principles behind body modification across cultures though there is variation when it comes to the specifics.
The issue of obesity
Some cultures -- disproportionately in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and also in Asia -- value excess body fat in women, whereas obesity is not considered socially acceptable in Western culture. Arbitrary cultural difference? Not so fast.
Body fat can come in handy during food shortages. In humans and apes, the best place to store body fat for rapid and easy mobilization upon need is the abdomen. Genes that allow one to store considerable body fat if plenty of food is available and one can get by with minimal physical labor may be advantageous in some situations.(1) Numerous such thrifty genes have been identified. Since body weight is typically well regulated, those without such thrifty genes, even if eating ad libitum and engaging in minimal physical labor, will typically not gain body fat in adulthood (after removing the influence of aging-related degenerative changes).
In a population where many people do not have enough to eat and many engage in heavy physical labor, a preference for overweight/obesity may exist if the prevalence of thrifty genes in this population is high. This can be expected because many high status individuals in such a population will posses thrifty genes and most likely end up obese given plenty of food and reduced need for physical labor on their part. Additionally, in such a population, if the unreliability of food supply and/or an undeveloped societal state necessitating heavy physical labor on the part of most individuals persists for a long time, then one can expect that the genetics associated with aesthetic tolerance of overweight/obesity or, in some cases, even a preference for obesity will be widespread. Whereas obesity results in negative health consequences, given that high status confers numerous social benefits, if the acquisition of some physical traits associated with high status results in delayed adverse health consequences, which is the case with obesity, then several individuals can be expected to direct their behavior toward the acquisition of physical traits associated with high status.
Back to thrifty genes, let us address the 825T allele of a gene that encodes for a G-protein beta-3 subunit.(2-4) Across different human populations, those having two copies of 825T are two- to three-fold more likely to be obese compared to those having two copies of 825C (the ancestral allele).(3) G-protein activation appears to be a thrifty genotype that facilitates body fat storage; the 825T allele predicts enhanced activation.(2-4) The frequency of the 825T allele varies as follows: sub-Saharan Africans (74-91%), African-Americans (72%), Australian Aborigines (72%), !Kung (66%), New Guineans (50%), Arabs (45-56%), East Asians 42-52%), American Indians (11-42%), and Europeans (21-35%).(3)
Consistent with the above, if plenty of food and reduced need for physical labor are available, such as in the West, the prevalence of obesity is much higher among African-Americans(5, 6) and Australian Aborigines(7) compared to whites.
Among American white women, the prevalence of obesity decreases with increasing socioeconomic status (SES), but the prevalence of obesity across socioeconomic classes remains roughly constant for African-American women.(8) The decrease in obesity with increasing SES is a robust find among white women everywhere. In developing nations, the prevalence of obesity among women increases with SES,(9) and the reason a similar relationship is not seen among African-American women is because they have plenty to eat across all socioeconomic classes. Among American white men, there appears a trend wherein the prevalence of overall obesity is somewhat lower at the extremes of SES, whereas the prevalence of obesity increases with SES among African-American men,(8) which is consistent with the far greater acceptance of obesity among African-Americans compared to American whites.(10)
The 825T allele is not the only genetic factor implicated in obesity, but the point should be clear. In a population where few of the socioeconomic elite have a tendency to become obese, a societal preference for obesity/social acceptance of obesity is unlikely to arise since one would not be seeing a lot of obese upper class people. An example of such people are the Scandinavians and the Dutch. The Scandinavians and the Dutch have a low tendency toward obesity, and among them there is a sharp socioeconomic gradient in the prevalence of obesity(11-14) that is not explained by educational and lifestyle factors.(11, 14, 15) One can assume that the socioeconomic gradient is largely explained by genetic factors. In short, population differences in the social acceptability of obesity should not be assumed to result from arbitrary cultural differences, and the contribution of genetic differences should be considered.
There are individual and cultural differences with respect to what one finds physically attractive, but these differences do not undermine broad agreement about what constitutes beauty. Some cultural/sub-cultural differences are almost certainly a result of genetic differences or mental illnesses, whereas some individual differences in aesthetic preferences are part of normal variation.
The statement that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder is misleading. Whereas it is typically true that whatever one’s physical appearance, there will be some people who will find one attractive, some people are found to be attractive by many or most people whereas others are found unattractive by many or most people, which is not readily explicable in terms of social conditioning. Therefore, when women seen in beauty pageants and modeling scenarios catering to the general public have looks at odds with the preferences of most people, then attempting to do something about it, which is what this site is doing, cannot be critiqued by saying that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.
- Neel, J. V., Diabetes mellitus: a ‘thrifty' genotype rendered detrimental by ‘progress’?, Am J Hum Genet, 14, 353 (1962).
- Hauner, H., Rohrig, K., and Siffert, W., Effects of the G-protein beta3 subunit 825T allele on adipogenesis and lipolysis in cultured human preadipocytes and adipocytes, Horm Metab Res, 34, 475 (2002).
- Siffert, W., Forster, P., Jockel, K. H., Mvere, D. A., Brinkmann, B., Naber, C., Crookes, R., Du, P. H. A., Epplen, J. T., Fridey, J., Freedman, B. I., Muller, N., Stolke, D., Sharma, A. M., Al Moutaery, K., Grosse-Wilde, H., Buerbaum, B., Ehrlich, T., Ahmad, H. R., Horsthemke, B., Du Toit, E. D., Tiilikainen, A., Ge, J., Wang, Y., Rosskopf, D., and et al., Worldwide ethnic distribution of the G protein beta3 subunit 825T allele and its association with obesity in Caucasian, Chinese, and Black African individuals, J Am Soc Nephrol, 10, 1921 (1999).
- Siffert, W., Rosskopf, D., and Erbel, R., [Genetic polymorphism of the G-protein beta3 subunit, obesity and essential hypertension], Herz, 25, 26 (2000).
- Burt, V. L., Whelton, P., Roccella, E. J., Brown, C., Cutler, J. A., Higgins, M., Horan, M. J., and Labarthe, D., Prevalence of hypertension in the US adult population. Results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988-1991, Hypertension, 25, 305 (1995).
- Cooper, R. S., Rotimi, C. N., Kaufman, J. S., Owoaje, E. E., Fraser, H., Forrester, T., Wilks, R., Riste, L. K., and Cruickshank, J. K., Prevalence of NIDDM among populations of the African diaspora, Diabetes Care, 20, 343 (1997).
- O'Dea, K., Cardiovascular disease risk factors in Australian aborigines, Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol, 18, 85 (1991).
- Clinical guidelines on the identification, evaluation, and treatment of overweight and obesity in adults: the evidence report, National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, pp. 127 (June 1998).
- Sobal, J., and Stunkard, A. J., Socioeconomic status and obesity: a review of the literature, Psychol Bull, 105, 260 (1989).
- Clinical guidelines on the identification, evaluation, and treatment of overweight and obesity in adults: the evidence report, National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, pp. 22 (June 1998).
- Stunkard, A. J., Socioeconomic status and obesity, Ciba Found Symp, 201, 174 (1996).
- Seidell, J. C., Verschuren, W. M., and Kromhout, D., Prevalence and trends of obesity in The Netherlands 1987-1991, Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 19, 924 (1995).
- Lahmann, P. H., Lissner, L., Gullberg, B., and Berglund, G., Differences in body fat and central adiposity between Swedes and European immigrants: the Malmo Diet and Cancer Study, Obes Res, 8, 620 (2000).
- Lahti-Koski, M., Pietinen, P., Mannisto, S., and Vartiainen, E., Trends in waist-to-hip ratio and its determinants in adults in Finland from 1987 to 1997, Am J Clin Nutr, 72, 1436 (2000).
- Pietinen, P., Vartiainen, E., and Mannisto, S., Trends in body mass index and obesity among adults in Finland from 1972 to 1992, Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 20, 114 (1996).