Beauty, Biology, and Society
Beauty, Biology, and Society
What is beauty? How do human beings decide who is attractive and who is
not? Society is full of messages telling us what is beautiful, but what
are those definitions based on? Do we consciously decide whom we are
attracted to, or is biology somehow involved? The issue of beauty and
how we define it has been studied for centuries. Scholars from all
fields of study have searched for the "formula" for beauty. Darwin in
his book The Descent of Man wrote, "It is certainly not true that there
is in the mind of man any universal standard of beauty with respect to
the human body. It is however, possible that certain tastes in the
course of time become inherited, though I have no evidence in favor of
this belief." (1)
Science has tried to look at beauty beyond the conscious level. It has
tried to determine what roles biology plays in human attraction.
Scientists have discovered that symmetry and scent play a role in
defining human attraction. (3)
But while this can begin to explain beauty on the most basic of levels,
what accounts for variations in the standard of beauty? The idea of
beauty varies within different societies and communities. Do these
cultural preferences have a biological basis? What is the relationship
between biology and society in relation to the idea of beauty? How do
they relate to each other, and how do they differ? In particular what
role does science play in the preference that many societies, (in
particular South Asian, East Asian, and North American Cultures), have
for fairer skin?
Beauty is experienced through visual stimuli. The human being's intake of beauty is through both conscious and unconscious decisions. (4) (4) The question is what motivates our unconscious decisions? Mathematicians have for hundreds of years studied facial structure as a possible explanation for the formula for beauty. ((1)Through an analysis of the human face they have determined that symmetry is involved. The human face is designed symmetrically. While there are variations, in general the human face is symmetric in design. (2) Because the tendency towards symmetry is a dominant trend in physical structure, humans tend to look for symmetry in each other. This desire is often times unconscious. The Golden Ratio, also known as the Phi Ratio, defines human facial structure as following a symmetrical ratio of 1:1.618. (1) Another factor involved in attractiveness is scent and more specifically pheromones. (4) While the intake of human scent may be unconscious is seems to have a positive impact on beauty as well. Pheromones are unconscious indicators that the human body releases. In a study conducted by Anja Rikowski and Karl Grammer the relationship between physical symmetry and scent was conducted. Through the experiment it was determined that individuals with a high level of facial symmetry, also give off high levels of pheromones. (2)
Why are symmetry and scent so important? What does the Golden Ratio and pheromones tell us about the science of beauty? In a biological sense beauty and physical attractiveness, serve the purpose of reproduction. Humans have the innate desire to want to reproduce, and more specifically pass on their genes. (3) Attractiveness aids the reproduction process by helping humans find partners. The physical features of a person are indicators of how they rate as a potential mate. (5) A high correlation between symmetry and health has been found. Because humans tend to follow a symmetrical pattern, the more a person's features are symmetrical, the more desirable they are. In addition pheromones are unconscious indicators of the body's readiness and ability to reproduce. (3)
Do men and women read each other's bodies in the same way? Male and
female play different roles in the reproduction process. (2)
Because of this there is some variation in what they look for in a
partner. The female's level of involvement in the reproduction process
is higher than the males. After nine months of pregnancy she is
responsible for ensuring that her children reach adulthood. This
assures the successful passing on of her genes. Males in comparison
have the biological ability to pass their genes on quicker and more
frequently. Potentially a male could reproduce through many females,
increasing the chance of their genetic success. (4)Science
has looked to see how the biological formula reflects this difference.
Through studies females have indicated a preference for male faces that
have sharp lines. In addition well-defined muscular bodies are
considered attractive. These features have been associated with health,
success, and power on the male's part. Females search for potentially
successful and powerful mates because they want a partner who can help
to raise their children. (4)
The female body reaches maturity before the males. Because of this she
can look to older males as possible partners. The male image of female
beauty tends to be based more on physical attraction. Because he has
the potential of having more than one partner, he looks for females who
look like they can successfully pass on his genes. Males are attracted
to women's faces that are smaller and rounder. Symmetry in a woman's
facial features and overall physical features are important. In
addition a female's scent, the level of pheromones she gives off,
indicates her potential success rate. (4)
The definition of beauty and what is considered attractive has changed with time. (6) In addition definitions of beauty vary within cultures. How does biology explain this? What is the link between societal definitions of beauty and the biology of attractiveness? The underlying factor behind it all is the need to pass on one's genes. But with time as indicators of success have changed, so has the definition of beauty. Look at the preference that many societies have for fair skin. In particular South Asian, East Asian, and North American cultures have a strong preference for lighter complexions. (7) (9) (10) This can be seen through the images of beauty that these societies promote, as well as the considerable market for skin lighteners within them. In Asian cultures one of the most important indicators of a good potential match is a fair complexion. (9) This holds true in particular for women whose complexion can be considered more important than her level of education and her financial status. The ethnic make up of the United States is very diverse, yet the model of beauty does not reflect this diversity. The prototype of beauty is blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. What is the logic behind the preference for fair skin? Is there a biological explanation for the preference in for lighter complexions?
Historically fair skin has been associated with power. ((8) In societies that have experienced colonization, or have been ruled by other groups, the definition of beauty is based on the prototype of those who are in power. The ideal for beauty has changed with history. For example a hundred years ago the model of a beautiful woman in Indian society was one who had a darker complexion and a round physical appearance. The present day model of a beautiful Indian woman is one who is fair skin, slim, and has western facial features. In the history of the United States, in particular during slavery, light skin was desirable. A white complexion was strictly enforced as being correct, and anything less than white was defined as inferior. African-American slaves with lighter complexions were given preference over those with darker ones. (7) (7) Biologically humans are driven to want to find partners who are successful. If a society's image of successful person is one who has fair skin, and we innately look for successful mates, what role does biology play in color preference? Can a person's desire for a successful mate lead them to follow society's definitions of what is beauty?
Beauty can be defined by both biology and society. The standards for beauty evolve with time as well. While society's definition of beauty can change, there is a biological basis behind determining attractiveness. The innate need to reproduce, and pass on our genes, drives human beings to be attracted to each other. The example of lighter skin was meant to look at the relationship between biology and society. There is much more involved in what determines societal definitions of beauty than just biology. But it is important to question the role biology plays in relation to those standards. How can we distinguish between what is society's influence and what is biology's influence in relation to definitions of beauty? Another question is how much of an effect biology has on determining our lives. There is not a clear answer. As with all aspects of life biology determines the basis in how we live. But with time and discovery we will gain more of an understanding of that basis.
7) The Role of Afrocentric Features in Person Perception: Judging by Features and Categories, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
8) When Black Isn't Beautiful, The Guardian.
11) Races and Racism
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, write Serendip)
05/31/2005, from a Reader on the Web
Unfortunately teh reference list from this web site: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro02/web2/ssebastian.html has many broken links on it. Just thought you might like to know. The article itself is very useful to me though.