Millions of us watch in awe at the satisfaction of domino displays falling in perfect symmetry, we hit “like” on videos showcasing flawless make-up styles and colourful outfit combinations. We collectively admire a painting or the view from a landscaped vista, and we fawn over faces. We, as a population, are obsessed with looking and have been for millennia. But…why is this exactly?
Between the many complex and contentious definitions of beauty, there is one simple, shared notion – it’s in the eye of the beholder. But, is there something more specific that truly makes something, or someone, “beautiful”? Is it possible to find a unanimous belief that overrides the romantic clichés? And, if so, can it also explain why that perception sometimes changes over time?
Unmasking the truth about beauty is a challenging task, but with some help from the various philosophical and historical discussions, finding an answer may be possible.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, based on these 6 diverse concepts, who is the fairest of them all?:
- What Philosophers Thought: In Ancient Greece, a renowned member of The Academics called, Aristotle took the objective view that “beauty is symmetry” and that it “depends on magnitude and order” – (Metaphysics). Whereas the 18th Century Idealist, Immanuel Kant, believed the opposite. He claimed that beauty was based on individual senses and faculty of judgement; an aesthetic experience of taste. With a view of contrivance in teleology, he is quoted with the more subjective notion that “the beautiful is that which pleases universally, without a concept.” (Critique of the Aesthetical Judgement). Throughout the ages, both perspectives have been disputed. Is beauty open to interpretation or solidified by order? The type of beauty Kant describes is outside the realms of morality or desires. It is neither “good” nor “bad”, nor is it linked with gratifying our needs. However, the Evolutionists would later find an issue in this theory.
- What is the Link Between Rectangles and the Evolution of Beauty: About 2,400 years ago, a mystic cult called the Pythagoreans discovered a mathematical value of beauty called “phi”, represented by the Greek symbol φ, and equal to about 1.618. Later on, the Italian Renaissance mathematician, Luca Pacioli, claimed this rectangular ratio could be found in architecture as well as in people. In 1509, he donned this number, The Divine Proportion. Today, it is known in popular culture as The Golden Ratio. A concept heavily influenced by The Academics (such as Plato), which suggested that beauty has a logical foundation. However, contemporary tests have somewhat debunked this idea, showing that not everyone is drawn to rectangles. Nevertheless, researchers have identified some “Platonic” traits of facial beauty, including symmetry, skin texture, sexual dimorphism, emotion and randomness. It is worth noting that rectangles are, however, the fastest shape our brains can process. Scientists believe this goes back to our ancestors, who spent a lot of time on the ground and only perceived things in blue and red. Rectangles equalled survival. Thus, we are innately drawn to what helps keep us alive and healthy, such as water or fruit bounties. Is that why we consider them beautiful? Perhaps. But that does not explain why people also see beauty in others who have a lower level of health, youth and fertility. Indicating that survival and procreation are not a human’s sole priority in life.
- Why the Peacock Ruffled Charles Darwin’s Feathers – Optical nanostructures make these extraordinary fan tails. But these heavy tails make running and flying difficult. The peacock’s tail is bad for its survival, meaning its looks have no evolutionary purpose. Essentially, it is useless beauty. This fact troubled Charles Darwin to the point that merely staring at a peacock’s feather made him “feel sick!” Adaptation from natural selection could not explain the Peacock’s feathers. Hence, why the sexual selection hypothesis was put forward. In the human brain, beauty is pleasure. But can neurotransmitters alone, like the happy hormone, dopamine, truly explain beauty in all its forms?
- Why Cultural and Historical Diversity Contribute to Perceptions of Beauty – There have been a plethora of beauty fads over time. For example, teeth blackening in Japan during the Heian period (known as “Ohaguro”), plucking out eyelashes in Medieval Europe, or having snow-white skin in the Middle Ages. Once upon a time, these things were considered fashionable, but not necessarily now. In fact, some have changed entirely, which says a lot about the socio-economic impacts on individual status and how things have collectively progressed. People are culturally and socially conditioned creatures. Our aesthetic preferences are established psychologically as well as cogently (through development, exposure and individual experience). Arguably, our brains have not changed over the centuries, and yet our preferences have. Whether in fashion or art, as the years have gone by, what we see as beautiful is not the same. And that’s because of exposure and the role of association, dictating the value system we have in place for beauty at that time.
- What Our Feelings Have to Do with It – How do our brains label our emotional arousal to something? For example, if a person’s legerity increases their attractiveness to one individual, why not their counterpart? What makes them value another feature – such as virtue – instead? Past experiences, proximity and biology are all responsible for this feeling, highlighting that what is important to one is not what is important to all. This is where the Default Mode Network comes in. During peaks of aesthetic pleasure, this region of the brain is activated. Scientists discovered (after showing paintings to participants, depicting cultural traditions) that the DMN lit up when the participants were “moved” the most. Meaning their senses and emotions connected with something more personal – forcing self-reflection. Thus, our admiration is not instinctive. Cognitive processes, concerning the role of association, are involved. Human perceptions of what beauty is (or isn’t) are deep, and they’re not always about “perfection”.
- Why the Japanese Celebrate What’s on the Inside – The word, “Shibui” is a Japanese phrase to evoke the simple forms of beauty; good manners, keen interest, and refinement. Certain outside beauty can be prescriptive to how the inside form is utilised. Appreciating imperfection and impermanence is also celebrated in Japanese culture, such as in the art of “Kintsugi”. This is where an uneven gold glaze is applied to broken pottery, giving it a new lease of life. Each of these concepts is rooted in the ancient philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, which accepts transience and imperfection as a valuable part of life. To the Japanese, beauty is, therefore, life itself – in all its forms.
Taking all of this into account, perhaps it is fair to say that beauty is representation, emotion and the baseline math all intertwined. But, attempting to unify this into a one-size-fits-all category is impossibly difficult.
Whilst elements are based on objective concepts, other elements are uniquely subjective to an individual or society. An order of things may be a unified baseline for what is considered pleasing to the eye (such as with architecture) but what is intrinsically important or meaningful is also personal. Therefore, what will ultimately shape an individual view of beauty relies on something far deeper.
Beauty doesn’t have to make sense to everyone. People’s views on the subject are malleable, after all. This may also explain why people can develop and lose attraction for somone or something.
If a person or place begins to represent facets you do or do not find beautiful, what’s on the outside no longer matters. A new perspective is formed as a result of this experience. And that’s the other issue. That kind of “beauty” is only skin-deep. It’s important to note then, that beauty is not a singular entity. It is multi-layered. To judge it singularly is an incomplete evaluation.
So, perhaps the saying, “Beauty in the eye of the beholder” is still a fair evaluation? However, we need to be certain as to what level of beauty we are addressing – inside, outside, sexual, arbitrary; it all makes a difference. In any case, our faces and bodies change over time, and so does society. So, when it comes to beauty, it’s always worth remembering another very notable phrase – one that’s stood the test of time.
“It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”