The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 2, 2000

By look or by crook
By Mohinder Singh

HOMO sapiens, it seems, are locked on looks. There must be in our very nature a deeply rooted tendency to observe beauty and to value it.

"The sizing up of other people’s looks and their rating for attractiveness, is a continuous and automatic process," claims Nancy Etcoff, a practicing psychologist, in her book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. And it’s rapid too: "We can see a face for a fraction of a second and rate its beauty, even give it the same rating we would give it on longer inspection."

Illustration by Rajiv KaulTo Etcoff, "lookism" dominates our transactions with each other, albeit often unconsciously. Some new research shows that even parents are more affectionate in their behaviour to newbon babies who are physically attractive. "An ugly baby is a very nasty object," Queen Victoria is reported to have remarked.

Attractive males and females garner more attention from the opposite sex. They find sexual partners more readily. "Beauty is a marketing tool for Mother Nature’s most basic product — reproduction — which in turn depends upon sexual attraction and success," says Linel Tiger, a noted anthropologist. Employment prospects are better for the beautiful (though there are rare reports of women feeling prejudiced against in job interviews because of their stunning looks). Beautiful people elicit more help from strangers, more votes from electorate, more leniency from judges. And are regarded as more competent,confident, healthy, and intelligent than their weak-chinned, big-nosed, large-eared counterparts. "The business world is prejudiced against the ugly," they say.

  Advertisers understand this universal human preference for looks and are busy exploiting it, not that they created it in the first place.

When "looking", men stare in a way women do not. Anthropologists believe that men’s habit of looking comes from their primal ancestors, who squatted for hours on the African veldt, watching for an animal that would be on its way to the watering hole. Some ethologists go as far as to surmise that the "copulatory gaze" men give may well be embedded in their evolutionary psyche.

Now, it’s one thing men looking lewdly at women on the street; the looked ones can easily walk away. But the same creates complications in the confines of a workplace; feelings get intensified by the compression of space and frequency of contacts. That way we have brought the jungle into a a fluorescent arena.

And we won’t be able to can’t conquer "lookism" until we understand its source.

The conviction of being attractive or unattractive can dominate one’s life. Almost immediately after entering the thirteenth year of life, a chubby child becomes a big, fat girl, and a boy previously spoken of as "small for his age" finds that he is, in reality, a boy who is short. Even someone of Tolstoy’s stature saw no happiness on earth for "a man with such a wide nose, such thick lips, and such tiny gray eyes as mine". The consciousness of physical non-acceptability often elicits a traumatic response.

All this gives rise to the basic question: what’s human beauty? Is it simply in the eye of the beholder or an arbitrary cultural artifact? Or is it something hardwired into our brains?

Researchers are now venturing into a territory formerly staked out by poets, painters, fashion folks and film moghuls. They aim to uncover the underpinnings of human attractiveness.

The results so far of this relatively young and contentious research have been rather humbling. It’s however coming out that human preference for beauty may be an ancient, universal behaviour, wrought through eons of evolution that rewarded reproductive winners and killed off losers. If beauty is not truth, it may be health and fertility. "Beauty is the bait which with delight allures man to enlarge his kind," said the poet Edmund Spenser, some 400 years back.

Judith Langlois of the Louisiana State University, working for her doctorate, projected pairs of high and low-rated faces in front of six-month-old infants. And she found that the babies seeing the pictures looked longer at the attractive faces, regardless of the gender, race, or age of the face. In her numerous experiments it came out that human beings harboured an instinctive, inborn preference for attractive people.

When competition for mates is intense, some extreme traits might help to rivet a roving male eye. And this often means a trait that heightens femininity. Large lips, breasts and hips combined with a small jaw are all telling that there is an abundant supply of estrogen, indicating a fertile female.

Again our feelings of beauty are exceptionally well tuned to the age of maximum fertility — human female fertility peaks in the early 20s (men are fertile throughout most of their adult life). No wonder, the average age of Playboy centrefold models — selected for sexual appeal — has always hovered around 21 years. And same is the situation in beauty contests.

Circumstantial evidence for the allure of some degree of hyper-femininity is substantial. In fact, much of female makeup is about exaggerating the femnine. Eye makeup makes the brow thinner, which makes it look farther from the eye, the classic difference between male and female faces. From high hair to collagen in lips to silicone in breasts, women instinctively exaggerate secondary female sex characteristics to increase their allure.

What about male attractiveness? If men salivate for hyperfemales, do women pursue supermales?

Vis-a-vis female face, the average male face has a more pronounced brow ridge, more sunken eyes, and bushier brows that are set closer to the eyes. The nose and mouth are wider, the lower jaw wider and firmer. Admittedly a doseof this classic "maleness" does contribute to what is now called handsome.

But a woman’s agenda in seeking a mate is considerably more complex than simply giving birth to strong-jawed kids. Her choice is about finding a helpmate to bring up the baby, someone caring and not unduly aggressive.

To further complicate the male-appeal picture, research indicates that in all mating species, an ugly guy can make up ground with status and/or wealth. A female scorpion fly won’t even look at a male till he brought a sufficiently big edible gift. The human situation isn’t all that different. In one survey, high-paid, unattractive doctors received the same rating as very attractive, low-paid teachers. This was not true when men evaluate women. Unattractive women were not preferred, no matter what their status.

Of course, human appearance is about more than attracting sex partners; we are often in search of kinship. Yet our brains cannot help being swayed by looks.