Humans have been obsessed with beauty throughout history, from Nefertiti to Brad Pitt. We fixate on our own attractiveness, and we treat beautiful people with deference and preference. Experts suggest that looking good improves social, economic, and psychological prospects. Does being pretty really pay?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?
It’s certainly a comforting notion—the idea that others’ judgments of our attractiveness lie mostly outside our control. But that hasn’t stopped us from spending untold hours in front of the mirror, plucking and primping. Nor has it stopped us from spending billions annually on cosmetic surgeries and beauty products, trying to achieve a standard of beauty that seems increasingly unattainable. And if prettiness is indeed relative, why is it that for eons, we have largely agreed on who’s hot—from Cleopatra to Clooney—and who’s not?
Long dismissed as superficial, beauty has been deemed a subject unworthy of serious study, except perhaps in art. But that’s changing: last fall, a group of doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and academics met at a University of Pennsylvania symposium to discuss the impact of appearance on individual and societal behaviors. Increasingly, experts agree that attractiveness affects everything from earning potential to psychological well-being. Beauty may be skin deep—but that patina may be worth polishing.
What are the roots of our obsession with beauty? And are the rewards that come with investments in skin creams, teeth whiteners, tanning sessions, and calf implants worth the price? In search of answers, we sought out Carleton faculty members and alumni who know a thing or two about beauty and its benefits.
The Measure of Beauty
We seem to know beauty when we see it, but its precise definition and contributing elements often elude us. What set Cleopatra apart? What made Helen of Troy worth sailing for? Ancient stories often noted the power of beauty to sway and seduce us, but it was the Greeks who first became obsessed with trying to quantify and measure its elements. “In the classical ideal, beauty is a system that is all about balance and harmony,” says Laurel Bradley, director and curator at Carleton’s Perlman Teaching Museum. Facial symmetry was important to Greek sculptors, but so was proportion. Employing geometry, Greek artists developed formulas that allowed them to calculate the ideal location of a pupil or a nostril based on the height or width of the face. These “golden ratios” became key to making great art.
But take a closer look at human beauty and you’ll see that it has evolved over time, Bradley says. Women in medieval portraits often have long faces, small breasts, and noticeable bellies. Women in 19th-century European paintings are described as Rubensesque (a nod to Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens), that is, plump and voluptuous. The perfect face in men has changed over the centuries as well, from heart shaped during the Renaissance to the square-jawed ruggedness we favor today.
Plumpness used to be coveted because it signified health and wealth (and it is still a mark of abundance in places where nourishment is scarce). Today, thin is in: “Our vision of the ideal standard of female beauty—and sometimes male—is now skinny and emaciated,” Bradley says.
So how did we move from Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss in just 50 years? The mass media have played a part. Advertising, for instance, helped spread the popularity of the flat-breasted flapper-girl look. And the rise of fashion magazines and TV have contributed to the popularity of rail-thin models, perhaps starting with Twiggy in the 1960s. Men aren’t exempt either: the beefcake models that once bestrode Times Square in Calvin Klein ads have been replaced by willowy teens.
To some degree, the Greeks were right about facial beauty. Symmetry plays an important part in our perception of a magnificent mug. But cosmetic surgeons are often wary of patients who seek perfect symmetry. “Everyone has asymmetry in his or her face,” says Ruth Owens ’81, a plastic surgeon who has a private practice in New Orleans. “I tell patients that absolute symmetry is neither possible nor desirable.”
Proportion also plays a role in how we perceive beauty. Cosmetic surgeons often divide faces into three equal parts: from hairline to brow, brow to nostril, nostril to chin. “If the chin is underprojected or small, the nose appears bigger and the neck less defined,” says Benjamin Marcus ’93, director of facial and reconstructive surgery at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Ideal lips, he notes, also can be divided into thirds: the upper lip one-third and the lower lip two-thirds. “You can put lots of filler in, but as long as you obey the proportioning, it’s fine,” he says. “As soon as you overfill one lip or the other, it looks wrong.”
But even the most skilled cosmetic surgeons can’t achieve the kind of dazzle that nature delivers. “The most admired models are not classically beautiful,” says Carleton English and American studies professor Adriana Estill, who teaches a course titled “Beauty and Race in America.” “They all have a flaw, something that breaks the rules and makes them unique.” Megastar Julia Roberts, for example, is often said to have an overly wide mouth. And Uma Thurman and Barbra Streisand are still considered beauties, despite being listed on the website Hot Girls with Big Noses.
Still, whatever the formula and its variations, society tends to agree on the current standards of beauty. Studies have shown that fewer than 3 percent of people are considered strikingly attractive. Most of us (51.6 percent of women and 58.7 percent of men) are considered merely average.
Better Looks, Better Pay
Our obsession with beauty likely has its roots in biology. “One underlying tenet from an evolutionary point of view is that you’re looking for a mate who is healthy and with whom you can procreate,” says Owens. “Beauty may have signaled health and fertility to our ancestors.”
In her 1999 book Survival of the Prettiest, psychologist Nancy Etcoff argued that our sensitivity to beauty is “governed by circuits in the brain shaped by natural selection. We love to look at smooth skin, thick shiny hair, curved waists, and symmetrical bodies because in the course of evolution the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success. We are their descendants.”
So it should come as no surprise that people with better looks have a larger choice of mating possibilities. But our interest in courting beautiful people also affects other behaviors. In a 1986 study, men who were presented with pictures of beautiful women indicated they were willing to donate kidneys, jump on hand grenades, and enter burning buildings to help save them. The same men, when they were shown pictures of average-looking women, were generally averse to risk, volunteering to help move furniture and little more.
Our preferential treatment of beautiful people extends to the workplace. University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh claims that attractive people are likely to earn an average of 3 to 4 percent more than a person with below-average looks. Over a lifetime, that adds up to about $230,000 in additional income. “There is a premium for good looks, a penalty for bad looks,” Hamermesh writes in his 2011 book Beauty Pays.
Beauty can affect the bottom line, particularly in sales. “Better-looking workers bring in more for the employers, just as a more intelligent worker will,” Hamermesh told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. Naturally, this can lead to bias and discrimination in the workplace—acknowledged or not. “If you take 100 kitchen workers and 100 salespeople, you’ll find the salespeople are clearly better looking and higher paid,” says Frank Welsh ’62, a retired plastic surgeon who lives in Cincinnati. “It’s not fair, but it’s a fact of life.”
Social and economic benefits aside, enhancements to beauty also can have a measurable effect on one’s self-image. Plastic surgeon Marcus recalls performing rhinoplasty on a young woman who was achingly shy and clearly embarrassed by her large nose. “She wouldn’t even look at the camera when we took ‘before’ pictures in the lab,” Marcus recalls. After the surgery, she went off to school and when she returned for a follow-up visit a few months later, Marcus was struck by the change in her demeanor. “She looked me in the eye,” he says. “She was comfortable with herself.”
Varied Shapes and Sizes
The pursuit of beauty is not limited to gender, period, or culture, but rather appears to be universal. From top: A Chinese woman bathes her feet, which were bound when she was a child; a Yemeni street singer adorns her face with powdered antimony, a silvery metalloid that may cause lung, heart, and other health problems over time; corsets are another example of the painful measures people (primarily women) have undertaken in an effort to be beautiful; a Fakarava pearl diver displays his extensive tattoo.
Given the perceived social, financial, and psychological benefits that come with being beautiful, it’s not surprising that most of us willingly invest time and money to keep up appearances.
While our vanity is encouraged by Madison Avenue and the beauty industry, Kathy Peiss ’75 says the origin of the vast market for Botox, bronzers, and breast implants may be surprising. While Peiss was researching her 2011 book Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, she found that female entrepreneurs built, operated, and financed much of the bourgeoning beauty industry in late-19th-century America. Only later did the business of beauty draw the attention of men.
Now, of course, men too feel pressure to look like their counterparts in fashion magazines and cologne ads. Carleton’s Estill notes the emergence in recent years of the term manscaping, referring to grooming in general and hair removal in particular. Procter & Gamble, in an effort to boost flat sales of its razors, in 2013 launched an online and TV ad campaign encouraging men to keep things trimmed below the neck.
Critics have rightly pointed out that dangerously low weight requirements for fashion models have resulted in rampant eating disorders both within the fashion industry and among young women who emulate the women they see in magazines. In addition to championing an unrealistic body ideal, fashion magazines often are criticized for a lack of racial diversity among their models.
That said, Peiss believes our notion of what’s beautiful has expanded in recent years: “There’s a much greater acceptance of different hues and facial features and, to some extent, body shapes.” And ethnic groups increasingly have thumbed their noses at Western ideals of beauty and embraced different aesthetics. For example, notes Estill, Americans embraced the Afro in the 1960s. And today’s lesbian community often prefers short hair and even buzz cuts to traditionally feminine flowing locks.
Beauty in any form, however, remains only skin deep. Even cosmetic surgeons are wary of promising big changes. Welsh occasionally sees patients who believe they can fix something with a scalpel or an injection—and he’s always skeptical. “If you correct what someone perceives as his or her worst feature, then the second-worst feature becomes the worst feature,” he says. “People can become fixated.” Indeed, what begins as a cure-all for sagging eyelids or a thin upper lip might become a problem of another sort. Comedian Joan Rivers jokes about her obvious obsession with plastic surgery, and others become the butt of jokes—like actor Kim Novak, who appeared at the Academy Awards in March with her face stretched so tight it looked as if it might burst. A renowned Hollywood plastic surgeon, asked why so many people ruin their looks with multiple nips and tucks, replied, “Typically, the first surgery works really well—and so they keep coming back.”
In the end, beauty isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing either. Owens notes that beauty—in nature, in art, and in people—fascinates us and pleases us. “I would never say that anyone needs cosmetic surgery,” she says. “It isn’t necessary for your health or well-being, and it certainly shouldn’t be an answer to any psychological or physical problem. But the type of surgery I do, while it is purely aesthetic, does have value. It’s like the frosting on the cake.”