If there is one notion that is completely distorted and misunderstood in this world, it must be the notion of “beauty”.
Beauty contests, beautiful people, beautiful cars, beautiful houses, clothes, legs, furniture, websites, paintings, songs, writings……
Even scientists are trying to prove that this concept has a correlation in reality and please remember, the cosmetics industry, which is basically just a huge pile of people on planet Earth creating and selling “stuff” (mixtures of chemical compounds) ONLY to “enhance” one’s look, is worth 70 billion/year in the US, Europe, and Japan alone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmetics#Cosmetic_industry
Because this notion is so vague, I will try to break it down in 3 categories: culture, design and science.
I am sure all of you have used this word many times to describe various things from people to objects and feelings, but what do you really mean when you say “What a beautiful girl” or “This is such a beautiful painting” ?
PEOPLE - PHYSICAL BEAUTY
Look at this picture.
"They were the goddesses of pleasant charm, of charitable deeds and of gratitude . .. without them nothing would be graceful or pleasing. They gave people friendliness, uprightness of character, sweetness and conversation...They were presented as three beautiful virgins and were either completely naked or clothed in some fine, transparent fabric...They stood together all three so that two of their faces were turned towards the spectator and only one was turned away from him." http://www.wga.hu/html_m/r/rubens/23mythol/55mythol.html
But in today’s society, these 3 girls would probably be diagnosed with social anxiety (read our indepth article about why psychology is may not be a science) due to their probable social exile because of what is perceived today as their “ugly” fat bodies.
These beauty goddesses are depicted in many paintings and statues and they differ from culture to culture, and the time they were depicted.
[WELL KNOWN AND ACCEPTED NOTIONS OF BEAUTY]
In the 15th century, upper-class ladies of northern Europe painfully plucked their hairline to make their foreheads seem higher.
Queen Elizabeth was instrumental in setting the female trends for this Elizabethan era (hence the name). Society women copied her naturally pale complexion and red hair, using white powder in great abundance, along with red wigs. Unfortunately, the most successful means for recreating Elizabeth's pallor was ceruse, or white lead, which was later discovered to be toxic. Inspired by Italian women, the Elizabethan lady would also add a healthy glow to her cheeks by using lead-based rouge colored with dye. She'd color in her eyebrows, lips and even blue veins with alabaster pencils. For the final touch, she'd apply a thin glaze of egg-white paste to hold it all together.
Unlike Renaissance women, Victorian women were very body conscious. Sexy meant having the smallest waistline humanly possible. In order to achieve this look, women wore corsets. Some corsets were wound so tight that women could hardly breathe, to the point where sitting down was completely out of the question. Many women would even break ribs trying to get their waistlines down to an inconceivable 12 inches. Layered petticoats, hoops, and bustles became very popular, all of which magnified the largest parts of the body
The 1920s was a decade when women didn't want to look like women at all. We can’t imagine that men today would find this sexy, but some women of the ’20s era would even bind their chests with strips of cloth to achieve a little boy look– quite contradictory to some of the measures that today's women take in order to amplify their chests.
Since humans first appeared on Earth, the way female beauty was depicted has been dependent on culture and time: short legs, long legs; fat body,skinny body; long hair, short hair; tall, short; big eyes, small eyes; white skin, black skin;...
Today, many girls want a darker tan to be more beautiful, but a few centuries back, having milky-white skin was the main characteristic of a woman’s beauty. What is beautiful today, a few centuries or even decades ago would have been ugly, even gross. A skinny, beauty model today may have been rejected by all males a hundred years ago.
But ideas of physical beauty haven't fluctuated just for women. The concept of beauty regarding males is just as fluctuating and ancient.
In the Ancient World, men’s beauty was seen in one’s muscular body, a semi-bodybuilder type of a body. In the Renaissance period, a beautiful male body was someone who appeared unable to do a great deal of physical labour. In the 17th century, good-looking males were those who had a long-haired wig, which is mainly associated with females today.
18th century: as you can see again, the way males look and even the gestures were more closely related to how women were perceived over other periods of time, including today.
Men’s chest hair was a sign of masculinity not long ago, but now it may be regarded as unattractive. A few years ago, suggesting to a guy that he should shave his chest would have been ridiculous. Yet today, this is quite widely accepted and no longer associated only with females. So you see, these things continually change from era to era, for both males and females.
All of the above examples were widely accepted notions of beauty at various periods of time, but we all know that this notion is far more varied.
It is also interesting to note that whatever may be seen as beautiful today may be seen as ridiculous and ugly, or even grotesque, tomorrow. Also, there are many cultures in the world where the notions of one’s physical beauty is contradictory to what other cultures regard as such. What is beautiful in this culture may be regarded as ugly in another one.
The following are “extreme” notions of beauty, although maybe not to those who regard them as attractive. And they are just as normal as any that have already been presented thus far.
[Extreme notions of beauty.]
While people all around the world are looking for a perfect denture, in Japan it is quite the opposite. People pay hundreds of pounds to have crooked teeth.
While in our “modern” world, girls are encouraged to get skinnier to be pretty, the opposite is true in other cultures.
And if you think these plentiful and varied concepts of male and female physical beauty - some widely accepted notions, some not as much - are all that exist, you would be wrong, simply because the line between male and female is not at all well-defined. So we cannot even say that ‘this’ is what female beauty looks like or ‘that’ is how male beauty is determined, because we cannot even define male or female in the first place. We discussed gender in one of our previous issues, so you can read it thoughtfully if you want to know more about this fuzzy line between genders. https://www.tromsite.com/2015/04/behaving-from-genes-to-gender/
Of course, physical beauty is not the only “beauty” people see in others. A rich man can be regarded as “attractive” only because he is wealthy. One’s fame may have the same effect. Career, power, wealth, social status, and so on are just a few that may influence the notion of one’s beauty.
As there are so many notions of beauty regarding the human body, some even contradictory with others, some changing from era to era, I think it is right to say that beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder. It’s something that, from this perspective alone, doesn’t exist in an objective form. It’s only something people appreciate in their own way, influenced by their culture.
[Art is such a vague word that it is almost meaningless. But still people find beauty there.] - This text may be deleted
You may say that this well known painting of Jesus from 7th century is beautiful because was done by a well-known artist and is worth a fortune. But is it the painting itself that looks beautiful and worthy to you, or the year it was done, or the painter who painted it? Look very closely at the picture and try not to think that it was done by this well known painter who had a special way of painting on wood, even being half blind (which may impress some).
Do you still like it as much now ?
The easiest way to understand how a painting is seen as beautiful mostly because of the culture that is created around it, is to imagine taking a painting done by a 3 year-old kid and say it was done by a renowned painter and try to sell it as expensively as possible. You will see that many would fall for your scam. In fact, this scam is widely used. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_student_scam .
In one of the Real Hustle’s episodes, they did the exact same thing: they took a painting done by some kids and sold it for several thousands pounds to someone that was an art fan. They even had their painting examined by an expert who agreed it was worth that much. The same idea was tackled in the Battle of The Brains documentary, where a few people from various careers (musicians, physicists, etc) were asked to paint a painting and then they put them all up for sale.
Among these people was a well-known painter, but all the paintings were mixed so that no one knew which one was made by whom. Interestingly, the painting that gained the highest bid was the one that the physicist painted, while the one created by the renowned painter was among the poorly rated ones.
A well-known painter by the name of Banksy recently sold his work anonymously on public streets to prove the weird commercialization of art. His paintings, estimated to be worth $40k or more each, were sold for $60 or less, thus proving that people who were not influenced by the culture behind those paintings won't recognize their huge worth in the art world. Therefore, commercialization, the market, and the culture around the painting makes the painting beautiful, worthy, and expensive.
“ Exit Through the Gift Shop “ is a documentary made by Banksy that proves in more detail how art is something purely subjective and how anyone can do it. I highly recommend you watch this documentary to see how a french guy who had no connection to art and paintings gets to make millions of dollars from selling nonsensical paintings.
Remember the 7th-century Jesus painted on wood by the well-known artist who was half blind ?
Well, if you looked closely at Jesus’s eyes, you actually looked at a dog’s butt because it is a picture of a dog’s butt (source - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/13/dog-butt-looks-like-jesus-photo_n_3436086.html )
Maybe if I hadn’t told you the real story behind the Jesus painting you probably would have seen some beauty there, but knowing the truth now, you will hardly find beauty in it. This is to show you again how culture influences what you regard as “beautiful”.
[Strange art forms:]
Fashion, as we all know, changes from year to year, or even from month to month, and so what is beautiful today, a few years ago was ugly. This fluctuates so much that there is no point in analyzing it in detail. And this also goes for songs, writings, photos, and so on.
All are subjective beauties.
Design is another word with so many meanings that it seems crazy to try to tackle it. But what I want to talk about is graphic design; be it web design or even the design for this magazine.
I have been designing websites for seven years or more and have noticed how much the notion of a good looking website has changed over the years. Back in 2005, when I started to design my first websites, I remember it was all full of shadows, inner glows, gradient colors - a 3-D looking website full of colors and gif animations. Today is different. Many websites use only a few colors and a flat-like design. Mine also look a lot cleaner and simple now, but all of that movement from crowded website design to a simple look didn’t apply for all. Many websites are still crowded while others have remained simpler since back in early 2000.
Technology played a huge role in changing the notion of a beautiful website with the introduction of wide screens. Smartphones and tablets then brought more changes with touch screen. What a web design book from 2008 says about web design may be completely irrelevant today.
Today you can see websites with a top menu, side menu, hidden menu. Multiple combinations of colors and page layouts. There is no ‘one way’ to design a website and the internet itself proves that constantly.
Sometimes when people want to help with designing this magazine, because we need help with that since we all work as volunteers and we can only do so much, I often come across people saying things like : “This is the right way to design the magazine. Listen to me, I am a graphic designer.”
I love people wanting to help and I am eager to work with them, but this approach is, by all means, chaotic and with no basis in reality. We cannot agree on what is the best way to design a magazine because there is no ‘best way’.
There are thousands of different magazine designs out there, and as for the web design, their concept of “beauty” has changed from year to year. You’ll find pages with many photos or no photos at all; multiple colors or a scheme of just a few colors per issue.
But let’s imagine for a second: How can we decide that one design looks better than another one?
We ask the readers which one they like the best
We analyze how much time people spend on a page
We follow the rules of design (whatever they are at that time)
How can we know that our readers will preserve their aesthetic taste over time if we take their opinion into consideration ?
We all know by now that just because many people have the same opinion about something, it’s not necessary an educated opinion. Actually, as history proves, it’s the other way around. Today, more than 80% of the world’s population is religious. Does that make any religion true ?
So numbers say nothing about a design looking better or worst. It only says that this amount of people liked this design. And what they like is another complicated discussion. Maybe some like the colors, maybe some had a very good day and are more prone to like a design, and so on. Nothing exact, so there’s no science here.
The same goes for any design that you can imagine when it comes to how it looks. I’ve seen some people preferring square rooms or round ones, painted red or black, tall rooms or short ones, yellow buildings, buildings with a shoe shape, or penis shape.
But still some may argue that there is a science behind all these notions of beauty: from people to buildings, from websites to fashion.
Let’s analyze that.
When some proclaimed scientists want to analyze the notion of beauty, it seems that their only means by doing it is psychology which, unfortunately as it proves again and again, is not a science (LINK).
They look at how people react to, let’s say, some people’s faces or they ask test subjects which face they like the most. By whatever approach they take with this, they need people’s opinions and by crunching the numbers, they can come up with statistics that show for instance that 76% of people like this type of face that they, the researchers, defined by their own subjective means: big eyes, long chin, big forehead, etc..
So you take 3000 people and show them 60 different faces. They pick the ones they like the best. You then analyze what they liked and try to find correlations between pictures. For instance, you may notice that most for them liked people with blue eyes. But let’s not forget, this is something that you, as the researcher, came up with. Even if you ask them or follow their eye movement and realize that indeed they like more the people with blue eyes, the experiment only tells you that 76% of 3000 people liked people with blue eyes. That’s all it says.
These people may change their perception in 3 hours or 3 months about people with blue eyes. Also, recognize that 3000 people are not 7 billion. More than that, as we pointed out before, numbers say nothing. If 99% of people like blue eyes and 1% don’t, it doesn’t make blue eyes beautiful.
Another psychology exam they use is based on evolutionary psychology methods.
Although we showed in our special Psychology edition that psychology is not an exact science at all, and even discussed about evolutionary psychology in particular, I will tackle this idea again since it is something that mainstream media seems unable to grasp and often presents erroneously.
There are three main ideas that seems scientific which tackle the notion of beauty:
- Beauty is innate
- Beauty equals Health
- Some people argue that facial symmetry equates to beauty. So imagine a picture of you having been cut in half. If you then duplicate one of the halves and mirror it against its original, you will supposedly look better. Symmetric. Although numerous studies have been done, nothing conclussive has resulted from the efforts https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_symmetry . Not only is symmetry almost impossible to detect by anyone, but it seems that numerous psychological studies, like the one above where we imagined about blue eyes, cannot show any definitive result whatsoever. Also, keep in mind that even if a study shows that more members of the group preferred symmetric faces, that is not the same as saying symmetric faces are more beautiful. It’s only showing that some people from that particular study preferred symmetric faces over the normal ones that they were shown. You also really have to define “symmetric”, because it seems to me impossible to find a symmetric face in the real world. Additionally, people are not statues; they smile, cry, become sad, and make facial expression all the time.
Here are a few examples of these symmetric faces. See which one you like more or if this makes sense to you. http://www.wengie.com/2013/06/beauty-is-you-face-symmetrical-tag.html
So this theory, like the other ones, is completely flawed. If it proves anything, it proves again how psychology fails to be science.
- Can we be born with cultural values ?
First read this statement: “ Two studies conducted in the mid-1980s independently demonstrate that infants as young as two and three months old gaze longer at a face that adults judge to be more attractive than at a face that adults judge to be less attractive. Babies are wonderfully hedonistic and have no manners, so they stare at objects that they consider to be pleasing. When babies stare at some faces longer than others, it indicates that they prefer to look at them and find them attractive. “ http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200804/all-stereotypes-are-true-except-ii-beauty-is-in-the-eye-th
This is like saying that babies look more at stars that do not twinkle, therefore they are attracted to planets. They do that because they like planets more than they like stars.
How mad is it to conclude that ?
Well both are purely interpretations. Firstly, you cannot judge what is more attractive, as we showed earlier, so this experiment is flawed before beginning. Secondly, you can only assume reasons for why infants look more at the so-called attractive people. Again, bad psychology…
- One of the strongest scientific ‘facts’ around this notion seems to be the evolutionary motive of why beauty exists.
I need to emphasize again for you to read our article on psychology to understand in detail why psychology is not a science because, like in the other cases we presented in that article, here again, psychology is making all sorts of subjective interpretations.
Evolutionary psychologists say that beauty is actually a bunch of physical characteristics that resemble a healthy body and this is why we perceive them as beautiful (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqTbwMmwGlw). Really ?
Can I easily tell if a beautiful girl has AIDS, a brain tumor, or perhaps some other unhealthy medical conditions ? If so, I would be a top doctor in this world; even a messiah. This is either a very poorly presented theory or a typical nonsense psychological test. Really, look at the world a little bit and see how many body types and conditions there are: people without eyebrows, with one leg, no hair, too much hair, two vaginas, one eye, short necks, huge fingernails, fat, skinny, black, white, poor vision, poor circulatory blood system, diabetes, and so on, and so on… Then consider that people spread across all of these types have girlfriends and boyfriends, get married, attract admirers, and have people who love them.
Saying that people choose girls with big eyes because big eyes resemble health is such an unprovable concept that is plain crazy to try to find meaning in it. Whether it’s an unconscious or consciousness reaction, it is still beyond imagination to try to link that reaction due to such a vast and complex story.
Imagine doing the same studies for cars. So let’s say people like cars with big wheels and shiny colors. We all know that not all people like those features, but like the psychological studies, let’s suppose we agree that most people like those types of cars. Now let’s find a correlations for the big wheels, shiny paint and the car. We may say that big wheels resemble a better built car and the shiny paint screams that this car is healthy and well-managed. So we can now say that this all makes sense: people like big wheels and shinny paint because this is proved to be an advantage for them over the years and this is why they like those features. They associate these features with a well-built, well-maintained car. But even if this is right, it’s something they learned along the way. We cannot say that anyone was born with this notion for cars. Cars weren't here 2000 years ago, just as the human body has changed much over the last 40000 years.
That doesn’t even consider that the car may have rust building up under the shiny paint and the big wheels may have been added more for aesthetics rather than resembling a robust design. Similarly, the perceived beauty of one’s body (well dressed, makeup, etc) may be masking some health issues, and this very common situation flies in the face of the “beauty equals health” theory.
If you want to delight your sight with the vast so called studies of what is beauty, please read this wikipedia psychology based article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_attractiveness
Overall, when people say they use science to prove the concept of physical beauty, they use psychology - which is not science. They use people's personal, subjective opinions and extract whatever meanings they want from the results. Just think about how many similarities they find between cultures when it comes to beauty versus how many differences there are between these cultures. I bet there are far more differences than similarities when it comes to subjective “beauty”.
As with physical beauty, this notion was attempted to be scientifically proven using exactly the same kind of psychological tests. Analyzing a bunch of people’s responses through a series of tests to see what website designs, magazines layouts, etc. they liked more.
They then concluded that people like certain colors, shapes, text fonts, and so on, and they generalize all of that by saying “people like this kind of design more”.
One thing that I often hear when it comes to designing a website or this magazine is that experts have numbers to show a design is more efficient than another. I have nothing against that since it’s probably true, but efficiency is not about how good a website or a magazine looks.
And this brings us to the next point : the two M’s - Marketing and Manipulation.
Companies often hire “experts” to do all kind of psychological tests so that they can better sell their products, and this is often claimed as being scientific if they have a successful business. After all, if I hire beauty models that are recommended by “specialists” as being beautiful to sell the jeans I made, and I see an increase in sales, I have all the rights to associate that with the conscious choice I made to hire those models.
This happens all the time for almost all companies, but the erroneous concept is associating that with beauty: saying that these models sold more jeans because they were more beautiful, as if that is a general concept. The two M’s (marketing and manipulation) and the notion of beauty are two separated things. The last one is a subjective notion, the other one is taking advantage of this subjective notion.
Same goes for any website designed by “professional graphic designers”. They analyze what people like and use that information to design websites so that they might experience more success as a webdesign company. But again, the websites that they make are not a model of beautiful websites, or well-done web design. It’s just what it is: them using some ideas after doing some highly questionable tests to improve their sales. The results obtained from this kind of testing are generally sought in order to improve the overall efficiency of their designs, not their so-called ‘beauty'. I’m sure YouTube and Facebook have such teams of designers, and still so many complain that their websites or players are awful, unintuitive and ugly. And this is happening because, for the last time: beauty is a purely subjective notion.
For me, this notion of beauty is completely meaningless. If I see a girl and I consider her beautiful, I understand that it is just a subjective notion, even though I enjoy that feeling. Or if a see anything that I consider to be good looking, I understand the concept. I will never argue with anyone over something quality of “beauty” because it exists purely as an individual perspective. I witness people disagreeing over such things all time: this is a beautiful girl - no I tell you this one is; this is such a beautiful voice - no it’s not; and so on.
So why did I spent so much text explaining this meaningless concept ?
Well, because for many, its meaninglessness is not yet understood. Many people end up killing themselves because they believe that they are ugly; many more are bullied at schools or workplaces because of their “abnormal” body look; others spend billions on this concept (like the cosmetic industry) while they could do so much with that money; many people spend many hours a day trying to make themselves look better, some even go to extreme surgery to achieve that; another risk is when it comes to creativity: such fields like graphic design, music, poetry and so on are all affected when you erroneously define a standard model of beauty for them. If I had to respect web design's ‘standard rules’, I wouldn't have made any of the websites I've created.
If I see a guy with a big nose, or an overweight girl, or someone with three legs, I cannot make fun of them or even say they are ugly. Since I understand that “beauty” is a subjective concept, the concept of “ugly” does not make sense to me. Imagine more people thinking like this.
As I have shown you, there are so many cultures in the world that have completely different general notions of what beauty is - from people to objects or ideas. It seems completely maverik to me to take such notions and try to prove them scientifically. I hope that now you realize the value behind this notion and next time you look in the mirror and think you are not that beautiful, remember, is that really your own view or just society’s perspective and manipulative influence on your thinking? You can change your mind about that at any time, and if you think you are beautiful, you are.
So this idea of “beauty” is a verbal hobby, at best, to describe something we like. Trying to find this concept in reality is like trying to search for “cool”, “lame”, “wow” or other such verbal hobbies that we use to describe various things we do or don’t like.