Vintage photo of a beauty contest

Survival of the Prettiest

In Brainy by LisLeave a Comment

Ah, summer – that stretch of sunny days when we’re even more preoccupied with the flatness of our stomachs and the firmness of our butts. Which makes this the ideal time to talk about Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff.

Although it was published in 1999, the book is still a relevant exploration of the science behind what we perceive as beautiful as well as the impact beauty has on us in childhood, relationships, and even the workplace.

Survival of the Prettiest makes a strong, scientifically-backed case for the notion that beauty matters. Don’t get me wrong, Etcoff doesn’t advise us to wile away our lives primping and perfecting – but she does explain where much of our self-denigration, insecurity, and envy comes from: “every woman somehow finds herself, without her consent, entered into a beauty contest with every other woman. No matter how irrelevant to her goals, how inappropriate to her talents and endowments, or how ridiculous the comparison, women are always compared one to another and found wanting.” Yowza. Now I have your attention, don’t I?

Here are a few more eye-opening takeaways from the book:

1- Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

Much to the dismay of poets and mothers of goofy-looking kids everywhere, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. There are empirical standards of beauty that transcend culture and race. For example, studies have found that societies around the world find a .7 female waist-to-hip ratio to be the most pleasing (supermodels, for example, fall into the 6.8-7.1 range).

There’s also a universal standard for female facial features that are considered attractive: larger eyes, delicate chins, fuller lips, and higher cheekbones. All of these features exaggerate signals of femininity and are associated with characteristics we find “cute” in babies and young children. In other words, men are attracted to the same characteristics that prompt us to feel fondness for the younger, weaker members of our species. Etcoff says it more bluntly: “…men supposedly like the looks of helpless and dependent creatures.”

Men, on the other hand, need to possess chiseled jaws and defined brows to be perceived as attractive. A 1990 study found that “the more masculine a man’s face was perceived to be, the more women rated him as a desirable and physically attractive date or mate. Men with baby faces were rated as less desirable for marriage, less masculine, and less attractive.” Bummer for Justin Bieber, eh?

Oh, and we can’t blame men for setting beauty standards – in several studies, both men and women rated the same features and proportions as attractive…

2- Beauty is power.

Perhaps the most fascinating theme in Survival of the Prettiest is Etcoff’s assertion that our preoccupation with beauty isn’t holding women back, it’s giving them power. In fact, “beauty is convertible into other assets that people covet, for example, wealth, connections, surplus suitors, and so on.”

Etcoff goes against the modern feminist grain by suggesting that, rather than neglecting our beauty and deeming primping the pastime of the superficial, we should leverage our beauty as a resource. She explains, “The idea that women would achieve more if they only didn’t have to waste time on beauty is nonsense. Women will achieve more when they garner equal legal and social rights and privileges, not when they give up beauty.”

“Rather than denigrate one source of women’s power, it would seem far more useful for feminists to attempt to elevate all sources of women’s power.”

Beauty is not only a power by itself, but also a byproduct of another kind of power – wealth, to be exact.

The wealthy embody our ideals in more than just money, status symbols, and lifestyle. They also tend to be taller and thinner than the rest of the population. Height also tends to increase with steady nutrition so it’s a sign of better living conditions.

“Dominant-looking men are successful not only in battle but in bed.” Dominant-faced West Point cadets achieved higher ranks in their junior and senior years, and throughout their professional careers.

3- Men age better than women.

George Clooney has long embodied the idea that men age better than women, but the science totally validates our gawking (#sorrynotsorry, George). For starters, men have less body fat than women. The average adult man has 15% body fat, while the average female carries about 26% – which means that, generally speaking, men have an easier time keeping off the weight as they get older.

And here’s the worst news you might read all day: as both male and female faces age, they’re pulled in a masculine direction – brows get closer to the eyes, the nose gets longer, the lower face lengthens, and the upper lip flattens because it loses subcutaneous fat. This process exaggerates the features of men who are already fairly attractive but it literally deteriorates the feminine features that make a woman beautiful. I know, I’m horrified too.

4- Blondes really do have more fun – and more money.

Although I mentioned it up above, the blonde advantage warrants its own bullet point. Hailing from SoCal, I’ve spent many a night out as literally the only brunette in a bar or restaurant. I thought it made me stand out in a sea of fair-haired maidens, but I was misguided. Etcoff found that gentlemen do indeed prefer blondes – but not for their hair. Research suggests that men prefer the fair skin that typically accompanies blonde hair because it better shows the flush of sexual excitement. Yeah, that sounds like a male preference, doesn’t it?

And there’s more: A 2010 survey of 13,000 women by David W. Johnston of Queensland University of Technology, School of Economics and Finance, found that natural blondes earn 7% more income than women with other hair colors and marry men who make 6% more than their counterparts. Beauty most definitely isn’t holding women back… Oh, and be sure to note that it was only natural blondes who came out on top – so if you’re thinking about dying your hair and getting a pay bump, you better maintain your roots…

For more beauty science, read the book. And if you’re blonde the next time I see you, I’ll know why…

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