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The Function of Beauty

January 23, 2012

Bottled Beauty. It works, mate.

“She’s simply stunning.” “Such a handsome boy.” “Okay, so not a looker, but she has a good personality, you know?”

Beauty, and who possesses it and who doesn’t, is intuitive. And it’s beyond cultural. Conceptions of what constitutes beauty span the biological, cultural and sociological fields. But, my thesis of today is that for beauty, despite some of its seeming arbitrariness, form does mostly follow function. Or, in other words, what we perceive as beautiful is derived from what type of physical appearance gets the best results- whether those results be measured in biological (reproductive) terms, or cultural ascendency.

Beauty, Biologically Based

Okay, so is our conception of what and who is beautiful innate? Babies sure think so. Babies stare at what society deems to be ‘beautiful faces’ longer than they do at less comely ones. They have a high sensitivity to the contrast ratio between the eyes and mouth to skin – something that makeup further enhances – and prefer balanced faces to asymmetrical ones.

And the tiny feet?

A fertility statue. Notice the big hips, butt and breasts.

I’m sure you’ve also heard about how people rate average features as more lovely than less average features. This has been tested in various ways, including asking people to choose between Gorgeous Girl A, Okay-Looking Girl B, and the average of these two faces blended together. When asked which of the three photos depicted the most attractive face, people largely chose the composite photo.

In a biological framework, beauty always comes down to fertility and survival. In pre-Industrial China, fat children were a sign of blessing and more likely to be marriageable. This was because if your child was fat, it indicated that they would be more able to survive lean times by consuming excess body weight, and that their family was currently prosperous, and therefore desirable to align with. Survival of the fattest, with beauty of form following function. For women, big hips, large breasts, and the waist-hip ratio of .7 is seen as intensely seductive because it implies to the male, on a subconscious level, promises of fertility and fecundity. That is because, in fact, women with an hourglass figure are often more fertile than other similarly aged women due to higher levels of estrogen and other female hormones. Women likewise, look for fertility in men, with slightly different indicators- strong jaw lines, hairy chests, and larger and stronger frame than them, to protect their cave and eventual offspring from dinosaurs and the like.

Comeliness, Culturally Conceived

Despite its biological basis, beauty cannot be solely defined in such terms. Biology doesn’t explain why there has been a shift from finding alabaster white skin attractive to finding tan skin more so (hint hint, it has to do with the rise of industrialism, and the switch from the wealthy being indoors while the farmhands labored in the sun to the wealthy being the only ones with enough time off to spend time in the sun). Biology can’t account for why black women straighten their hair to look more like white women, or why super skinny women are seen as more attractive now than the curvier, more hourglass shaped women of the fifties and sixties. These trends are better explained by cultural values of beauty, but, I argue, still align with the form follows function thesis. The function just ceases to be fertility and children, and instead turns to increasing social capital and demonstrating socioeconomic wealth.

Hi my name is Linda, and I'll be your CEO for the evening.

Let’s start off with a study recently publicized in several major newspapers regarding how makeup levels effect perceptions of women at work. Take a look at the above image of a woman’s face. You can see how the makeup she is wearing progresses from ‘Clean Face’ (no makeup at all) to ‘Natural’ (slight makeup to hide blemishes) to ‘Professional’ (lipstick, neutral eye makeup) to ‘Glamorous’ (heavy coloring of the eyes and lips, high contrast).  This was done for 25 female subjects of varying ethnicities and colors.  In this study, the prediction was, when asked which woman looked the most competent, trustworthy and and likeable in a workplace setting, that respondents would choose the woman with some makeup on, but not in full clubbing mode. This proved to not be the case- men and women voted the most heavily made-up women to be not only the most attractive, but the most suited for the workplace environment.

At first, this study (besides making women like me who don’t often wear makeup a little rueful) also seems to fly in the face of the thesis that what we consider beautiful is driven by what we consider the most functional. However, I argue that the makeup women wear, as well as clothing, jewelry, shoe and other visible packaging tools that she uses are an obvious form of signaling. Signaling means that the makeup and clothes and whatnot become representational of some larger attribute inherent to the woman; in this case, wearing makeup to work could signal that the woman cares about what she does, or takes care of herself, or sees herself as a valuable commodity, one worth dolling up for. In addition, the clothes someone wears not only can show off natural form to look beautiful, but also can demonstrate that the wearer has good taste or is wealthy enough to afford nice clothes. Money is beautiful in this capitalistic society, and certainly does lend to the survival of offspring in the long run.

How someone chooses to express their beauty can be impacted by what social group they see themselves as belonging to. For instance, stereotypical goths see beauty in tattoos, black clothes and piercings, typical hipsters find beauty in too tight pants and silly old fashioned glasses. These signals demonstrate belonging in a sub-group, and belonging and shared values is attractive. Similarly, someone’s job function can influence how they see and try to make themselves ‘beautiful.’ The most stark example I came upon recently, while watching the Mariinsky ballet at the Kennedy Center was how female ballerinas change their bodies. There legs are strong and large, their arms wraith thin. And it is stunning to see them like this on stage, their bodies are perfect for their function of performing leaps and turns. But I wonder how well this niche beauty would do off the stage.

The Firebird. Stunning performance.

But I digress. Let’s go back to how beauty ties into socioeconomic status. How much money a person earns, on average, may be influenced by their physical beauty. “One study found that people low in physical attractiveness earn 5 to 10 percent less than ordinary looking people, who in turn earn 3 to 8 percent less than those who are considered good looking.”  Thus beauty is engaged in a feedback loop with wealth: being beautiful indicates wealth, and it also allows one to actually, more easily, attain it.


I’ve read somewhere that something like 80% of people think they are of above-average attractiveness. It is mathematically impossible for more than 50% of people to be of above-average attractiveness, considering the definition of average.   And yet here we are.  It’s natural, I get it.  Beauty is an aid.  It greases the wheels, it makes life easier.  People are nicer to pretty people, goddamn it.  Who wouldn’t want to think of themselves as part of that lucky group of hot stuff models?   I mean, I know I am.   Please, honey child, I am an 8 out of 10!  Right?

But the truth is that beauty is partly subjective.  For instance, youth is seductive in almost anyone.  And the old adage that there is someone for everyone is mostly true, at least looks-wise.  But how beauty is manifested changes with the times. We no longer stick fake felt hearts on our faces, or think that powdered wigs are swoon worthy.   Despite the outward show changing with the years, the underlying motivations towards what constitutes beauty, beauty as an indicator of biological, cultural or economic success will always exist. That’s the function of beauty.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Bryan permalink
    January 27, 2012 1:38 AM

    Brilliant, as usual. 🙂

    On a related note, have you heard about the theory that taller people earn better wages? A subsequent study found that once you control for intelligence…the wage gap disappears. Apparently height is highly correlated with intelligence (most likely due to childhood nutrition and other functions of health). I wonder if the same holds true for beauty (or “beauty”, as the case may be)?

    Also, whatever will I do with my powdered wig now? 😦

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