Beauty Is Not Just in the Eye of the Beholder
Four factors that control what we find and say is beautiful
Physical beauty is a big part of what we find attractive in the opposite sex. The degree to which beauty determines how attracted we are does differ by sex. Whereas men are heavily attracted to youth and beauty in women, women are attracted to a wider range of characteristics that includes physical appearance, but also power and status, confidence and charisma, and resources like money.
In fact, one reason youth is such a big factor in women’s attractiveness is because it is so heavily driven by physical appearance. We universally believe that both men and women are better looking when younger than older. The difference is that as men age, they can offset their declining looks by accruing power, money, etc.
Nevertheless, physical appearance plays an important role in how both men and women see the opposite sex.
Beauty seems to be in innate and ineffable quality. And we seem to be able to recognize it easily. Studies show that there is very widespread agreement about which people are attractive.
At the same time, there seems to be a trend online of assuming that beauty is completely objective and largely innate. This seems in line with the general post-Christian trend of viewing human characteristics as dominated by genetic factors. People in the manosphere would likely say that while there’s a lot a beautiful woman can do to make herself ugly, there’s not much beyond surgery that can improve over baseline beauty.
This is a big over-simplification. There are four major factors that determine what we find beautiful, only one of which is linked to genes. I will briefly discuss each of these determinants of beauty.
Beauty Is Biologically Determined
This is a sense in which biology or genetics does determine what we find beautiful. This would account for why we find younger faces more attractive than older ones. To put it in the evopsych terms that are popular these days, youth indicates fertility, so we are drawn to that in order to achieve reproductive success.
But one need not posit an evopsych rationale to see that there are certain physical factors are that are judged more attractive than others. For example, we view facial symmetry as more attractive. Women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 are viewed as most attractive. And men find smaller feet in women more attract than larger ones. See this NIH study for more of these correlates for both sexes.
So there is something of a genetic or biological basis to beauty. We are hardwired to prefer symmetrical faces and such.
Beauty Is Culturally Determined
But the idea of beauty as purely biological is very oversold. It’s quite obvious that what we find beautiful is also heavily culturally conditioned.
The easiest way to see this is in styles. I look back at photos from the 1980s and think to myself, we thought this looked good? It’s similar with the 70s and many other historic eras too.
You frequently hear that in the past, bigger people were considered more beautiful, because it indicated you were wealthy and could afford to eat plenty of food.
I don’t think we know for sure whether that was true. But we can see that over the past 100-150 years for which we have good data, ideal beauty images as shown the media have changed a lot. The 1920s were a decade in which slimness was particularly prized, for example. CNN reported that one study found that, “The bust-to-waist ratios among women featured in the magazines Vogue and Ladies Home Journal dwindled by about 60% between 1901 and 1925.” This was associated with a rise in eating disorders.
We can just look at the current phenomenon of “Instagam face” to see cultural factors in action. Women are actually getting surgeries to conform to this aesthetic. It does not appear to be a look rooted in timeless genetically determined standards of beauty.
These trends don’t seem to be artificial media creations. Men really do seem to be attracted to what the culture says are the most beautiful women of the day.
The media can’t turn lead into gold when it comes to beauty, but what we find physically attractive is much more plastic and culturally determined than many people would like to think.
Beauty Is Individually Determined
In addition to the biological and the cultural, there are also individual elements that determine what we think is beautiful.
They say gentlemen prefer blondes. Perhaps many of them do, but for whatever reason, I’ve always been partial to redheads. No surprise that my wife has red hair.
As you may have noticed, I’m bald. Some women say that they like bald men. That’s probably not the majority, but clearly many bald guys have no trouble attracting beautiful wives and girlfriends, so at least some of them must.
These individual variations create “arbitrage opportunities.” If you are attracted to some characteristic that is relatively unique, then there’s less competition from other men or women for the people who look most beautiful to you.
Beauty Is Expressed Socially
The three factors above - biological, cultural, and individual - determine what we do find attractive.
But there’s a fourth factor, and that’s what we publicly express is beautiful.
It’s no secret that there’s a lot of “policing” of beauty standards. Women tend to judge other women harshly over their looks. Men do less policing of other men over their own looks, but are definitely ready to give other guys a good ribbing over any woman they are dating.
I see this especially in the manosphere world. There’s long been a strong anti-marriage streak in the online men’s space. Five or ten years ago this was the “MGTOW” movement, or men going their own way. Today there’s a new generation of Andrew Tate style men who argue for a playboy lifestyle and resolutely say you are an idiot to get married.
But there’s another way the online world undermines marriage, which is by claiming that virtually women are too ugly to be with.
The best recent example is how there was a huge viral trend of men calling Barbie actress Margot Robbie “mid.” They frequently post pictures of women from online dating sites and mock their appearance as unworthy of the men they say they are interested in. Undoubtedly, many people have an inflated sense of their own value in the dating marketplace. But when people on X say that a girl next door type who is in the top 15-20% of real world women is a “5 at best” on the proverbial ten point scale, something is very off.
The online men’s sphere basically says that if you aren’t with a 9.75 minimum - as defined by them - you are some kind of a chump. This is part of their general view that the bulk of American women are unmarriageable.
Undoubtedly the major media has been trying to redefine beauty by promoting a number of people who are not actually attractive. This deserves pushback. But calling Margot Robbie “mid” is a bit over the top.
While these folks are extreme, this kind of policing is a longstanding feature of society. Whatever you might personally find attractive, there are going to be social pressures to only express opinions on beauty in line with prevailing norms. This practically means that most men are only going to publicly praise the beauty of extremely good looking women, which creates a false standard of what men actually find attractive.
In sum, beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, but it’s not simply a product of biology either. It’s exists at the intersection of biological, cultural, and individual factors. It is much more malleable than we think. And what we find beautiful is broader than what is publicly expressed.
Men should be careful not to let manosphere influencers psych them out of getting married or dating women they genuinely find attractive.
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