I just finished a great book called Survival of the Prettiest. For my entire life, I’ve been particularly struck and moved by visual beauty – especially when adorned by color and fabrics and such (i.e. fashion, makeup, etc.) and most especially when combined with a youthful innocence. That may sound a bit dumb, because you might say we all are, especially men. But I have often felt that my psychoemotional response to those signals exceeds that of my male contemporaries. (Although I had one friend suggest that this may just be because I am a bit more resistant to letting society’s rules beat something out of me, which I considered a huge compliment.) As I consider myself to be a fairly substantive person, I’ve long struggled over whether my reaction to these signals is some sort of character flaw – a sign of preferring style over substance (“shallowness”) – or just a sign of immaturity. However, as I get older I believe this less and feel more comfortable with it. I don’t think it’s shallow. It’s only shallow to not see it in its proper context.
In “Survival of the Prettiest”, Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff takes the reader on a fascinating exploration of the ancient biological reasoning behind our response to physical beauty, youth, fashion, decoration, and so on.
Here’s a quick outtake, edited slightly:
One cannot escape the irony of sexual attraction today – in a world where men and women try to stave off pregnancy for a majority of their sexual encounters, sexual preference is guided by ancient rules that make us the most attracted to bodies that look the most reproductively fit. Nor can we escape that women compete in the mating world for men whose brains are hard-wired to find nubile teenagers highly desirable and particularly beautiful. Females tend to prefer slightly older males, and correspondingly, males prefer youth, with the gap increasing as males age. This is because the best way to find a fertile female is to grab her young and before she has started making babies… males prefer the physical signs of a woman below peak fertility, and therefore signs of age are important visual cues to reproductive capacity… while [modern, human] males may like younger women for many reasons including longings for his own lost youth, the desire to play a father figure, and the need to dominate and control, [the fertility difference] is the sole basis for the male’s erotic visual preference for [young women] … Beauty is a biological adaptation. The argument is a simple one: that beauty is a universal part of human experience, and that it provokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes. Our extreme 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 our evolution the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success. We are their descendants.
A great book.