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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.