Just a Thought: Relationship between health, beauty and senior life
Part 3: How does beauty influence people's behaviour?
Over the past three decades the popular magazine Psychology Today has conducted various surveys to gauge how people feel about the appearance of their bodies. The changing results make for interesting reading. The dramatic changes in beauty culture have significantly altered peoples' perceptions of themselves; women as well as men have expressed dissatisfaction about some aspect of their body shapes.
In the developed world the preoccupation with the body and with beauty is intensifying and the beauty industry, despite decades of feminism, is a multi-billion dollar a year business. Yet despite this preoccupation with beauty and despite the well-publicised health risks many in the Australian population are growing obese. Many women, particularly among the younger group, are developing anorexia nervosa and other serious and potentially fatal mental health problems. These factors suggest some deep-rooted anxieties in human psychology. Feminists have blamed men and a patriarchal society. Socialists have blamed capitalists and the advertising industry. What is really going on? Why are both men and women more preoccupied, more anxious, about being beautiful these days than ever before?
The increasing preoccupation with beauty is linked with many of the great cultural and social changes of the past three decades. Anxieties about beauty resonate deeply in human psychology. Men don't cause women to want to be beautiful nor does capitalism or the advertising industries. Cultural and social conditions heighten these anxieties and being beautiful can be felt to be the solution. And, fundamentally, this has to do with the biological purpose of beauty (Ref: www.beautyworlds.com/beautybiologica.htm).
The science of attraction
Sones describes the biological purpose of beauty as the science of attraction. In Beauty, sex, and war Sones argues that the myths of ancient peoples are not just imaginative stories of the uneducated, unscientific and superstitious peoples. The psychological origins of some ancient wars can be understood through disciplines of evolutionary psychology and anthropology for example, Helen of Troy, but many feminists disagree.
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss - Christopher Marlowe in Dr Faustus
Historically, poets have swooned over it since the invention of the written word; singers started crooning about it even before that time. It is a central theme in our daily lives, from the books we read to the people who make our hearts beat a little faster. It is what "makes the world go round." However, romantic love, as one knows it, remains an intangible feeling. No definitive method exists to calculate or predict to whom one is attracted. For the most part, attraction remains an unsolved mystery--until now.
From the same discipline that brought the mysteries of genetic inheritance into the realm of understanding, science has been tackling a new question: what causes attraction? Experiments involving everything from sweaty T-shirts to facial symmetry have started to piece together some of the clues to this enormously complex phenomenon. Not surprisingly, the unifying theme behind all of this information is one common to biology: evolutionary fitness.
Judging beauty has a strong evolutionary component. The scientific properties of attraction (to whatever extent they are involved) can be explained by the simple will to produce viable offspring, also know as healthy kids says Devendra Singh, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas.
Beyond this underlying principle of attraction, one begins to wonder how and on what level, one can judge the fitness of another person. Certainly, a person smitten for the first time doesn't ask for a genetic sequence and specifics about that special someone's immune system before an approach. Yet some of that information is received and interpreted at a sub-conscious level, yielding all of the necessary information to trigger attraction without any expensive tests. The study of attraction has so far identified two main ways in which fitness information can be encoded from one person to another: pheromones and body form.
What are pheromones?
Pheromones are chemically secreted, odourless, airborne molecules that trigger sexual responses in humans and animals - the sixth sense. Research indicates that vomeronasal organs (VNO) in the nostrils receive pheromone molecules and connect directly to a part of the brain that is responsible for basic drives and emotions. These substances serve as a stimulus to other individuals of the same species for one or more behavioural responses. What makes this discovery important is that the VNO/pheromone effect is not dependent on any conditioning through experience. It is direct.
Do pheromones work on humans?
The VNO organ physically exists in humans just as in other animals, but many scientists believe that it is often rendered ineffective by disuse after vision and other faculties became more popular. Nevertheless, a number of pheromones and pheromone-like substances have been isolated in humans, and have been shown in scientific studies to have an effect on a variety of human behaviours and hormonal processes. Pheromones are now a biological buzzword for genetic research worldwide.
Whether these effects are 100% "true" pheromone reactions or not is an interesting point and require further research, but it is a moot point to the perfume industry. The beauty industry continues to use social marketing concepts and design promotional campaigns to enhance the sale of perfumes in the name of improving human behaviour, wellbeing and social harmony.
Beyond pheromones, many scientists believe that body form, especially symmetry, conveys a sub-conscious message of fitness and initiates attraction. The theory goes that asymmetrical phenotypic features give clues to underlying genetic problems, thus yielding less viable offspring.
Literature explains that symmetry is used "as a means of ascertaining the stress susceptibility of developmental regulatory mechanisms." In other words, organisms that maintain symmetrical features under environmental stresses also maintain healthy, unaffected genomes. Symmetry is simply a way for an organism, including a human, to advertise that genetic fitness.
Studies of symmetry in humans have also shown that men especially are more attracted to women with symmetrical features. Besides symmetry, there are other subtle clues to fitness in the human body. Society has often propelled the "hour-glass figure" as a model for all women to strive for, and with good reason. Even this seemingly obvious attracting trait has a biological basis. Studies also show that beauty pageant contests usually consider the attractiveness of women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 over a range of weights.
However, not everyone is convinced that pheromones and body form control attraction. Indeed, one must always take into consideration the role of free will in attraction. In addition, many researchers have suggested that pheromones and body form only get the proverbial foot in the door; from there, the course of the relationship is controlled by many other factors, both conscious and sub-conscious.
But the question remains, why are we so fascinated with the science of attraction? Perhaps some are tantalized by the idea of being able to quantify a previously mysterious subject. The idea of identifying love by free-floating molecules and symmetrical features is a radical, if not a scary, way of understanding one of the greatest human mysteries. Others may simply be looking for friendship and companionship.
And finally, even though the science of attraction is still much debated, commercialisation of human attractiveness is taken over by the beauty industry: Falling in Love, is a new pheromone perfume presently marketed at $100 for 10 mls!
06 august 2003
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- Cutler WB; Friedmann E; McCoy NL.1998. Pheromonal influences on sociosexual behavior in men. Athena Institute for Women's Wellness Research, Pennsylvania USA. Arch Sex Behav, 27(1):1-13 1998 Feb. www.love-scent.com/research/hum-stud.html
- Elder R. The science of attraction. www.emory.edu/college/hybridvigor/issue1/attraction.
- Enquist M, Arak A. Evolutionary psychology: symmetry, beauty and evolution. University of Stockholm, Sweden. www.geocities.com/evolvedthinking/evolutionary_psyh
- Paton L. Searching for the meaning of life. Senior Living Resource Guide, Centre for Healthy Ageing, Oregon Health University. www.activeseniors.org/
- Singh D 1993. Body shape and female attractiveness: The critical role of waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). Human Nature, 4: 297-321.
- Sobel N and Brown W. 2001. The scented brain: pheromonal responses in humans. Neuron. 31 (4): 512-4.
- Sones M. The biological purpose of beauty. www.beautyworlds.com/beautybiological
- Sones M. Body dysmorphic disorder. www.beautyworlds.com/bodydd.htm
- Stearns PN 2000. Fat history: bodies and beauty in the modern west. www.Amazon.com