How many average-looking people do you see everyday? Do you give them the same consideration, the same extra moment of time and thought, that you do a person to whom you are attracted?
The notion of what we find physically beautiful in someone is a complicated one. Aside from relationships and love, I am fasciated about how beauty influences our everyday lives and our innermost selves.
Anthropologists will tell you that different societies find different traits beautiful. We know from the milestone book “Yanomamo: Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology,” that the native people of the Amazon rain forest find men with thick necks sexually appealing. The reason, the book speculates, is that those men are seen as stronger (thick necks mean strong muscles in the back) and therefore better mates.
In another example from my own experience: While I was growing up in my native country of Armenia, I was treated as one of the more attractive boys in school. Both boys and girls wanted to be around me, to be my friend. I was very popular through no deserving action of my own. Adults treated me as something special just upon meeting me. People smiled when they saw me.
When I moved to the United States at a young age, I had to adjust to a different aesthetic and a different way of being seen. By American cultural standards, I was no longer among the most attractive. I didn’t get special treatment. I was appreciated and well treated, as all kids deserve to be, but I realized early on that there was something very different in how people saw me.
Growing up into my adult self, I have had to reconcile these two realities. The sense of self that I developed at a young age in Armenia, based on how I was seen there, has always remained a potent part of me. But it was reshaped based on the way I was and am seen in the U.S.
There was a period in my adolescence, when these two experiences clashed to form a bitterness and resentment. I was cynical of others’ motives and saw hypocrisy in everything. Thankfully, I was able to move on from that.
My past and present experiences have put me in a unique place, in that I find myself able to see the world from the point of you of the physically attractive and the point of view of the rest of us.
What I’ve come to realize is that the notion of beauty and how we interact with each other based on that notion, is mixed up in evolutionary imperatives, social structure, and psychology. And not only does it inform how we treat others, it informs our personalities based on how others see us, it informs our expectations of others and our world views. And in forming our outward selves based on the types of looks we have, we then propagate the expectations of others’ about what people’s appearances forecast about who they are.
At the most basic level, we can all admit that our first judgments upon meeting someone are based on visual cues. The simplest of these cues is, of course, how someone is dressed, how their hair looks, their physical shape, their facial features (symmetry apparently being among the most important for beauty) and the quality of their skin.
Scientists have studied some of these visual cues and assigned evolutionary imperatives to them. For example, they hypothesize that we often find clear skin visually appealing, because in evolutionary terms clear skin is a signal of someone’s health. Before medicine, this was likely a good way to propagate the species and survive.
But what about now? Are these visual cues still relevant? Our rational brains will tell us, no. We expect more from ourselves, that we treat others both as we would want to be treated, and that we interact with others based on who they are, not based on their looks.
But if we honestly examine our everyday actions, we know that we still respond to these cues. They are powerful and impact how we treat others in very subtle, as well as overt, ways. The more subtle intrusions are the most insidious and most profoundly influence our lives.
Have you found yourself wanting to help someone or befriend them just because of how they looked; because they were attractive (whether or not you were attracted to them)?
Here is an example form one of the most representative forms of our popular culture – reality television. In one episode of the television program “My Life on The D List,” comedienne Kathy Griffin spent time with Paris Hilton. In one scene, they were by a pool, surrounded by beautiful people, and Kathy asked Paris whether she could get a very attractive man near them to come over. Paris simply turned around and asked the man to take their picture, and he immediately complied.
Of course, this example is polluted by the culture of celebrity, the fact that there were cameras there. But the larger point is that Kathy Griffin was surprised when Paris simply called out to the man and he immediately responded. Whereas by Paris Hilton’s expression, this seemed the most natural thing to her.
I wonder if Paris Hilton’s world view is shaped by the fact that people respond to her so readily and easily. Besides her wealth and celebrity, could she see the world as a much more generous place simply by the way people react to hear looks? And can this, in turn, give her a certain happiness and confidence that others don’t have?
Conversely, Kathy Griffin, whose program’s premise is that nothing comes easy to hear, has another worldview as exemplified by her shock and surprise at the attractive man’s easy compliance to Paris Hilton’s request. Kathy Griffin doesn’t expect people to be generous and helpful. She doesn’t expect them to be kind to her. And her outward persona to the world reflects this expectation, which itself feeds into what others expect of Kathy Griffin. It is self-perpetuating.
Have you made immediate assumptions about people because of their physical beauty, whether positive or negative? If our outward personas, and probably also our inner selves, can be influenced by how others treat us because of how we look, then it stands to reason that we can fall into expected patterns of personality and behavior that our ‘type’ of look would have.
What ‘type’ of people are funny, morose, calm, happy-go-lucky, honest, sexual? Isn’t it interesting that often the way people look can tell you about how they will behave? Afterall, where does the Hollywood notion of ‘typecasting’ come from? If you look at casting notices for auditions, you will see that looks are assigned very specific character traits. You are a ‘type.’ Seldom to we as a society, let alone those casting our entertainment programming, examine why we have certain assumptions about looks and types. A short man can’t be the romantic hero. An overweight woman cannot be the happy ingenue.
The notion of beauty and our relationship with it so complex, that I wonder if we’ll ever conquer this powerful, gravity-like drive that compels much of our actions and interactions.