Beauty is an ingrained desire that all humans crave – both men and women alike. While it may be a noble endeavor to ignore the impact that beauty has on our everyday interactions, the reality stands that beauty affects us as humans at very real psychological and biological levels, and our modern society takes a huge role into how we perceive and mold those standards for beauty.
The Psychology of Beauty
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well that may sound like very fair and just advice, but unfortunately, we instinctively act contradictory to that maxim. Consciously or not, we react to to way that someone looks when first encounter him or her, as a result of both societal standards and biological instincts. Among its other functions, the brain acts as a beauty detector. The brain almost immediately sizes up a face as attractive or unattractive when a person first meets someone new, even though he or she may not be consciously aware of this evaluation. The “beauty bias” exists even in infants – six-month-olds also prefer to look at the same relatively attractive faces that adults do.
At all walks of life, people that are perceived as attractive or good-looking are judged more favorably in terms of employment or social opportunities, friendship, and not to mention sex appeal. Mothers give more affection to attractive babies, teachers favor more attractive students and judge them as smarter, and attractive adults get paid more for their work and have better success in romantic relationships. All of this is known as the “halo effect,” with the perception that attractive people tend to be more intelligent, better adjusted, and more popular. Seem fair? Definitely not!
The Biology of Beauty
Since beauty obviously comes with many perks, who decides what beauty is anyway? Some of it is hard-wired biologically. Scientists have found that symmetry and scent are two things that play a big role in defining human attractiveness.
Just as no two faces are alike, no two halves of a face are alike. Countless small variables make faces somewhat asymmetrical – a dimple on one cheek, one ear a fraction of an inch lower than the other, a scar on one side, etc. You may have even heard an esthetician say that your eyebrows are “sisters, not twins” while shaping your brows. Numerous studies have found that when men and women are asked to rate versions of faces that are more versus less symmetrical, the symmetrical one gains significantly higher ratings of attractiveness, dominance, sexiness, and health. In a sense, when we identify a beautiful face, we are really seeing the artistry of good genes.
Another factor involved in attractiveness is scent, and more specifically pheromones. Pheromones are naturally occurring odorless chemical substances produced by the body to convey an airborne signal that communicates reproductive quality to members of the opposite sex. While this intake of human scent is completely unconscious, it seems to have a positive impact on beauty and attractiveness.
The Idea of Beauty Created by Modern Society
Aside from these built-in reactions to beauty, modern society and the media seems to have warped our perceptions of beauty by attempting to dictate the terms for beauty and how to achieve it. Unfortunately, as women, we tend to be caught in a trap with pressure to try to fit in the mold set for us by society.
The media at large portrays females in unrealistic ways – looks, clothing, sexuality, body type, actions, etc. – and most of these women are manipulated through airbrushing before we get to see the final product. This has created a standard of femininity that is impossible to attain by real women, and harmful to our self-esteems. The message is clear – “you are not pretty enough, thin enough, good enough.” Women learn to compare themselves to other women at a young age, and compete for male attention. The media puts pressure on all people, especially women, to look “beautiful” by their standards. It maintains that if women don’t meet that ideal, there must be something wrong with them.
How Beauty Relates to You and Me
Is is wrong to want to be beautiful, or try to improve our appearances for fear of playing into the cruel whims of modern society? I would argue, no. For better or worse, the bottom line is that research shows beauty matters; both psychologically and biologically, we are hard-wired for it. I think the key is to finding balance when it comes to society’s demands on feminine beauty. Living in our modern world, it’s hard not to feel the pressure that women have to look a certain way that fits into a cookie-cutter mold. We need to encourage each other to celebrate our individuality and unique beauty. You should enjoy the time you spend beautifying with makeup and clothes (after all, we are girls!); but the moment you stop doing it for yourself and start doing for other people is when you should step back and re-evaluate.
So after all, striving to appear attractive may not be such a vain endeavor after all, within moderation.