Relationship between health, beauty and senior life part 1
What is beauty?
Xochiquetzal was the Aztec goddess of beauty. The quetzal is a beautiful bird of the Central American tropics with long and elegant tail feathers. The god of night, Tezcatlipoca, kidnapped her because she was so beautiful. She became the goddess of love. Her name means precious feather flower and links both the beauty of birds, flowers and women. The Aztecs of Mexico were a highly developed community with astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and a developed aesthetic sense. Flowers-and-song was their name for poetry, art and symbolism. Some of their poetry is emotionally very expressive. Yet, they also practiced human sacrifice.
In many cultures beauty seems to be strongly associated with the feminine. Beauty attracts yet it also provokes anxiety. In Aztec mythology, this relationship articulates a universal fear about the relationship between beauty and violence. So, how are we to understand cultures that have an appreciation of the beautiful, yet they also have experience of grief e.g. The Conquest of New Spain? Anxiety about the potential hurtfulness of beauty seems to haunt many in the human psyche. We might question then: is the inside of the beautiful object what it seems to be on the outside?
In this connection, Michael Sones (2002) responds by stating that appearance matters. What our ancestors have endowed to us through their genes does matter. Beauty does matter. It is a noble idealism that says that it should not. The evidence overwhelmingly is, in many walks of life, that our relative attractiveness influences what others think of us. Nancy L. Etcoff (2000) argues that looking good has survival value, and that sensitivity to beauty is a biological adaptation governed by brain circuits shaped by natural selection.
It is also said that you cannot judge a book solely by its cover. This, of course, is true. Basic human psychology has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and is an adaptation to a hunter-gatherer way of life. Civilization is a recent innovation. For over 99% of the time that humans and their hominid ancestors have been evolving on this planet we were nomadic scavengers, hunters, and gatherers of wild fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Appearances were important to survival in that way of life. Looks helped ancestral beings, and even now we judge what fruit and vegetables are ripe to eat and what bits need to be removed. Looks are obviously not reliable in the sense of judging a person's character but they go a long way in helping us to judge how old someone is (at least until recently) and how healthy someone is. Both age and health are important. However, looks both in nature and in humans can be misleading and anxiety about being misled by the beautiful is rife in human cultures.
A cross-cultural study by David Buss (2000) revealed that in the cultures that most prized attractive, healthy looks there was a connection with the prevalence of parasitic diseases. In other words, where there are a lot of parasitic diseases in a culture there is a greater emphasis on the importance of physical appearance. This makes sense in that a physically, healthy, attractive body would be a sign of freedom from or strong resistance to the parasites. The same parallel has been noted among many songbird species. The most colourful come from the most heavily parasitised species - a very colourful display is an indication of their health. Thus, good looks are also a sign of being healthy and relatively disease free.
Research illustrates that attraction to human faces and, particularly the attraction to good-looking human faces seem to be built into our psychology. It does not depend upon the culture we grow up in. Human beauty is a double-edge sword. There is no question that the experience of beauty, primarily an experience of the senses of seeing and hearing is personal and mediated by the cultural and historical context. What is beautiful to one is not necessarily beautiful to another. Different cultures and different times have different ideas of beauty. Different classes within a culture also have different ideas of the beautiful.
Here, steering you through the direction of the interesting and the beautiful let me now explore some ideas about beauty in the contemporary context - in the increasingly secular world of cross cultures, psychology, and philosophy - all this in search of an answer to the complexity of interrelated questions that run through the background of questions like: What is beauty? What is its aesthetic sense? Why do some people respond in a certain way to some things and find them beautiful? How might this have originated in our evolutionary history? There are no definitive answers but these complex questions have much to interest you and lots to think about.
What Moghaddam (2002) says about beauty
Our ideals of beauty seem to change from generation to generation, and from culture to culture. But Moghaddam (2002) proposes that there is an underlying core ideal of beauty, and this is clearly related to good health. In his second discussion in the four-part series on the relationship between health, beauty, and senior life Moghaddam quotes Shakespeare "beauty lies in the eye of the beholder" (Love's Labours Lost). The same idea is expressed in another line "beauty is bought by judgment of the eye" (Act II, Scene I), and there are plenty of other references to this idea prior to the 21st century. The implication of this saying is that there are no universal or objective standards for beauty. This seems to be endorsed by differences in tastes across time and across cultures.
Karl Groning (2001) discusses beauty in Decorated skin: a world survey of body art and about the wide variation in the ways in which different human groups transform the body to beautify it according to local norms. All this seems to underline the variations across time and across cultures in our ideas about beauty. The only consistency seems to be our willingness to go to any lengths to try to become beautiful. But is this really the case? Does beauty vary in significant ways across time and cultures? Moghaddam (2002) argues that there are important consistencies in human conceptions of beauty, and these are closely tied with health. So, in the final analysis, when we ask the question "what is beauty?" we are really also asking, "what is health?"
The beautiful face: taking another look What is a beautiful face? In the nineteenth century Francis Galton (1822-1911) created composite faces by superimposing one photograph of a face on top of another. He discovered that the "average" face that resulted was more beautiful than any of the original faces. The idea that "average-ness" is beautiful is supported by more recent research, using computer technology to create a composite face. There is also some evidence that a composite face made of more attractive faces is even more attractive, but the intriguing question remains: what is it about a composite or "average" face that makes it more attractive? One answer, endorsed by studies of attractiveness using international faces, is that "baby-face" features are seen as more beautiful. Significant features, among others, include a clear skin, and large and widely separated eyes. The most obvious reason being that these features are all interpreted as signs of good health.
The beautiful body: taking another look The case of Marilyn Monroe seems to indicate that what we see as a beautiful body today may not be seen as such tomorrow. Cross cultural studies appear to suggest that a body judged as beautiful in one culture may not be seen as such in another. But is this proposition valid? Not necessarily, because when we look more carefully there do seem to be some important consistencies in what is considered to be a beautiful body.
In this context, Devendra Singh (1992) scrutinised statistics for body measurements for Playboy Magazine centrefolds between 1955 and 1965, and of Miss World contest winners from 1923 to 1987. In line with earlier research, he found that there was a reduction in body weight over the years. Thus, as far as total weight is concerned, the women were getting lighter over time. However, he discovered that the waist-to-hip ratio of these beautiful women remained within a narrow low range. According to Singh, the importance of the waist-to-hip ratio is that it indicates the health of the female and her potential for child bearing. It was found that men between the ages of 25 to 85 show a strong preference for women with this health indicator. This suggests that the preference goes across generations and is not limited to one era. Research involving both males and females suggests that a healthy body is more likely to be seen as a beautiful body. The irony of our situation is that in many cases we are investing more in the beauty industry than we are on health, at least directly. Therefore, we need to rethink the relationship between beauty and health, remembering that health means beauty. Despite variations in taste across cultures and time, there is consistency in a preference for seeing healthy as more beautiful.
23 july 2003
- Beauty world: introduction. http://www.beautyworlds.com/introduction.htm
- Bulmer M 2003. Francis Galton: pioneer of heredity and biometry. The Johns Hopkins University Press (To be released in October 2003). http://www.francisgalton.com/
- Buss D 2000. Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory, University of Texas, email@example.com
- Callaghan KA (ed) 1994. Ideals of feminine beauty: philosophical, social and cultural dimensions Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press.
- Etcoff NL 2000. Survival of the prettiest: the science of beauty, Abacus Books, www.amazon.com
- Evolutionary significance of human physical attractiveness, Human Factors Research Project, University of Texas. http://www.psy.utexas.edu/psy/htm
- Groning K 2001. Decorated skin: a world survey of body art. Thames and Hudson. http://books.reviewindex.co.uk/reviews_uk/0500283281.html
- Moghaddam FM 2003. Health signals beauty. http://www.healthandage.com/Home/gm
- Singh D 1992. Body fat distribution and female physical attractiveness: An evolutionary perspective. Human Behaviour and Evolution Society Meeting, Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 25, 1992.
- Singh D 1993. Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: role of waist-to-hip ratio. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65: 293-307.
- Sones M 2000. The Aztecs: ambivalence and beauty, http://www.beautyworlds.com/aztecs.htm
- Sones M 2000. Human beauty, http://www.beautyworlds.com/humanbeauty.htm