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.

Inventions that increase your height

(picture courtesy this cosplay interview, RenoBen photography)

Different cultures figured that tall=beautiful (in much the same meaning as healthy, strong, has better chances of survival and will better take care of the children). So different devices to make one look taller were invented:

  • European culture is most familiar with heels. Note that heels on the boots were present for men as well in the medieval. They lift you up a few inches and make it not comfortable to walk – in fact, standing on heels every day may ruin your legs.
  • Japanese culture has their own wooden sandals, that have extra wooden blocks going down, so you stand on them. It’s also kind of uncomfortable, and possible was invented to avoid rain and dirt, not to look taller.
  • Roller skates lift you up by exactly as much as diameter of the wheels. So, biggest wheels are for Tempest (currently discontinued production), they are 110mm.
  • The are models of exoskeleton, aka goat legs, that actually make you almost a meter taller, and each step you make becomes really long. It can be thought about as a more stable version of stilts.

However, in Japanese culture there appeared a very symbolic image of a “mecha girl”. From a technical point of view, it is a highly unrealistic (“imaginary”) exoskeleton that can fly. From an artist’s point of view, and why mecha girls have small but stable following around the world, they represent a contrast between innocence of the heart and power of the industrial age. This image has been used in different media, you can recognize it if there is a huge machine, ship or robot, factory if you wish, but the “soul” of that machine (the central computer) takes the form of a young girl. Most of the famous robot stories, as well as space operas and sci-fi are inspired by the industrial age. It is crazy how many power plants have been build, how huge the factories are inside and how enormous the machines are that operate in those factories. For an artists, this power always have been intimidating, and in the attempt to reconcile it with human intentions and moral, artist creates an image of a very vulnerable, very alive core of the gigantic tech.

So that is why the image is powerful – there are plenty of guys who are into big tech, like fighter jets, ships and robots. Typically those folks also miss out on girl attention, so an image of an attractive girl surrounded by their favorite metal is something they want to keep close to their hearts. Not so many girls cosplay these kind of “male fantasies”, partly also because it is hard. But once you think about it, it can be another way to make yourself taller – if these leg attachments can be made light, and can at will extend 10 or 20 centimeters, they can be a comfortable and fashionable stilts to stand in. It will hardly make it to mainstream fashion, but it’s a good idea for kickstarter. Here’s what inspired me:

I was at a k-pop dance competition, which was overcrowded, and somewhere in one of the last rows of standing people there was a short girl who was such a big fan of k-pop music, that she actually jumped up every second to see the stage that was hidden from her behind the back of others. It was so unfair to her, that everybody else in the crowd were taller than her, so unless she is in the front row, she has no chance of seeing the stage. The mecha stilts would even her chances, and at the same time make her look part of the culture she is cheering for.

Unfortunately, most of the costumes people make are heavy and unwieldy, and don’t actually lift the person wearing it. So the kickstarter would be for making a sturdy design, that attaches to your legs, is foldable, easy to keep balance, and looks stylish. For now, let me put the mecha cosplays that are already there for inspiration:

taiga_aisaka_mecha_by_asty_by_tenori_tiger

 

kantai_collection___battleship_by_rolan666-d785nyq

 

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Look like a model

A quick look at the facebook pages of famous male models, as well as some of the corresponding fashion journals – and you see some of the tricks of their trade. Later, inspired by TV show America’s New Top Model, and especially the instagram feeds of its participants (they look like ordinary people irl), I decided to give it a try myself. Everybody needs a selling pic. Fashion provides a convenient way to look the part. So now it is fashion week! Each day I go to work in a new outfit, and my friend will take pictures of me. The typical 3 arrangements are

  1. white background, torso.
  2. full body to the knees in an interesting environment.
  3. sitting with NO SOCKS.

I can’t say we quite made it from the first try, but here are the results (mainly to encourage every reader to break the fashion!)

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It was extremely important to tidy my hair! Nothing looks professional without it.

 

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Again, socks – no fashion, fashion – no socks!

 

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Keep up, and by the end of the week contracts will rain on you.