In a world that is obsessed with beauty, there is surprisingly little discussion on why something looks beautiful to us. Beauty remains a topic of fascination, not analysis. But beauty is not just the fancy of poets and artists; it is a part and parcel of our lives and aspirations too. Before we opt for a thing of beauty and make it a joy forever, maybe we can spare a moment to why we perceive it as beautiful!
At a time when everything seems to be in a state of flux, if there is a thing that has remained unchanged, it is our obsession with beauty and good looks. People in ancient civilizations were obsessed with it, as they still are in the 21st century. Not surprisingly, this obsession often gets extended to all kind of short cuts, like cosmetic products or beauty parlors that claim to make you attractive. Surprising however, is the lack of any meaningful discussion on what it is that makes an individual look good, what beauty represents and how it can be inculcated.
"Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder."
These words of Plato, spoken over two thousand years ago are still the most popular description of beauty. Unfortunately, what they reveal to us about beauty is far less in comparison to what they wittingly conceal. Of course, beauty is subjective, but only to some extent.
For instance, if a Hollywood buff is asked to compare Marilyn Monroe with Audrey Hepburn, a divergence among views is inevitable, but if you ask them whether they find both of them beautiful, almost everyone will answer affirmatively.
Beauty is largely objective, though subjective differences at the margins do exist.
In recent times, cosmetic producers and fashionista have often come under fire for promoting unhealthy prejudices, especially in the mind of those in an impressionable age. The alleged culprits include fairness products that are attacked for alluding to racial discrimination, as well as fashion shows featuring only zero size models, thereby promoting unhealthy weight loss and psychological complexes, including the dreaded Anorexia Nervosa.
In psychology, there are concepts of learnt behavior and heuristics, using which, advertisements are able to lure people into buying cosmetics with a promise of beauty. The same principles have also led to the evolution of particular thumb rules for selecting zero size super-models. While these stereotypes do influence the actions of those aspiring to be recognized as beautiful, there is little to suggest that such influences can radically change the perception of beauty.
Appreciation of beauty has always been instinctive and will always remain so. Projected stereotypes neither aim to change that, nor are capable of doing so. Their objectives remain purely commercial, and they are generally very efficient in achieving them.
Perhaps, the best illustration of instinctive perception of beauty is a child, unexposed to any stereotypes, who can still identify someone as beautiful with almost the same efficacy as experienced adults. Such appreciation of beauty is derived purely from human instincts, which are a part and parcel of the cognitive abilities inherited by every human being. Just as each one of us has inherited a human body and intellect, we have also inherited a human instinct common to all of us. At the same time , just as each one of us has also unique characteristics like face, fingerprints and retinal image, our individual instincts are also characterized by some unique preferences and choices.
This explains how each of us has a very similar instinctive recognition of beauty and good looks, and yet, as Plato pointed out, there could still be distinctive divergences among individuals. Some of us might vote for Marilyn Monroe, while others might be more impressed by the looks of Audrey Hepburn. Most of us, however, will find both of them beautiful.
Instinctive recognition of beauty suggests that the roots of beauty perception lie in our collective unconscious, a term used by psychologists to denote the instinctive memory of a species. In a way, it is an abstract of experiences of our earlier generations, carried through our genes, and accentuated by our hormones as well as physical and psychological needs. Thus, beauty is an instinctive human assessment of another individual, who could be a potential mate, partner or friend, and serves to instinctively guide one regarding the association with that other person.
As we all know, beauty or good looks acquire their greatest importance in the quest of a sexual partner. Our instinctive attraction towards good looks of an individual of the opposite gender actually indicates a preference for choosing him and the underlying instincts are aimed at healthy reproduction.
Thanks to these instincts, love at first sight can actually happen!
In instinctive assessment, good looks invariably represents good health, not just physical, but also sexual, mental, social and emotional health. A person suffering from a longstanding disease is more likely to be perceived as less attractive than if the same person was healthy and fully fit. Diseases are therefore the worst destroyers of beauty. Distortions of the body are generally not healthy, and are usually perceived as ugly. Large moles, big patches, discolorations of skin and disfigurement are similarly neither indicative of good health nor make one look beautiful.
An interesting aspect is the color of the skin. Healthy skin is usually considered a sign of both good health as well as beauty in a person. The complexion matters only to the extent it is expected in a person given his genetic background. Among dark skinned people, a darker complexion associated with good health would be considered perfectly fine and would not interfere with perception of good looks. The same is equally true of other people with a different complexion.
When it comes to selection of a prospective mate, the features that represent beauty are generally those that fit into the biological needs for healthy reproduction. A younger partner offers more reproductive options than an older one, so a younger individual is instinctively perceived more attractive. No wonder then that most people would prefer to be seen as young rather than old.
It you try to list factors that make a person more or less beautiful, it would seem that most features of beauty are actually a representation of healthy body and reproductive potential. For instance, human beings have a tendency to accumulate fat as they age and we know that obesity is not healthy. Out instincts also tell us as much by not associating obesity with good looks. At the same time, one must also point out that our instincts are often not as impressed by the zero size super-models as are the fashion experts, thereby reaffirming that slimming obsession of the fashion industry may have gone a little overboard. Interestingly, in very cold terrains, certain degree of body fat is essential for natural insulation and body heat. The perception of beauty in such societies is often tilted in favor of higher body fat, representing their collective instinctive inheritance.
Face is generally considered the most important part of the human body, when it comes to ascertaining beauty. One explanation could be that in most cultures, it is the least covered and most visible part of the body. An even more important factor is the ease with which face can indicate about one's age and health.
While the wrinkles and hair give a good idea about age and reproductive potential, the color and skin of face indicate a lot about health of the body. Particularly important are scars, discolorations, asymmetry, patches and disfigurements, including those of teeth, which also reveal a lot about problems with one’s body and fitness. Face is also that one part of body that tells us most about the psychological, social and emotional health of a person.
Almost every person looks more beautiful when he or she is smiling. That also tells us how beauty is perceived and what constitutes beauty in our mind. It is not just about physical health. It also matters whether the good health of the other person is a positive or a negative thing for our own self. A smile indicates a friendly attitude and a potential for positive relationship, and hence, a genuine affectionate smile makes every face look more attractive. On the contrary, a frowning face is often not perceived that good looking, and the face of a person contorted with uncontrollable and violent rage is more likely than not to be perceived as one that is best avoided. Kindness and compassion are essential virtues in nurturing parents, and our instincts prefer them while looking for a partner.
Beauty may only be skin deep, but the discerning human eyes can always make the difference!
Can one use these principles to look beautiful? Of course, one can, but only to the extent possible within the natural limitations of human physiology. The three principles that emerge from the discussion on good looks can be followed by everyone aspiring to improve his or her looks.
Want to give them a try?