Who tells us what’s beautiful

I was trying to describe fashion in my epic longpost about consumer society. But fashion is a dynamic phenomenon, and for starters one needs to understand the static part of it: the beauty industry. Static beauty standards are set through the same teen counterculture, role models (actors, celebrities), crowd effect (everybody/TV is doing it). Spending money to conform to those standards feels good: you become closer to your Hollywood-planted dream, and every new purchase excites you because of the novelty effect. Pampering yourself, narcissism, becomes a habit. There’s a lot of reinforcements, positive if you do it and negative if you don’t (doubts visit you, and you lose confidence). For instance, someone in your surrounding will have seemingly better life than you, and as you feel envy, you seek superficial reasons for that: their appearance.

So there is a certain push towards narcissism in society, partly by “conspiracy” of the external factors, partly as a self-push because you perceive no other roads to successful social life. Society also prepares a lot of triggers of negative feelings for those who don’t follow that road. But is there really a conspiracy? From the point of view of movie producers, beautiful actors bring more money – one can say it’s a positive feedback loop that’s not hidden but instead quite obvious. So we are pushed into unrealistic body expectations not by evil scheming capitalists, but largely by ourselves. Capitalists are just part of the loop. Individual decisions of any part of the loop, including us, slowly change the standard. Let’s all go to movies with actors with unusual looks, and wear clothes that don’t look new! All hail LWA2 for including a likable overweight anime girl – is it the first time in the Japanese industry? Anyways, I don’t aim to describe influencing the system, that’d be too ambitious of a goal. Instead, as promised, I provide a description of a static system, and what’s the optimal/moral way to behave within it.

The minimal behavioral model for a person investing in looks is: only follow the narcissistic path if it is interesting, fun, brings positive emotions and useful and otherwise a worthy waste of your time. And for some people it indeed is. But chances are, the beauty standards imprinted in your head are not going to bring you much fun. They are not tailor-made for you. Instead they are such that optimize the amount of money that goes into someone’s pocket. The way they do that is by making the standard such that your reflection in the mirror is way off. And sadly, that standard is in other people’s heads as well. So, the way this situation is resolved in progressive US is by encouraging you to forget the standard, stop projecting what other people think, and live in a bliss. And eventually someone will get used to how you look and find it beautiful. So it seems that US has a wonderful solution for everyone! Why did I think that this culture does harm to anybody? It offers a way out right along the beauty standard. I have two accusations:

  1. Exactly the same logic can be applied to smoking. There is always a way out. Problem is, it’s addictive. Following the beauty standard is addictive too.
  2. Globalization, lead by US, destroys local standards of beauty. Chances are, in your community you’d be considered beautiful, but not by Hollywood standards.

Wait, addictive how? Are local standards of beauty real? To support my accusations, I need to investigate in more detail how we learn what’s beautiful.

Beauty training.

Society leaves impact on kids by encouraging girls for their cuteness, so for young women looks become an easy way to get attention. Boys are largely away from realizing that, their mind is trained to perceive strength, and choices of colors/design of, say, notebooks and pens are made in terms of what’s practical. Or what delivers the message of strength. Girls are more likely to have colorful pens and preserve nice handwriting till high school, as they are more likely to be encouraged for that. All these are very regressive views on education, the modern view is that if these biases are removed, they won’t appear naturally. Anyway, the reality is that the external encouragement is quite strong and quite biased, that is the world we’re living in and that’s what forms our biased beauty standards.

There are natural (genetic, encoded) mechanisms in place as well:

  • we typically prefer safe surroundings and are likely to find them beautiful, although danger is hypnotizing and beautiful in another way
  • the choice of colors is partly genetic – in particular most of the people choose blue as their favorite color. There is also a natural distinction between warm and cold colors
  • we all instinctively seek a healthy partner, thus signs of health are perceived attractive whereas signs of weakness, sickness – not. It was overruled  once by social norm in the medieval, but it is very much in place nowadays.
  • body part recognition is also an instinct – even if it’s not there in an infant, it is the main neural development that happens, and it is kind of preprogrammed to happen. Also, there was a fun experiment that found the recognition time to be fastest for men recognizing female body parts. There must be a biological mechanism in place for that. Also how we learn to determine gender.
  • a very general principles in our perception: novelty is gratified by pleasure hormones. Also, symmetry is a natural (preprogrammed) easy check whether the partner is healthy or not. Check if left/right is symmetric, if it is, probably your partner is in good health.

So we see that the concept of beauty was originally useful for the evolution: it helped to find a healthy partner, and also added an extra dimension to our memory of people – it is easier to remember how people look if we are emotionally impressed by their beauty. However, as society became more complicated, extra layers of structure have been added to the concept of beauty. Extra beauty standards can be circumstance-dependent, not inherent. They can be borrowed:

  • From within: a way to define who you are is by deciding what you find beautiful. So a teenager’s need for self-establishment pushes them to seek original answers to this question.
  • from role model, from parental figure.
  • by crowd effect, conforming to what others find beautiful.
  • when encountering something unfamiliar, like a race you never seen before, you first form a collective judgement about their beauty. Only after staying with those people for a while you start noticing individual differences
  • noticing new details changes your perception of beauty of the same object. Like since you stare at yourself in the mirror every day, you see your face completely differently than others, notice tiny imperfections. But another way also works – if you feel strongly for a person, you will eventually notice that person’s beauty no matter what was your first impression.
  • scarcity is essential for a feature to be considered very beautiful. It must be hard to get or even forbidden.

Finally, our personal meter of beauty is related to the language available to us to describe what we see. It is a well known joke about number of names of colors that guys and girls know. Let’s generalize this idea and look at the points that a guy and a girl are likely to mention when asked to describe how someone looked:

Guys describing guys: muscles, t-shirt if it had a good joke.

Girls describing guys: eyes, smile, voice, height, clothes, shoes.

Guys describing girls: face, breast, hips, sometimes hair. (guys don’t have a very high resolution, they typically just see the body as consisting of 2 or 3 parts)

Girls describing girls: height, clothes, shoes + nails, eyebrows, eyelashes, skin etc.

Note that guys tend to pick at things that you typically can’t buy – or in case of muscles, you at least don’t have to buy – can work out at home. Whereas girls tend to focus their description on active side: something that you did to look beautiful. And action for girl beauty means paying money. Of course the list above is generalizing beyond reason, and is what is considered sexist. In reality, even with all the society’s influence, you can still find a girl who doesn’t care about shoes. Although a woman giving a commencement at my school this summer did mention buying shoes as part of who she is, with a joking tone. My point with that oversimplified and sexist list, as well as other material in this section, was to give an overview of how complex is what I call “beauty standard in our heads”. This complexity is part of the reason why it is addictive, why it is hard to forget about it. Also, we observed many surrounding-dependent mechanisms, and even the natural mechanisms read off beauty from our parents etc. So it makes sense to talk about local beauty standard, which is probably a better thing than global one, because you are more likely to be beautiful by the standard designed to your ethnic group.

A study on consumer society (unfinished)

(picture courtesy to an undergraduate project “What are people really wearing?”)

A society involves a lot of agreements between people, and oftentimes we forget the actual reasons these agreements are in place. Like for instance, why people wear clothes. There’s an interesting conspiracy theory behind it, as presented in an anime Kill la Kill. Yet the common wisdom is that these agreements do not come from a conspiracy theory, instead they are posed as the definition of what society is. I feel that’s not enough to define a society, one needs to introduce an extra level of structure: the processes and phenomenons that are sustained within the society by majority of it’s members. Like fashion: the agreement which clothes to wear itself changes over time, but the mechanism that puts such agreement in place is sustainable. One can say “a positive feedback loop”.

Before I set out to describe fashion and consumerism, as well as their alternatives, it is worth to spell out my goals. I feel strongly against consumer culture. I’ve noticed that my peers seem to live in the world where looks just have to comply with certain standards. Like: you should use a styling gel on your hair every day. If there are hairs sticking up from your head, that’s a reason to worry. Other thing that I’ve noticed is that it’s hard for me to watch hollywood movies. All of the actors and people on screen comply with fashion standards, and some actors are even the tail of the distribution of handsomeness. Even the comedies that are supposed to make fun of the norms, still have a lot of assumptions in place that are immovable. It is hard for me to watch teenage comedies because of how many things they “program” us to do, how much they tell us what our life should be like. It is crazy because comedies are supposed to be light movies to watch. How much do they program other people? Is it just me? Would my life be different if the comedies I watched as a kid didn’t tell me that happy ending = having a girlfriend that looks like a hollywood star?

Those are simple questions with no easy answer. About comedies – yes, it is likely that only I respond to comedies in such a surprising way. But the consumer society in general is, I think, a greatest harm to humanity. The amount of people hurt (though indirectly) by American culture dwarfs the number of people hurt by American bombs. So the goal is to have a clear understanding how to live in a society like that, and how to express clearly my beliefs by my actions. I am not really going to provide a global alternative – that’s too ambitious of a goal. I’m contempt with a local alternative – something a person can do, and explain to friends, and still fit in and have a successful life. Maybe even that solution, once implemented, will add a certain charm to a person. So let’s start with a detailed description of consumer society, with clothes and fashion as example.


A technical reason to wear clothes, which will be a foundation for the society’s customs, is to keep oneself warm, clean, healthy, protected from sunburn. Shoes are to be able to walk far. That’s it.

Next society’s construct is the concept of shame. It’s a very powerful feeling, maybe even evolutionary imprinted into us to make violating rules costly. There’s a lot to say here, but let’s just keep to the point of needing to wear clothes that cover areas related to sex, because sex is shameful. And the need to be dressed appropriately to the occasion, i.e. not stand out from everyone else, because that is shameful as well.

The third step is a concept of beauty. We like to put effort and resources (money) into clothing that looks new, shiny and colorful… that’s basically it for the evolutionary structure of the society.

Now comes in fashion. We like to put even more money into clothes that are trendy/ make us look sexy. One can say that clothes were used as a discriminant between classes of society, so having clothes of a higher group makes us feel better. One can also say that looking like an idol (a role model) is part of imitating the idol and makes us feel better. But I feel like things are even more messed up, so before we describe why fashion works in detail, let’s back off and discuss how we even know what is beautiful.

Beauty training.

We expect it not to be genetically encoded. Instead, the taste is something that you train. In adolescence, the teenagers “discover” their attraction to opposite gender. I assume that the specific details that are deemed most attractive are chosen from the pool of what’s around, but not easily available to look at. Like for boys, rare commercials of bikini swimsuits somehow made a woman in bikini an ideal of attractiveness. But then, there’s a general taste, like if you have to answer what’s your favorite color …

American party for dummies

So I’ve spent most of my analytic abilities on figuring out how to party right (instead of doing research to graduate).

Yesterday it was a GSC party themed by TV show Mad Men (they always try to encourage pickup, flirting and good ol’ 60’ies harassment). First hour was okay, then all who I knew left, and the usual GSC crowd remained.

Have you ever felt bad when other people are having so much fun at the party but you are left out, with noone you know and noone to talk to? I’ve decided to overcome that feeling and stay at the GSC party yesteday for all 4 hours of it’s time.

I didn’t drink. I also did not intend to do crowd-watching. My main goal was just to stand there, looking cute. It’s not easy, if you keep thinking “I have to talk with that girl” or something like this. But when I banished my desire to party or start conversations with girls, it felt muuuch better. There are indeed two main spirits that possess people’s mind there: one tells to act stupid and laugh, the other, mostly for guys, tells to chase girls in red dresses.

So if a guy is wandering around not able to talk to girls he like, he probably won’t be happy if you stop him and try to have a fun conversation. But he will be most happy if you promise to assist him in attracting attention, meeting new people etc.

There are many things going on at once at the party, but you don’t have to keep in mind them all. Just forget about two spirits-desires and you will feel comfortable no matter what’s going on.

Among the many things may be:girls bringing a new guy into company
guys energizing girls by making faces, jumping etc.
girls leaving the party, saying byes, then coming back
ballroom dances vs. club dance (some girl don’t want to dance with partner)
girl in red dress has 2 friends, who come to listen to all the guys entertaining the one in the red dress, but don’t talk or attract attention themselves

One more thing: sore throat gave me a lesson. Instead of telling stories and jokes without a stop, it is sometimes sufficient to say one or two words, very absurd, but with a serious face.