Why Beauty Matters

September 2012

As a makeup artist, one of my favorite questions to ask my clients is, "Who do you think is beautiful?"

Part of my reason for asking is professional: people can be beautiful1 in different ways, and it's helpful to know which kind a client prefers when doing her makeup. For instance, someone who names Jennifer Aniston is likely to prefer a more natural, girl-next-door look than someone who names Catherine Zeta-Jones. But my real reason for asking is personal. Physical beauty moves me, and I want to know who, if anyone, moves other people in a similar way.

Many of my friends and family care far less about appearances than I do. My mother, for instance, is remarkably indifferent to physical beauty. When I was in high school, I asked her if I was pretty. My mom had a hard time understanding why I cared enough to ask. Finally she said no, but I wasn't ugly either, and anyway it wasn't important.

While less Spartan than my mother, most of my friends are similarly nonchalant about beauty. They'll notice if someone is especially beautiful, but only in the way that one notices the animation in a PowerPoint. They don't allow the packaging to distract from the content. All things being equal, most of my friends would probably rather be more beautiful than less, but they don't spend a lot of energy or time worrying about it. Being kind and smart are much more important.

In theory, I also care a lot more about being kind and smart than I do about being beautiful. But if I'm honest, there's a part of me that aches to be beautiful in a way that I don't ache for anything else, except to convey beauty and feeling as an artist. In fact, it's when I despair most of ever touching people in the way that I've been touched by artists such as T.S. Eliot and Lucia Lacarra that I crave most desperately to appear beautiful: to embody in that simple, fleeting, and superficial way the heartbreaking beauty that I see and feel but often struggle to convey.


Why do I want so badly to be beautiful? Am I shallow and vain to feel this way? Why do I spend so much of my life feeling unbeautiful and wishing that I were otherwise?

I'm not alone in feeling this way. According to surveys, 90% of women consider looks to be important to their self-esteem. One-third name looks as the most important component of their self-image, above intelligence and job performance, and two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid than be fat. In a survey of thirty-three thousand women by Glamour magazine, most said that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal.2 (I'll talk more later about the relationship between thinness and beauty.)

Unfortunately, women aren't paranoid to worry about their appearance. A large body of research shows that physical attractiveness plays a much larger role in social interactions than most people realize. People claim that they are not influenced by beauty, but when observed in actual situations, they act otherwise. In one study, researchers matched prospective dates on a variety of traits that the subjects had indicated were important to them. When the researchers looked at which of the pairings requested a second date, they noticed that the only factor that was predictive was the physical attractiveness of the partner!3 Despite people's assertions that they were more interested in common values, interests, and personality and intelligence, they all seemed to go for the best-looking partner!

Physical attractiveness (or lack thereof) influences our social interactions in many other ways. In numerous studies, researchers have found that beautiful individuals are perceived more positively along almost every single dimension. Beautiful people are perceived as smarter, happier, more competent, more flexible, more optimistic, more talented, more moral, and more honest.4 The association of beauty with positive qualities is so pervasive that researchers term it the "what is beautiful is good" effect.

Beautiful people receive preferential treatment in a variety of contexts. As infants, cute babies are held and cooed at more often by their mothers.5 As children, they are better-liked by friends and evaluated more positively by teachers. As adults, beautiful people are more likely to be interviewed, hired, and promoted for jobs.6 They are also much more likely to receive help from strangers in a variety of contexts. (In one study, a beautiful woman with a flat tire received many more offers of help from male motorists than did a plain woman in the same situation.7) Even in legal simulations, beautiful people are less likely to be convicted of a crime, and when they are convicted, they receive lighter sentences for the same offense than uglier defendants.8

While members of both genders benefit from being good-looking, the effect is much more pronounced for women. Physical attractiveness is the number one predictor of marriage potential (or lack thereof) and upward social mobility for women. Twenty years after graduating from high school, the prettiest girls are more than ten times as likely to have married than the least good-looking girls. Pretty women are also much more likely to marry up, that is, to marry men whose incomes and educations exceed their own. In contrast, a man's good looks cannot be used to predict his likelihood of marrying or of marrying a high-status wife. For men, intelligence and drive are most important in determining upward social mobility.9

A woman's beauty is also more likely to be a social asset to the man she is with than vice versa. In one study, researchers found that men who are romantically linked to beautiful women are perceived as more likable, successful, and confident than other men. In contrast, women who have stunningly handsome male partners are not perceived as any more likable or successful.10

Women are also judged more overtly on their looks in professional contexts. In the entertainment and news reporting industries, beauty is a virtual professional requirement for women. In sports, the best-looking female athletes receive the most lucrative advertising deals and disproportionate media coverage, much of it centered (as in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue) on their sex appeal instead of their athletic prowess. In politics and business, women leaders are often scrutinized on their appearance as much as on their decisions. Even Supreme Court nominees are not exempt. When Elena Kagan was nominated to the bench, pundits sniped that she resembled "a linebacker" and that she looked like she belonged "in a kosher deli."11 No matter how accomplished or capable a woman is, she can hardly escape judgment for her appearance.

Because beauty comprises such a large part of women's social capital, women are penalized more as they age. While wrinkles and fine lines can actually enhance a man's overall appeal by making him appear more mature and distinguished, the same signs of age on a woman signal only decrepitude. The asymmetrical effect of aging on men and women is exemplified in the media. Male actors in their fifties and sixties are regularly cast in leading romantic roles. (See Sean Connery and Harrison Ford.) By comparison, actresses over 45 are rarely cast in leading roles and are usually relegated to peripheral, matronly roles. At age 60, Sean Connery was named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. Can you imagine a 60-year-old woman being named the Sexiest Woman Alive?

Psychologist Nancy Etcoff cynically states that "beauty is a woman's most fungible asset, exchangeable for social position, money, even love. But dependent on a body that ages, it is an asset that a woman uses or loses."12 While I disagree that beauty is necessarily a woman's most valuable asset (What about hard work, determination, education, wealth?), I agree that beauty is a huge factor in women's success. Beautiful women are likelier to receive suitors, jobs, status, favors, and attention. Unattractive women are often scorned and ignored.

Sexist Culture

Why are women valued and rewarded so disproportionately for their beauty?

Many feminists place the blame on sexist, patriarchal culture. In societies in which men have held more power, beauty norms have been a way of keeping women under control. In the most direct sense, ideals of beauty such as the three-inch lotus foot in ancient China, the sixteen-inch corseted waist in Victorian England, and the anorexic ideal today have literally imprisoned women's bodies by restricting their development and full mobility. More insidiously, norms of beauty inhibit women's development by diverting women's energy away from social and intellectual achievement towards the continual upkeep of their bodies.

Naomi Wolf argues that as Western women have gained more political and economic rights, the beauty myth - the force field of norms and beliefs that identifies women with their bodies and that makes beauty a prerequisite for women's success - has grown stronger than ever. Wolf writes:

The ideology of beauty is the last [old feminine ideology] that still has the power to control those women whom second wave feminism would have made relatively uncontrollable. It has grown stronger to take over the work of social coercion that myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity no longer can manage.13

Here, Wolf highlights the role that social norms (as opposed to legal restrictions) play in keeping women under control. In the Victorian era and the 1950's, for example, the cult of domesticity equated femininity with domestic virtue and promised women that they would be happy if only they kept a perfect home and tended to the needs of husband and children. In her famous book, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan chronicles the ways in which women felt trapped by the unending duties of cooking, cleaning, shopping, and sewing. Even though women had by that time gained the right to vote and could in theory pursue higher education and careers, the pressure of domestic ideals kept many women from developing their talents and pursuing meaningful work.

Wolf argues that today, the beauty myth plays a similar role in preventing women from developing their potential and exercising their de jure rights, freedoms, and opportunities. In school, girls are taught that they can do and be anything. But this message is undermined by the more ubiquitous one proclaimed by movies, magazines, TV, music, even family and friends: that a woman is nothing if she is not attractive. That a woman must be beautiful in order to be valued, successful, desired, and loved.

As a result, women devote enormous energy - energy that could otherwise be spent developing their talents and character - to becoming art objects that will succeed on their culture's terms. They are encouraged, as Carol Munter and Jane Hirschmann write, to "focus on their bodies at the expense of their lives," to turn inward and "shape their bodies instead of the world."14

To convey the enormous drag that the preoccupation with beauty exerts on women's lives, Munter and Hirschmann ask their readers to imagine a world in which women are not judged on their appearance, in which every woman feels lovely and fine the way she is, in which conversations about diets, wrinkles, and cellulite are replaced by conversations about families, politics, life, culture, and art. How much more energy would women have if they weren't constantly focused on reducing their bodies and counting each calorie? How much freer would they feel?


The beauty myth also harms women by encouraging us to view women, not as subjects with their own personalities, choices, thoughts, and feelings; but as beautiful objects to be seen, admired, and lusted after.

In Ways of Seeing, art critic John Berger formulated the famous statement that "Men act and women appear. Men watch women. Women watch themselves being looked at."15 Berger notes that in classical representations of men and women in Western art, men are depicted in action - working, fighting, conducting business - and seemingly oblivious to the gaze of any onlookers. In contrast, women are depicted in such a way that their main role is to be seen. For example, women are shown bathing, reclining, gazing at themselves in a mirror, sleeping, and undressing. Their bodies are usually turned towards the viewer, who is presumed to be a man. Often the women's expressions betray awareness of being watched, and their body language deliberately plays to the gaze.

Berger argues that this artistic convention both reflects and perpetuates the existing structure of gender relations. Men learn to see women as objects, but so do women. Berger argues that when women realize how important appearing is to to their feminine role, they internalize the gaze and experience themselves as outside observers. Instead of - or in addition to - immersing themselves in action and feeling, women stand apart from themselves and evaluate themselves as an outside observer would. Berger writes:

From earliest childhood [a woman] has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually... She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance in what is normally thought of as the success of her life.16

Thus, girls and women learn to focus on how they look instead of how they feel and what they want. Instead of asking themselves, "Whom do I desire?", women learn to ask, "Would somebody desire me?" "How can I change to make myself more pleasing to others?"


Berger's insight that "men act, women appear" applies beyond classical art. In myth, literature, music, and media, we constantly encounter the idea that men are valued for who they are and what they can do, while women are valued for how they appear. In fairy tales, the hero is rewarded for his courage and resourcefulness, while the heroine is rewarded for her beauty (and sometimes goodness). In the Greek myths, Hercules and Achilles earn immortal glory through their heroic exploits. In contrast, Helen earns a place in Homer's epic for being the face that launches a thousand ships.

Today, the lesson that "women appear" is primarily conveyed through images in popular media: in advertising, television, movies, and magazines. There are the iconic cinematic images that have become part of our collective consciousness: Grace Kelly in her white, chiffon gown in To Catch a Thief. Audrey Hepburn wearing strands of pearls and long, black gloves and carrying an oversized cigarette holder in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Brigitte Bardot lying nude on her stomach in the opening scene of And God Made Woman. Marilyn Monroe laughing as the skirt of her dress is blown up in The Seven Year Itch. Ursula Andress rising out of the sea in a white bikini in Dr. No. And so on.17

There are the music videos in which female vocalists are portrayed in sultry close-ups with soft lighting, the videos in which male vocalists are surrounded by hordes of scantily clad, writhing female dancers. The shots that zoom in on women's gyrating butts and legs.

There are, too, the images from fashion and advertising. Kate Moss embodying heroin chic in the Calvin Klein ads of the nineties. The Supers - Claudia, Cindy, Christy, Naomi - strutting down runways and posing for Peter Lindbergh and Herb Ritts. The building-size blow-ups of Victoria's Secret models wearing lacy push-up bras. The airbrushed faces of models and celebrities on perfume and cosmetics posters.


As a makeup artist, I feel deeply ambivalent about these images. On the one hand, I love the ability of fashion to evoke a dream. I love the drama, the elegance, and the beauty of Annie Leibovitz's photographs. I consider the work of designers such as John Galliano and Olivier Theyskens to be art on the same level as a sculpture by Rodin or a painting by Degas. Seeing one of their couture gowns draped on a gorgeous model, the sumptuous lines caressed by soft light, the hem brushing the floor of a dusty atelier, the color fresh and sharp like a newly picked orange - takes my breath away and transports me, uplifts me in the way that great art does. I may never own a couture gown or wear a necklace dripping in rubies, but I am richer for these glimpses of extraordinary beauty.

I also love the celebrity portraits in Vogue and Vanity Fair. I'm often told that my style is more "natural," and indeed, there's something very appealing to me about making a woman look stunningly beautiful while still looking like herself. (Runway and theater makeup, on the other hand, tend to be more fantastical.) I think that one of art's gifts to us its ability to make a certain person, landscape, flower, or perspective stand out, to make it seen in a new way and as if it were the only one, to lend - or rather, to reveal - beauty in things and people which would otherwise be overlooked. Thus, Degas gave dignity to common washerwomen by portraying them on canvas. Richard Avedon elevated Dovima from a pretty girl to a goddess, one of the most iconic models of the twentieth century.

My goal in makeup is to enhance the features of a woman in a way that brings out her nobility, her beauty in a deep sense. I don't always succeed, of course. So for example, Naomi Watts had worked with numerous makeup artists before, but it was Pati Dubroff who brought out the subtle loveliness of her features. I love beauty in people, and I love looking at beautiful people. I have windows of Eva Green and Naomi Watts open on my laptop because I just like looking at them so much. Part of my wanting to be beautiful, then, is the desire to captivate people in that deep, immediate, visceral way in which I'm captivated by a really beautiful woman.18 To be inspiring by my sheer physical existence.

At the same time, I'm often uncomfortable with some of the values that the fashion ads and editorials express. Women are portrayed as beautiful, passive objects to be lusted after and adored. Ads imply that women will be happy if only they are beautiful and young. Women's bodies are used to sell items that have nothing to do with women, such as cars, beers, video games, and iPods. Violence is sexualized, and women are depicted tied up, assaulted, and even dead. Stilettos and perfumes are marketed as so irresistible that they will inspire sexual assault.

The images exist on a continuum, of course. There isn't a sharp line between pure artistic fantasy (I'm thinking of Annie Liebovitz's shoots for Vogue - of Drew Barrymore as Beauty and the Beast, of Natalia Vodianova as Alice in Wonderland) and soft-core pornography, which is how I see many swimsuit and lingerie ads. And, as John Berger points out, nearly all of these images reinforce the idea that women are the gender to be looked at.

What counts as degrading to women also varies from viewer to viewer. We're not just passive media sponges, and we all bring our own histories, values, and associations to our interpretations of the images. For example, I react negatively to Cosmo-style pictures of sexy models offering their bodies. To me, they communicate vacuousness, submissiveness, the willing collapse of women into male pleasure. But maybe that is because they embody a fantasy that I feel I can never embody. Would I feel differently if I looked more like swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker?


I also feel uncomfortable with fashion imagery that glamorizes and promotes a body type that is unhealthy and unrealistic for most women. As many critics have observed, the average high fashion model does not resemble the average woman at all. The average model stands at 5'10" and weighs 110 pounds; the average American woman is 5'4" and weighs 140 pounds. (A skeptic might charge that the average American weight-for-height is too high because Americans tend to be overweight. Fair enough. But to give you an idea of how emaciated the ideal is, consider that some of my friends who are professional distance runners are 5'4" and 110 pounds! They would be considered obese as models!)

My friend, who is a very talented fashion photographer, says that tall, super-skinny models simply photograph better. They can create more dramatic shapes with their bodies and make more space between their limbs. She says, "Real women shouldn't feel like they need to look like models. I don't hate myself because I can't sing like an opera singer. Fashion requires a very specific body type, and women who aren't models shouldn't hold themselves to professional standards."

My friend's attitude is shared by many leading editors, designers, and photographers in the fashion industry. While many now acknowledge that fashion imagery plays a contributory role in the development of eating disorders, most evade responsibility by claiming, "It's just fashion! Don't take it so seriously!" and "Fashion is about dreams and ideas, not reality. Women should know that they can't and don't need to look like models!"

Well, I agree that the world would be a better place if women could, as fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld suggests, view models as the exotic specimens of some alien aesthetic ideal, far removed from their own expectations and desires (and the expectations and desires of their male friends and lovers). It would be great if women could revel in the fantasy and return to their lives unchanged. But all the evidence suggests that this kind of compartmentalization simply isn't possible.

Study after study has documented the mostly negative impact of fashion images on women's self-esteem. In one famous and often-repeated study, women who spent even a few minutes looking at pictures of models and celebrities in fashion magazines felt more self-conscious, less confident, and less satisfied with their bodies afterward.19

There is also strong evidence linking the spread of Western thinness-glamorizing imagery to the rise of eating disorders around the world. In one representative case study, anthropologist Anne Becker found that prior to the arrival of Western media, girls and women in Fiji were comfortable with their bodies, no matter their size. Just three years after the introduction of a single Western television station, more than 75% of Fijian girls thought that they were "too fat," and 15% admitted to vomiting to control their weight.20 Similar patterns have emerged as Western media (and its glamorization of slenderness) has spread to China, Korea, Russia, South Africa, Central Africa, and Latin America.


While I don't believe that all standards of beauty are culturally contingent (more on that soon), I do think that our fixation on slenderness is entirely so. Just fifty to sixty years ago, the voluptuous bodies of Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe embodied the national ideal. And just thirty years before that, women were binding their breasts to achieve the slender, boyish look of the flapper. In the Victorian era, the ideal female body was plump, fleshy, and pear-shaped. In fact, in most cultures throughout human history, the more voluptuous female form was the more admired.

Why has slenderness become such a compelling ideal here and now? Why in the early 1990's did Kate Moss' protruding hipbones become the envy of women in the Western world?

The reasons for slenderness as a cultural ideal are varied and complex, and a full analysis is beyond the scope of this essay. However, I would like to point out that slenderness is not, contrary to popular assumptions, an empty ideal, the arbitrary preference of gay male fashion designers that has somehow imprinted upon an unthinking public. Rather slenderness is so compelling as an ideal precisely because it embodies several powerful (and sometimes contradictory) cultural meanings.21

On the one hand, slenderness signifies rejection of a traditional, reproductive, domestic feminine role. If you trace the ideal feminine form through historical periods, you'll notice that slenderness is often in ascendance during periods of gender flux. For instance, the lean, androgynous body type came into vogue in the 1920's, an era in which women first gained the right to vote and started entering the workplace in droves. Similarly, the 1960's saw the second wave of feminism and the emergence of Twiggy as a beauty icon. In contrast, the 1950's saw a resurgence of traditional gender values, as women left the wartime factories and returned home to take care of husband and children. It was also an era in which full hips and breasts - symbols of fertility and maternal nurturing and warmth - became the new ideal.

By nature, women have rounder, softer, and curvier bodies than men. Thus fat is, on a basic biological level, associated with femininity. To the extent that being female carries associations of weakness, sensitivity, and maternal instinct that women would like to shed, curves are a liability. (In fact, studies have shown that viewers associate large breasts with incompetence in female executives.) A woman who possesses a trim, lean body - one whose "excess" curves have been dieted or exercised away - appears less feminine and projects qualities that have traditionally been associated with men: efficiency, discipline, reason, and willpower.

At the same time, female slenderness is literally a contraction of female space, and as such, its idealization expresses discomfort with female presence, ambition, assertion, and power. In studies of primate body language, dominant individuals tend to expand and take up space. They walk taller, occupy more space when speaking, and spread out their limbs when sitting. In contrast, submissive individuals tend to shrink and minimize the space they take up. They hunch their shoulders while standing, gesture with smaller movements, and keep their arms and legs close to their bodies. Seen from this perspective, it's disturbing that women are constantly encouraged to become smaller and to make themselves lesser - less present, less demanding, less claiming of physical space.

It's also worth noting that the ideal body for mature women has become that of an extremely fragile, undeveloped (with the possible exception of breasts) adolescent waif. That a 15-year-old sylph has become the model (literally!) for grown women to emulate says a lot about our culture's discomfort with female maturity and power.

Of course, not all the reasons for the emergence of slenderness as an ideal have to do with gender. For example, mind-body dualism has been a major theme in Western philosophy since the days of Plato and Augustine. The true self has been identified with the spirit or will, and the body with its appetites has been seen as lesser and gross. Thinness - and the denial of appetite it signals - thus indicates the transcendence of mind over matter, of will over flesh. In a post-industrialized, consumer culture such as ours, thinness also has class connotations. A thin, lean body embodies the discipline and self-control associated with upward social mobility, while flabiness symbolizes laziness, excess, and lack of ambition.22 In an environment in which calorie-dense, government-subsidized grains (and grain-derived sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup) are cheap and fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats are expensive,23 obesity also becomes associated with the poor.

Nevertheless, the fact that those suffering from eating disorders and body obsessions are overwhelmingly female suggests that our revulsion towards fat is especially linked to the experience of women in particular.


When I was in RA training at Stanford, the RA trainers claimed that all women were equally beautiful, just in different ways. They insisted that all standards of beauty were culturally relative, or else purely personal. There was no such thing as a person who was objectively more beautiful than another.

The RA trainers had good intentions. They wanted our black residents to feel as beautiful as our white ones, our fat ones to feel as beautiful as our skinny ones. And the RA trainers were right, to an extent. Some standards of beauty are culturally determined. The relative appeal of fatness versus slendernes, for instance. And the identification of racial features as ugly or beautiful. For example, are European double eyelids more beautiful than Asian "mono-lids?" Is smooth, glossy blonde hair more attractive than nappy dark hair? Or have historical accidents of racism and slavery produced these ideals? I highly suspect the latter.

It's also true that people can be beautiful in different ways and to different observers, just as they can be smart in different ways (mathematically, verbally, musically and so on). Marketing researchers use the term "multidimensional beauty" to describe how different flavors of beauty can connote different traits and elicit different responses from observers. For instance, the girl-next-door appeal of Katie Holmes connotes innocence and approachability, but not sophistication or glamour. The elegance of Grace Kelly is classic, perfect; but like a Grecian statue her beauty is cold. The smoldering glances of a Victoria's Secret model exude sexiness, but not class or erudition. And so on.

The reality of multidimensional beauty is what makes the responses to my question, "Who do you think is beautiful and why?" so interesting. I want to know if it's softness or toughness, naturalness or artifice, mystery or transparency, cuteness or womanliness, gaiety or darkness, that colors my client's perception of beauty. All of the women that my clients name - Natalie Portman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé - are very beautiful, but in different ways. What makes one woman choose Reese Witherspoon over Megan Fox, and another choose Jennifer Lopez over Nicole Kidman? What is the thread that unites the women that a client finds beautiful? With which emotions does she resonate?


On the other hand, it's not true that all women are equally beautiful, just in different ways. Nor is it true that all judgments of beauty can be traced solely to cultural influences and personal taste.

A large body of research shows that while there is a large element of taste and cultural variation, judgments of beauty are remarkably consistent across individuals.24 In 1960, a newspaper in London published the faces of twelve young women and asked readers to rate their prettiness. The responses, which came from individuals from both genders and all different ages and social classes across Britain, were remarkably similar. Five years later, a similar survey by an American newspaper produced very similar results.25 Since then, dozens upon dozens of studies - in and outside of the laboratory, within and between cultures - have documented the same result.

Symmetry is universally seen as beautiful. So are clear skin, glossy hair, and signs of youthfulness. In women, large, wide-set eyes, full lips, and delicate chins are considered beautiful. Women with low waist-to-hip ratios (narrow waists and wide hips) are also considered attractive. In men, the markers of physical attractiveness are harder to define, though people tend to agree on a good-looking man when they see one. In general, men with strong jaws, prominent brows, and deep-set eyes are considered attractive.26 As you might expect, taller and more muscular men are also perceived as more attractive.

Studies have shown that judgments of beauty are remarkably consistent across individuals of both genders in China, India, the United States, Austria, Scotland, Australia, Japan, and Korea.27 Nor is the convergence in beauty ideals attributable, as the tyranny of slenderness is, to the spread of mass media around the globe. In one study, researchers found that the culturally isolated Hiwi and Ache tribes agreed with Westerners on which black, Asian, Caucasian, and mixed-race faces were most attractive, even though they had never seen individuals of those races before.28 In another study, babies as young as three months stared for longer at faces that adults considered attractive!29

When attractive female faces are averaged together using a computer program, the resulting face is seen as even more attractive than the constituent faces. Similarly, researchers can modify images of faces in predictable ways to make them more or less attractive. For example, by exaggerating the features common to beautiful female faces - enhancing the arch of the eyebrow, shortening the distance from mouth to chin, and reducing the size of the nose - researchers are able to enhance the beauty of a woman's face.

Evolutionary Psychology

Many evolutionary psychologists cite the widespread consensus in beauty judgments as evidence that our perception of beauty has been largely determined by evolutionary adaptations. Clear skin, symmetrical features, and low waist-to-hip ratios in women are seen as beautiful because they are markers of health and fertility. Our ancestors who preferred these traits mated with healthier, more fertile individuals and left more surviving offspring. These offspring inherited their parents' aesthetic preferences and eventually passed them on to us. Humans are therefore genetically predisposed to find certain features (and combinations of features) beautiful.

Some evolutionary psychologists also argue that the greater emphasis on female over male beauty is innate. Because women invest more in each pregnancy and can bear a small number of children no matter how many times they have sex, women are choosier in their mating strategies. They prefer quality over quantity in their mates and will look for high-status men with resources who can provide for them and their children. In contrast, men are biologically capable of investing much less in each offspring (at minimum, just a sperm) and can theoretically spawn unlimited children in a lifetime. Therefore, men are likely to maximize the propagation of their genes by mating with as many females as they can. They are adapted to be less choosy and will (according to this model) happily mate with whatever beautiful and young (i.e., healthy and fertile) woman he comes across.

Additionally, while women experience menopause and decline in fertility in their forties and fifties, men remain at least relatively fertile throughout their lives. As a result, youth is more important to a woman's fertility than a man's. Since beauty is (according to this theory) ultimately about signaling one's health and fertility, physical beauty is a more important component of a woman's attractiveness than a man's.

Proponents of this theory cite evidence that in almost every culture, women's beauty is valued more than men's. In a study of 37 cultures, psychologist David Buss found that men in 34 of the cultures valued beauty in a woman more than women did in a male partner. (In the three remaining cultures, men and women were tied in how much emphasis they placed on a partner's good looks.) In a study of 200 tribal societies, biologists Clelland Ford and Frank Beach found that physical attractiveness was more socially valued in women than in men in nearly every one of the cultures.30

There is also some evidence that men are generally more promiscuous than women. In surveys, men report wanting and having had more sexual partners than women do. Men are also more likely to accept the offer of sex from a stranger (though researchers have not tracked whether men will actually follow through on the offer), and are by far the major consumers of prostitution and pornography. Throughout history, powerful men have enjoyed the sexual favors of numerous beautiful, young women. Today, male athletes and rock stars enjoy similar privileges.

There is also evidence that youth is more prized in women than in men. Worldwide, the average age of first marriage is a few years younger for women than it is for men. Men who remarry tend to find wives who are significantly younger, and the older the men get, the wider the gap.31 Anecdotally, there are also numerous cases of older, physically unattractive tycoons marrying much younger and more beautiful wives. (Case in point: Donald Trump has now traded in two wives for (literally) newer models.)

Are these patterns and preferences innate? Are we hard-wired to find certain features beautiful? More disturbingly, are men hard-wired to pursue sex with many beautiful, young females; and are women biologically driven to mate with alpha males?

These questions are important and touch on what it means to be human. If humans have evolved to value women for their beauty and youth and men for their strength and status, then aren't feminist charges about the objectification of women mere railings against human nature? (It's worth pointing out that according to this model, men are objectified too, as success objects instead of sex objects.) If the natural world is all there is, then on what grounds can we criticize certain practices and values as falling short of what should be? Isn't the best we can say that the current state is unpleasant to some people (especially unattractive females and unsuccessful "beta" males), but not that it is wrong?

These questions open up a whole can of worms, and while this essay is not the place to delve into the details of evolutionary psychology, biological determinism, and moral responsibility - let alone the justification for morality in a naturalistic universe!32 - I would like to make a few brief points:


First, I do think that much of our perception of beauty is likely based in biology. Symmetry and clear, smooth skin are so widely seen as beautiful, even by individuals from different cultures (and three-month-old babies), that our preference for them is probably innate. Whether these preferences evolved as a result of natural selection is up for debate, but I find the hypothesis that our aesthetic tastes evolved, at least in part, as a screen for health and fertility in mates quite plausible.

Second, I think it's possible that men and women have inherited different mating strategies and priorities on average, and that these differences may translate (under certain circumstances and in certain environments and under certain cultural conditions) into the preoccupation with female youth and beauty that we see. However, we need to be very wary about asserting innate sex differences.

Genes rarely determine behavior in so straightforward a manner as the popular evolutionary psychology theories suggest. As highly intelligent and social creatures, humans are programmed to adapt and learn from experience instead of repeating the same, typed behaviors over and over. Genes enable our capabilities and set limits on which behaviors are possible, but they don't determine, independently of environment, which behaviors an organism will adopt. Philosopher Simon Blackburn describes the analogous case of human language development:

We as human beings are born with a strong disposition to learn Chinese if as infants we are surrounded by Chinese speakers, or Arabic if we are surrounded by Arabic speakers. Genetics is not irrelevant to the skill we have in learning a language. But nor does it determine, independently of environment, which language we learn.33

Blackburn goes on to say that what our genes give us is not a blueprint for learning a particular language, but a second-order disposition to fit in with the linguistic dispositions of those around us. By analogy, humans may be born with a second-order disposition to mimic the attitudes towards beauty and corresponding behaviors of those around them. Or, they may be born only with an even further removed third-order disposition to develop such a second-order disposition only in the presence or absence of still other intervening factors. (Think, for example, of those individuals who protest their society's norms instead of conforming to them.)

In short, genes program us to have a great deal of flexibility in how we ultimately respond to our environment.

Third, the assertion that "men are like this, women are like that..." is highly misleading. On almost every meaningful personality trait, there is vastly more variation within groups than between groups. Put another way, if you graphically represent the distribution of men's and women's quotients on some trait (e.g., kindness, empathy, shyness, promiscuity) as two bell curves, you'll see a huge region of overlap in the middle. The average values of the two groups might be slightly different, but the difference will be small compared to the large overlap between the two populations.34 It thus may be that the average man is more likely to mate for beauty and act more promiscuously than the average woman, but that tells us very little about the proclivities of individual men and women.

The existence of differences between population averages also tells us nothing about their causes. It may be that men on average value beauty in women, and women on average value financial stability in men, not because of some biological imperative, but because historically and worldwide, men have held more physical and economic power; therefore, women have had to depend upon men for material resources.35 There is still a lot about human evolution that we don't understand, and to conclude that these differences between men and women are innate is premature.

Fourth, even if humans do have a genetic propensity to value women for their beauty, and even if men are, on average, more genetically inclined to be promiscuous, that says nothing about whether such attitudes and behaviors are good and/or just. Just because an inclination is natural does not mean that it is good or even acceptable. Humans have all sorts of natural inclinations towards kindness, altruism, generosity, and compassion; but also towards envy, violence, greed, self-preservation at any cost, cowardice, and lust. Some of the darker tendencies have led to historically widespread and persistent practices that are certainly understandable from an evolutionary perspective - rape and slavery, for instance. But nobody (other than a few extremists) argues that just because slavery yields evolutionary fitness benefits (to the slaveholders), that we should accept it as inevitable or just.

So whether and to what extent our fixation on female beauty is based in culture or biology, we can still be justified in critiquing it as harmful and in working to change it.


Like many women, I learned that I was not beautiful during adolescence. When I was twelve, my parents moved to a wealthy suburb in L.A. so that we could go to a top school district. While it was a good decision (I probably would not have gone to Stanford otherwise), moving to Palos Verdes led to unintended consequences.

In Palos Verdes, everyone seemed to be obsessed with looks, dating, and popularity.36 The boys rated girls on a scale of beauty from 1-10. They always said "present company excepted," but I wasn't stupid. I could infer that if Reese Witherspoon was a 5, I couldn't hope for higher than a 4 myself. I heard comments like, "Well of course I would like to date Jessica Alba, but in real life..." And when they weren't pining after Jessica Alba, the boys were wishing to date Nina and Bridget - the 9's of real life - but those girls were out of their league. What did it mean for someone to be out of their league? Was I in their league or beneath it? The implication, of course, was that I - and most of the smart, pleasant, friendly girls they hung out with - were either in their league or beneath it, and hence undesirable.

I learned that even the nerdy Asian boys that I had crushes on yearned after the top-tier beauties. There were different types of ideals. One was personified by Lauren Rosenthal, Barbie-like, whom I tutored in French. She couldn't conjugate a verb to save her life, but that didn't stop several of my guy friends from asking if I could set them up with her. Another type was the delicate, long-haired Asian girl. I wasn't that type either. My friend Tracy had the swimsuit model looks. When we went out together, people would often stop and ask if she modeled or wanted to model.

If I was any type at all, it was the unattractive friend of the pretty girl. My guy friends told me their crushes on my female friends, and my female friends confided their relationships and asked for advice. One time, a friend who was fed up with boy drama told me that I was "lucky that guys didn't think [I was] pretty."

At the time it never occurred to me to ask, Why should all the boys I knew be trying to date the same few dozen hot girls? Were they the only ones deserving of attention and love? Why in an ideal world was it Jessica Alba that my friends hoped to date, and not Emily Dickinson, or Sylvia Plath, or Georgia O'Keefe? At times I tried desperately to offer my intelligence, my imagination, my depth, my wit. But most of the time I resigned myself to knowing that I was undesirable and hopelessly unlovely.

I also took refuge in a tomboy persona. From the ages of 13-17, I wore my hair short and refused to wear makeup, bras, or dresses. I tromped about in oversize t-shirts and athletic shorts. When my friends got ready for proms, I announced that I didn't care for dances. When the guys in my classes pored over Seventeen and cut out pictures of celebrities and hot, shirtless guys, I cut out pictures of fighter jets to put on my walls. I collected World War II miniatures, perused comic books, and made stippled drawings of starships. I went running and wrote poems. While I wasn't aware of it at the time, in becoming a tomboy I was opting out of the whole looks and dating game. I didn't believe I could win it and didn't want to waste my time trying.

I realized later that I was also withdrawing from norms of femininity that confused and repelled me. Part of me didn’t want to be like the models in the magazines and the singers on MTV. Part of me recoiled from the models in the Victoria’s Secret ads: their hair perfectly tousled, large breasts and impossibly slender limbs arranged seductively, compliant smiles, their willing participation in their objectification. If this was what being beautiful meant, I wanted none of it.

I succeeded in my unconscious rebellion. Never was I reduced to a sex and beauty object, and not once in that period was I desired for or complimented on my looks. Throughout high school, only two boys liked me (that I am aware of). One liked me because I was a good artist, and the other liked me because - I'm not sure why. I was creative? Caring? A good writer? Even today, I often see myself as that awkward, unattractive adolescent even though I'm not anymore.


When I told my priest Fr. Nathan that I didn't feel beautiful, he said, "Why don't you let God decide whether you are beautiful or not?" I replied that God doesn't count - he thinks everyone is beautiful. And even if he doesn't - even if God is less bullshitty than the RA training people - it doesn't matter because God doesn't have to pick favorites. He loves everyone equally.37 God is like me as a tutor. I don't have to pick favorites among my students, so I can appreciate them all in various ways even as I discern objective differences in motivation and learning ability among them.

But if you are choosing one person out of everyone in the world to love, isn't that picking a favorite? And you pick your beloved for a reason. If someone is ugly, boring, mean, and slow, maybe God loves him or her but no one else does; at least, not in the special, exclusive way that most people want to be chosen and loved. If you are picking one person to love above all others, wouldn't you want to choose the person with the highest aggregate of positive traits?38 You might not - if you're not shallow - select solely or even primarily on the basis of looks. But it's hard to deny that beauty is a nontrivial asset and that most people would rather, ceteris paribus, opt to date someone more beautiful than less.

Of course, identifying the kindest, smartest, and most beautiful person you know doesn't automatically mean that you will end up with him or her. Everyone else is trying to do the best they can, too,39 so just because you like someone doesn't mean that they will like you back. If you want to marry someone who looks like James Franco, thinks like Steve Jobs, and acts like Saint Francis, then you had better offer something in return. With everyone trying to maximize the "value" of their spouse given their own value on the mating market, an equilibrium eventually forms where people are paired with others who have roughly similar levels of assets. Indeed, social scientists find that most people tend to marry partners who are comparable in looks, intelligence, and socio-economic status.40

What this means is that a lot of people don't get their first choice. The average man may not be able to marry a beautiful woman, but that doesn't mean that he wouldn't prefer, all things being equal, to marry someone gorgeous rather than homely. If he ends up with a wife who is beautiful only on the inside, isn't that more of a concession to reality than the outcome that he ideally wanted?

For a long time, I thought my friend Nina was the most beautiful person I knew. She had the delicate features, creamy skin, and effortlessly balletic body that I wished I had. I used to wonder, why would anyone want to date me if they could date someone who was just as smart, just as funny, just as kind, and just as deep, but beautiful like Nina as well? Wouldn't that be settling, like buying a Honda Accord because you couldn't afford a Ferrari?

Mu husband says it’s not like that and he loves me, not some hypothetical version of me who looks like Nina.

But why do you love me? – I want to protest. Because of my good qualities? If that’s the case, there will always be someone with a higher aggregate of good qualities. Even if you think there isn’t, it’s just because of your small sample size; you haven’t met everyone in the world yet. And if it’s not because of my qualities then isn’t it random that you chose me, out of everyone you could possibly be with?41

In my clearer moments, I realize that this kind of thinking is silly. Max loves me, not because I possess the best stat line of everyone he knows, but because who I am has become precious and irreplaceable to him. When we first met, Max liked me because he thought I was smart and funny. At that point, probably there were lots of girls who were smart and funny that he could have gone on to have wonderful relationships with. But as we became friends and shared thoughts and jokes and funny moments and dark moments, we became more and more special to one another.

Sometimes I think that choosing the person you love is like picking which college to go to. Some choices are clearly better than others; Stanford than Southern University at New Orleans,42 for example. But there isn’t one institution that is the best choice ex ante. Until you decide on a school, a particular college can only be wonderful in potential. It’s your experiences there and your interaction with the school that make it unique to you.

I recall an interview in which Lauren Fleshman described choosing between Stanford and Yale. Both were excellent research universities with great running programs. She visited each and maybe liked the weather a little better at Stanford and the team vibe at Yale and the academic environment at Stanford. But really, at that point, she could have gone either way and made an excellent choice. But once she chose Stanford and trained with the team and raced with them, then every time she put on her Stanford jersey it meant a little bit more. And by the time she graduated you really couldn’t imagine her as anything other than a Stanford runner.

So I think that picking a favorite person is something like that. People are wonderful in potential, but the particular person who becomes special to you is the one whom you make special. It’s your commitment and shared experiences that make you irreplaceable to each other. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes in The Little Prince, “it’s the time that you’ve wasted on your rose that makes your rose so important.”

And yet – don’t our qualities matter, at least initially? If Max hadn’t thought that I was funny and smart, and if I hadn’t thought the same about him, then we wouldn’t even have gotten to the point where we could become irreplaceable to one another. And as we were dating, we were constantly if unconsciously evaluating one another on a myriad of factors. Is she ethical? Is he flexible? Will she have my back in a home invasion? What’s more, this model presumes that there are tiers – maybe within a given tier, there’s no best choice ex ante, but how about between tiers? Maybe there was no clear better choice between Stanford and Yale, but between Stanford and UCLA, or Stanford and Cal State Dominguez?


Fr. Nathan says he doesn’t rank people as if some could be better than others. Every person is unique, invaluable, and made in the image of God. (What does that mean?) He asks, can’t you think of everyone as good, and just love them and relate to them? Why do you have to order and compare? Comparisons will only make you miserable.

I want to agree with Fr. Nathan that every person is incomparably valuable, but what does that mean? Clearly, people do not have equal or incomparable value in most ways. For one, people don’t all possess equal amounts of socially desired traits (e.g., kindness, intelligence, wit). Nor do they possess skills that others are willing to pay equal amounts for. A CEO’s skills may be worth hundreds of times more to a company than a janitor’s. An NBA team will pay millions of dollars more for a first round draft pick than for an amateur.43

Nor are people equal in how much energy others are willing to expend to protect them. The President is more valuable than a Secret Service agent; that is why a Secret Service agent will sacrifice his life to protect the President and not vice versa. Similarly, a four-star general is more valuable to the army than a private. In World War II, when the U.S. had to abandon the Philippines to the Japanese, General MacArthur was evacuated while the rest of his men stayed behind and were captured. Different lives do not all have equal value.

Nor are people equal in how much others value their presence, interest, attention, and favor. A few weeks ago, Max and I had dinner with one of the billionaire donors to the university. It was interesting to watch how everyone deferred to him, how everything he said was automatically interesting, funny, charming.44 Here in Silicon Valley, tech stars make a point of dressing and hanging out like everyone else, but people still act very differently when Sheryl Sandberg or Vinod Khosla walks into the room. Everyone wants to be close to them, to be noticed by them, and to be invited to their parties. People are not all equal in status.

Even Catholics who believe in the equal worth of every human being get a lot more excited to meet the Pope than some random homeless person. And the relics of saints are not worth the same as those of regular people. A finger that belonged to St. Francis is worth a lot more, for example, than one that belongs to you or me.

If people are not equal in how much others value their skills, attributes, survival, company, and even body parts, then in what sense are they equal? Maybe people have equal value in some abstract, metaphysical sense, but if that value doesn’t have effects in the real world, then what’s the point?


It’s different to say that every person has value than to say that every person has equal value. Most of us behave as if every human being has enormous value just for existing, some basic dignity and rights to life and liberty.45 But that’s just the baseline. It’s like the 200 points you get on the SAT (per section) for writing down your name. It’s what you do on top of that that distinguishes you from others and forms the grounds for meaningful comparison. By definition, it can’t be my universal human value that causes Max to choose me over other persons to love, right?

One might argue that the value one gets from being made in imago Dei vastly outweighs any other kind of value add. If God created and values each person infinitely, then our varying assessments of value are like finite numbers added to infinity. Nothing that we say or do can change the infinite preciousness of a soul to God, who is the final and definitive arbiter of human value. 46

That may be true, but God is not the only one we care about. Humans are social animals, and how others view us does affect how we see ourselves. In fact, someone who doesn’t care at all what others think might be classified as a psychopath.

I think the kind of inequality that people object most to is the kind in which excellence in one stat (or worse yet, some arbitrary marker like race) results in preferential treatment in unrelated spheres. Beauty and prestige are such powerful forces that they warp our perception and treatment of people in non-relevant contexts. The idea of beautiful women getting more promotions, or powerful people getting their way in court, offends our meritocratic convictions. We want to believe that everyone is equal in opportunity and in the eyes of the law, even if they are not in other ways.

Certainly, at least some of our inequality stems from our living in an imperfect world. But even if a joke received no more laughs coming from a billionaire than from a homeless person, even if a job applicant from Harvard received the same consideration as an equally qualified applicant from a community college, even if we stopped rewarding women for their beauty and recognized their talents, accomplishments, and character instead – even if we were a true meritocracy, people would still have different levels of talents and gifts. We wouldn’t all be equal.


One analogy that helps me to understand this is where St. Paul says that we are all members of one body and we need one another. We don’t all have the same gifts or the same magnitude of gifts, but whatever we have is given for the common good. Some members are more visible and some are less, some are stronger and others are weaker, but every member is indispensable. Even the parts that seem weaker and less dignified are necessary. It’s like in The Lord of the Rings, where the hobbits have the most critical role to play in saving Middle Earth.

As Paul writes: “If all were the eye, then where would be the hearing? And if all were hearing, where would be the smelling? But God has placed each member in the body just as He pleased… so that there should be no schism, but the members should have the same care for one another. But if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”47

Not equality, but love. I think that if there is any equality in value, it is only in God’s love for us and our love for one another, not in our merits. If there is equality, it comes from us bestowing greater honor upon the parts that are less honorable and supporting the weak. It comes from us delighting in our superfluousness. Everything from existence onward is a gift. I have to remember that any gift given to Nina (or whomever) is likewise given to me, and that the beauty and talent I admire and envy in someone else are, to the extent that I love them, mine as well. When we see ourselves as members of one another, we can let go of jealousy and delight in one another’s gifts. We can be the particular, interdependent, finite members of the body that we are.

C.S. Lewis says, “A good toe-nail is not an unsuccessful attempt at a hair; if it were conscious it would delight in being simply a good toe-nail.” Part of the excellence of a good toenail is that it is not a hair. And part of the excellence of St. Paul is that he is not Peter, and of Mary that she is not Martha. Our limitations are a part of what makes us who we are.

I recall an interview in which Edward Norton said that every actor has an elasticity, and every role has an elasticity. Being plain or good-looking, young or old, male or female – all can limit and extend an actor’s range in different ways. And every role can be interpreted in multiple ways, but not in any way. And one of the delights of theater is matching an actor’s elasticity to that of his role. Edward Norton is not the most swoon-worthy heartthrob, but his ordinary looks allow him to be versatile and believable in a wide range of roles.

Unfortunately, part of what makes me me is that I’m not drop-dead gorgeous. I have soft features that can appear beautiful, but when I do it’s only in the way of someone who “just tries hard”, like the student who earns A-minuses by color-coding her notes and staying up till 2a.m. I’m not naturally beautiful.48 On the other hand, I’m good at connecting to people and relating to their insecurities. Not being drop-dead gorgeous probably has something to do with that.


Oddly, it’s often much easier (at least for me) to appreciate uniqueness in other people than in myself. I think that I’m good at appreciating the unique value in others, even mutually exclusive traits. I can appreciate the caustic wit of Mabrookah, the gentleness of Diana, the spontaneous exuberance of Deborah, the shy and hesitant sensitivity of Nina. In fact, there isn’t anyone I know for whom I can’t think of at least a dozen reasons why they are delightful and needed.

On the other hand, I often have trouble seeing the unique value in myself. Why is it easier (for me) to see particularness in other people than in myself?

One reason may be that I’m still young. Paul Graham and Suzanne Farrell have inimitable styles, but they’ve had more time to develop theirs. If I don’t seem like anything particular yet, maybe it’s because I’m still finding my way. But no, that can’t be right. I find it easy to see uniqueness in my students, and they’re younger than I. And their particularness doesn’t come from anything they do or create; it’s present even in my least talented and creative pupils.

Another reason may be that some degree of far-sightedness is intrinsic to being who you are in communion with others. Madeleine L’Engle says that it’s when she’s on the other side of herself, totally concentrating on something or someone else, that her personality emerges. Sometimes when I’m painting, teaching, or talking with a friend, I let go and catch glimpses of humor and expressiveness that someone outside of me might know and love.

Maybe if you love and give and stay honest, then you will develop a beauty that is your own. It’s like George Balanchine’s advice to Darci Kistler: “Don’t act. Don’t emote. Just dance.” If you don’t know who you are or what makes you unique, then just love and give and – if you are a maker – then make things, and it will come out naturally. I think this is part of what it means to lose your self to find yourself, to take your work seriously without taking your self seriously.

Okay, But

What if you are being the particular you that you’re meant to be, but you’re still slow – like borderline retarded – and ugly and awkward and pimply and sickly and untalented and weak? (You’re not mean, because that would be contrary to giving of yourself.) And I know, everyone has a gift to contribute and a unique role to play, so you can’t be utterly untalented, but what if the way in which you contribute doesn’t attract anyone? What if God loves you and other people love and appreciate you in the general and diffuse way,49 but no one wants to love you in the special, exclusive way?

Is it that this scenario isn’t possible? That no matter how low your stats are, as long as you are being your particular self in communion with others, that somebody will choose you and love you? I’m not convinced. Or is it that you won’t care? That you’ll be so full of loving and giving that it won’t matter that nobody wants to pick you for their team?

Do you wait for the world to come, in which some of the first will be last and the last will be first? And hope that in the afterlife you’ll get to be beautiful and smart and talented and interesting? (One can see here why Marx termed religion “the opiate of the masses.”)

I think of God who emptied himself out and became poor for our sake. Is someone who is empty and unlovely and weak able to be close to God in a special way? As St. Paul writes, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty…” Poverty, emptiness, humility – these are the qualities that are cultivated by monks and nuns, that are proclaimed blessed in the Gospel. As Thomas Merton writes, “in our poverty is our strength.”

On some level, these questions are disingenuous of me. Because the truth is, I’m not stupid, ugly, awkward, and untalented. I have many socially desirable traits. And the truth is, someone did pick me – someone very wonderful, brilliant, ethical, and handsome. So why do these questions still haunt me?

What do you think? Do you ever ask questions like these?

Who do you think is beautiful?50

- esther-emmanuel


[1] In the narrow sense of visual aesthetic appeal.

[2] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), 10.

[3] Nancy Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 59.

[4] Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, and Elaine Walster, "What is Beautiful Is Good," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 24 (1972): 285-289.

[5] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 37.

[6] The exception is that gorgeous women have a harder time getting promoted into stereotypically male jobs such as executive management. Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 83.

[7] Patzer, The Physical Attractiveness Phenomena, 73.

[8] Rhode, The Beauty Bias, 26-27; Patzer, The Physical Attractiveness Phenomena, 71, 73, 105-109.

[9] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 65-66; Patzer, The Physical Attractiveness Phenomena, 94-95. Intelligence does not improve a woman’s chances of marriage. The most intelligent women are actually less likely to marry than their less intelligent sisters. Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 66.

[10] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 66.

[11] Deborah Rhode, “Why Elena Kagan’s Looks Matter.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-06-26/elena-kagans-looks-and-why-they-matter.

[12] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 66.

[13] Wolf, The Beauty Myth, 10-11.

[14] Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter, When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies (New York: The Random House Publishing Group), x, 16.

[15] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 47.

[16] Berger, Ways of Seeing, 46.

[17] Culture isn’t homogeneous, and increasingly we see images that preach the need for men to look good (e.g., Calvin Klein’s men’s underwear ads, men’s fitness magazines). There is also evidence that men experience increasing pressure to appear as well as act. For example, the number of men seeking cosmetic surgery has risen dramatically. Nevertheless, women are still much more defined by how they appear.

[18] Despite my discomfort with the norm that “women appear,” it’s almost always a woman whose physical beauty moves me.

[19] cite

[20] Bordo, Unbearable Weight, xv-xvi.

[21] Susan Bordo and Kim Chernin have written insightfully about the cultural meanings of slenderness.

[22] For example, you often hear of fat people: “How could she let herself go?”

[23] Gym memberships and time to exercise are also more available to the rich.

[24] I recognize that widespread agreement does not necessarily imply objectivity, just as widespread disagreement does not necessarily imply subjectivity (for example, scientists often disagree vehemently about the right answer to a scientific question while agreeing that an objectively correct fact of the matter exists, one way or another).

My point here is not necessarily to show that there is an objective metaphysical truth about what constitutes beauty, but rather to point out that there is remarkable consensus among subjects about which features are considered beautiful. Thus it makes sense to talk in some loose sense about an “objective” standard of beauty that most human beings share – that is, at least a sort of shared “intersubjective” standard.

[25] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 137.

[26] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 150-151, 155-159. It seems that the more “feminine” a woman’s face, the more beautiful she is perceived. In contrast, men are perceived as more attractive the more “masculine” they appear, but only up to a certain point. Men whose features are ultra-masculine are perceived as unfriendly and aggressive.

[27] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 138.

[28] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 138-139.

[29] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 31-32. Describing the research of Judith Langlois.

[30] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 61.

[31] Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 64.

[32] As you’ll see, I don’t actually believe in a purely naturalistic universe. However, I think the task of finding a place for ethics in a naturalistic world is an important one, and furthermore, appealing to a supernatural order (such as God) for the grounds of ethical judgments comes with its own challenges.

[33] Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 147.

[34] This is true of racial differences as well.

[35] It is hardly a foregone conclusion that the female of a species should be more highly valued for its beauty. In almost every other species in which one sex is more beautiful and brightly-colored than the other (e.g., songbirds, peacocks, lizards), it is the male who is on display and chosen for his beauty!

[36] I’ve wondered a lot whether the misery I remember in high school was unique to (or exacerbated by) the culture at Palos Verdes, or whether it was a universal feature of the American secondary school experience. Do teenagers become obsessed with looks and popularity no matter where they are, or is the disease particularly bad in certain places? Max went to a private prep school and liked his experience.

[37] I’m assuming.

[38] It’s not that simple, because people can grow (or regress) in kindness, intelligence, creativity, etc. (See Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets with respect to learning.) People also have different rubrics for evaluating the relative weights of different traits. And some traits, such as extroversion and religious sensibility, may be positive to some but neutral or negative to others.

[39] I’m not claiming that people consciously act this way, just that they often do.

[40] Ayala Malach Pines, Falling in Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose (Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), 49; Patzer, The Physical Attractiveness Phenomena, 92.

[41] Ironically, I also wonder if Max would choose me if he could be with someone just as creative, just as talented, and just as kind, but less insecure.

[42] According to the Washington Post, the six-year graduation rate at Southern University is only 4.98%. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2010/08/americas_worst_colleges.html.

[43] The talents and skills that a society rewards depend on context. In normal situations, a CEO is worth more (at least in what people will pay for his skills) than an ex-military survivalist. But in a zombie apocalypse, when shit hits the fan, the survivalist’s skills suddenly become a lot more valuable.

[44] Many beautiful women are treated similarly, though to a lesser extent.

[45] What exactly constitutes an intrinsic right (and whether such rights exist) is subject to debate. For instance, are access to healthcare and education rights? Do people deserve kindness and affection or just respect? Does everyone have a right to some basic standard of living (relative or absolute), and if yes, what is that?

[46] I think that in the absence of God, it makes no sense to assert that all humans have equal value in some objective and fundamental sense. Secular humanists also posit the equal value of each human being, but fail to account for the source of this value. Judge Richard Posner writes: “Thomas Nagel is a self-proclaimed atheist, yet he thinks that no one could really believe that 'we each have value only to ourselves and to those who care about us.' Well, to whom then? Who confers value on us without caring for us in the way that we care for friends, family, and sometimes members of larger human communities? Who else but the God whom Nagel does not believe in?” Richard Posner, The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 78.

[47] I think that one of the aspects of being made in imago Dei is being made for one another. According to my Christian tradition, even God exists as Trinity, as three distinct persons in communion with each other.

[48] As a makeup artist, I find that very few women are naturally beautiful. Very few women look good from any angle, with or without makeup, in any attire. A higher percentage of women (including many celebrities) have transformable features: they can look beautiful or ordinary depending on the circumstances. And then there are those who can look attractive, but never (in my opinion) quite appear stunning.

[49] or even as a friend.

[50] My picks would be Eva Green, Rachel Weisz, and Naomi Watts.

Thanks to Max Etchemendy for reading drafts of this essay.