(Note: I’ve had a lot of thoughts on this, and I’ll probably have a lot more, but I wanted to lay out in full my interpretation of the loaded meaning and understanding of beauty, in a hopefully intersectional way. I apologise for the lack of external sources in this post, as this is mainly a personal interpretation. See beneath for a TL:DR.)
Beauty dominates the discussion almost everywhere, even when we don’t notice it. From when we’re laughing at things that look like certain presidential candidates (see below), to when we’re discussing what makes a “real” woman, beauty is at the heart of so many conversations.
This makes sense, there’s a lot that appearances can tell us about someone…or at least, so we think. It’s proven that good looks benefit from a “Halo Effect”, in which people rate attractive people more positively overall, for attributes unrelated to looks, like intelligence. It’s common knowlege that being “attractive” helps people find love, another central tenant of Western entertainment media (name one film without any romantic subplots. See? Now try songs without love themes!)
But what exactly is it? Media likes to also present answers. Beauty is the golden ratio. Beauty is good health. Beauty is confidence. Beauty is a certain weight. Beauty is a certain colour, or style, or manner, or attitude. Beauty is something equally vague and intangible, like “glamour” or “charisma”. It’s hard not to be incredulous when there are so many answers out there, and especially when so many of them seem to touch a little deeper than they claim to be:
Thus, I have my own theory, which collates all of the current theories and puts them together cohesively.
My own theory
There are three clear and definable aspects to the current beauty talk that resounds in our media streams. First is the most obvious and objective, (though it is by no means perfectly objective, as I will explain).
- Symmetry (a synonym for Health)
Almost all “scientific” articles about beauty talk about averaging features, and merging faces to create more and more beautiful faces, or mirroring one half of a face, or measuring the symmetry of existing people’s faces. On the face of it (pun!) this is the most objective, but don’t be deceived by appearances (oh my god I’m on fire today.)
- Gendered signifiers/ Fertility.
This is where things start to get dodgy. As can be seen in the image of “most attractive couple” (judged by 100 british respondents), there’s obvious differences, and even if we ignore labelling bias, there are features seen as feminine and as masculine, such as strong jawlines, stubble, wider hips, smaller waists, broader shoulders, etcetera. But obviously, that’s not where the line is drawn, This is where you get the most douchebags claiming that “but biology” as an excuse to perve over contorted and ludicrous cartoon drawings of women with enormous busts, tiny waists, and twisted hips, because hey, it’s biological, it shows she’s fertile and therefore this boner is valid, valid I tell you!
- Personal Preference
The most entirely nebulous one. This is where glamour or attitude or style starts to come into question, though undoubtably there will be people who claim it is actually to do with Health, like, the fact she can afford that expensive coat means that she’s presumably strong and healthy enough to acquire the resources necessary, blah blah blah, validate my attractions with SCIENCE plz. But it’s more to do with what we’re taught is attractive, but our bodies wouldn’t automatically recognise if we were dropped in a new planet or country (insomuch as they would automatically recognise anything, the jury is still out on that one), such as the elaborate neck rings of the Kayan people, or the hairlessness of Western female celebrities. It’s basically made up of all our personal preferences and internalised bigotries rolled into one.
So yeah, that’s my list and my theory. Now, how are these not objective? Well firstly, the idea that symmetry is beautiful does sound like it has biological merit, I mean, it makes sense that we’d want healthy and strong people to breed with, right? Well not exactly. Some of the most attractive people, according to the media, are slightly quirky looking, and often men like George Clooney throw these articles all in a tizzy, and they have to make an excuse about how age reflects ability to survive, and that the same goes for scars, and anything else that isn’t symmetrical and doesn’t make sense from this ableist, age-ist and let’s be frank, classist perspective. Health doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither does our understanding or perception of it. We learn that some weights and body types are “healthy”, and other’s “disgusting”, we learn to think of those in wheelchairs or with speech impediments etc as infantile, child-like, de-sexualised objects (whilst completely ignoring the very high rates of sexual abuse against disabled women, even in a lot of intersectional feminist spaces). We learn to associate certain levels of skin colour with health, like a ruddy tan changing from unhealthy and ugly to beautiful to “fake and orange” and therefore now deemed “ugly” again, unless it’s at just the *right* level. It’s complicated.
The gender one is the most icky for me. There are clearly gender signifiers, and there are clearly ways people distinguish these, and by that, determine their sexual identity (heteroflexibility shout out!). But also, a lot of gender and sex is a construct that heavily overlaps. A male-presenting person in eye-liner with long hair? Why am I attracted to this? This is why it heavily merges with number 3, learned attraction and taste. The only way this section works at all is that many people are attracted heavily to one gender, and understanding gender as the visible presentation to the world, the man with the jaw that’s been widened by deliberate medical testosterone treatment is saying the exact same thing to potential relationships as the man with a jaw widened by a natural testosterone puberty. But a lot of people like to ignore this aspect, and treat this section like the “get out of transphobic jail free” card. Biological children are no longer just a matter of putting random junk together and hoping it works, and in reality, relationships and families reflect that now.
Finally, and most importantly for me, comes the personal preference section. This in reality is where all the classist, racist, transphobic, ableist nonsense comes from. Whilst there’s a thread of truth in both the above sections that cannot be denied, there’s no sense in claiming they truly hold much influence. For one thing, there’s no one single person that we in this otherwise homogenous society all hold to be the most beautiful person. A lot of people (myself included), worship Angelina Jolie and her cheekbones, but ask a random room of people if she’s attractive and they’d like her? You’d be amazed at how many “no’s” you get…unless of course, you’re one of them. Which would be fine…I’m one of them who doesn’t think that either Brad Pitt or George Clooney is attractive in the slightest. My boyfriend claims to prefer me to Beyonce (I don’t!). People have different tastes, and that’s because of this final and most important section of attractiveness and beauty.
What we value in life, whilst some of it is learned bigoted junk, is important in how we live and who we choose to be with. You don’t find many hippies swooning after clean cut jocks, you don’t find many stoner’s crushing on cheerleaders (though damn, now I want to see that movie!). Because they hold different values, all junk aside. In unlearning the restrictive nonsense of rules like “wide jaws are unfeminine” or “big people are lazy” or “can people in wheelchairs even…you know….right??”, then we open the door to finding what we truly look for in a person and people we can truly be happy with, without arbitrary rulings about heights, dick lengths, ratios and all the rest.
The answer is actually very simple. Aside from the “are they alive enough to be interested in and capable of dating” and “do I like that gender identity”, the rest comes down to what makes people HAPPY. Is it what makes you happy? Guess what, you’re going to find them attractive. They might be funny in the way that you like, clever in the way that you like, kind in the way that you like, and ultimately, that’s what’s going to make your heart flutter. It’s why we fall for our favourite musicians, our favourite actors. And it’s why chasing a list of numbers is only ever going to make you unhappy.
*insert image of a touching quote about people being more than paper and ink but flesh and life, if only I could find it*