Health, beauty and seniors
According to a report in The Economist (22 May 2003), many citizens of the industrialised world now spend more each year on beauty (of the body) than they do on education (beauty of the mind). Traditional thinking tells us that beauty signals health, but it is also true that health signals beauty!
Moghaddam (2003) discusses this issue in a four-part series on the relationship between health, beauty, and senior life: how do we explain the importance of beauty? There seems to be no limit to the growth of the beauty industry, which is expanding in both high-income and low-income societies. There also seems to be no limit to the length to which people will go, how much they are willing to sacrifice and suffer, for the sake of presenting themselves as more beautiful. There are endless examples across cultures of large numbers of people putting themselves through rigid diets, some serious surgical operations in order to meet beauty criteria. In modern societies since the early 1990s there has been an enormous increase in the number of people undergoing cosmetic surgery, such as breast implants, liposuction, bottom implants, botox injections (to freeze the facial muscles that cause wrinkles), nose jobs, and the like. Why is this? Why do people sacrifice so much for the sake of beauty? And yet, spend less on gaining knowledge?
Seduced by marketing
One argument is that we are seduced by the powerful marketing campaigns of the international beauty companies. After all, beauty firms spend only about 2-3% of their sales on research and development (compared to 15% by the pharmaceutical industry) and an enormous 20-25% on advertising and promotion. There is no doubt that advertising is part of the answer: it is so difficult to escape the lure of so many glamorous ads, inviting us to join the world of sexy women and men, laughing and playing on the beach, dancing in exotic nightclubs, driving luxurious cars on roads that never experience traffic jams, and always lead to greener pastures and open blue skies.
But modern advertising is only part of the answer, because sacrifice and serious investment for the sake of beauty is also found in traditional societies, places where many Australian advertising firms have not yet reached.
Anthropologists have documented many cases of traditional societies in which people suffer, among other things, painful tattoo paintings all over their bodies, elongation of their necks and ears, stretching of their lips, and the binding of their feet and other parts of their bodies to prevent growth, all for the sake of being seen as more beautiful according to local ideals. In some respects, the eagerness of humans to find ways to "look more beautiful" is nothing new.
Social exchange and self-esteem explanations
One explanation for the eagerness to be seen as beautiful is based on the idea of social exchange. The assumption here is that human social life can be seen as a kind of marketplace, where individuals expect their behaviour to lead to commensurate return. Each individual comes to the marketplace with certain qualities (education, personality, social skills), and engages in exchange with others. From this perspective, people will invest heavily in beauty, because it is among the most important of the personal qualities that determine "value" in the marketplace.
Another, less materialistic, explanation of people's readiness to sacrifice for beauty is related to self-esteem. The assumption in this case is that all individuals want to be positively evaluated by others in their group; people like to be praised and applauded. When individuals are viewed positively, they enjoy higher self-esteem. In contrast, when people are evaluated negatively, they are more likely to feel negative about themselves. One of the most important factors influencing how others evaluate us is appearance - "face value" or "looks". For this reason, many people sacrifice a great deal to appear more beautiful to others. When they are seen as beautiful, they are evaluated more positively, and that makes them feel better. Consequently, for the sake of boosting one's own self-esteem, these people invest in beauty and are persuaded by beauty-product advertisements.
An even more influential explanation for the huge investments in beauty is the so-called socio-biological or "evolutionary psychology" theory. While the term "socio-biology" was dropped because of its association with "eugenics" and other politically suspect movements, many researchers in this camp prefer the label "evolutionary psychology". According to evolutionary psychology, physical attraction is important because it is a sign of health. The starting point for evolutionary psychology is the assumption that humans act selfishly to maximize the chances of passing on their genes. In order to achieve this goal, men and women adopt certain strategies for selecting mates. Such strategies are to some extent different for women and men, because of their different physiological characteristics. Women can have a finite number of children over a period of about 25 years and limited by the 9-month pregnancy period. On the other hand, men can father thousands of children. This difference, evolutionary psychologists argue, leads to differences in behaviour: women tend to be more selective in their partners, and to invest in men who are more reliable and resourceful (economically and intellectually). In contrast, men are less selective and more willing to indulge in promiscous lifestyles. But in one important sense women and men are similar: all things being equal, individuals generally show a preference for partners who are more attractive. Why would that be?
From an evolutionary perspective, the importance of beauty is that it signals better health. The physical characteristics that are most admired in both men and women are clear skin, shiny eyes, gleaming hair, proportioned body, and so on, and these are also all indicators of good physical health.
The cosmetic industry thrives by persuading people that by purchasing their products and services these people can look more beautiful, and appear to others as more healthy. The whole thrust of their marketing is "beauty means health". But, Moghaddam (2003) puts forward an argument that "health is beauty" and, therefore, investing directly in a healthy lifestyle is the best way to be more beautiful.
Ref: Fathali M Moghaddam PhD http://www.healthandage.com/Home/gm
16 july 2003
- The longevity dialogues. http://www.healthandage.com/html/res/longevity_dialogues/
- Shachi D. Shantinath 2001. Mind and body: turning connection into advantage. http://www.healthandage.com/Home/gid2=1282, 12 September 2001.
- Mariah E Coe 2001. Worrying in later life: ways to identify and treat generalized anxiety http://www.healthandage.com/Home/gid2=1282, 3 August 2001.