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The Psychology of Beauty

On the different theories of beauty and the role of perception in the judgment of beauty.

The psychology of beauty is complex not just because the concept of beauty is as yet undefined but also because it is largely true that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder or how individuals perceive other people or things. Beauty can be attributed to everything that appeals to our senses and all objects that are compatible with our personal preferences. Beauty as we perceive it is largely a projection of our needs and beautiful objects or persons simply cater to our idealizations or fancies and reflect our natural need to relate to all that is appealing. Human beings are controlled by the senses and we tend to repeat processes or experiences that appeal to the senses, that are harmonious and have structure and form. Beauty appeals to our sense of sight so there is a preference for repeating the experience of beauty.

But how do we perceive beauty and why are some people or objects considered more beautiful than some others? Psychological tests have considered symmetry and proportion as extremely important in the perception of beauty. Beauty is also more holistic than specific as a beautiful object is judged as a whole package that is appealing rather than judged on the basis of its parts. Freudian or psychoanalytic explanations of beauty are scarce but psychoanalytic concepts could be used to consider our judgment of beauty as a projection or wish fulfillment so people attractive to us are typically ones who we admire or who in some way represent our own desires and fancies. Psychoanalysis can also be compatible with the idea that beauty is preferential perception when there are similarities with a parent. Most people are also considered beautiful when they have baby-faced features or a particular innocence in their faces. Beauty can also be culturally motivated so in certain eastern cultures women with beautiful feet are considered attractive whereas in the Victorian era in England, women with elegance and grace were the ones with smooth neck and tiny waist and modern western women are judged on the basis of their breasts, bottom and lips. The perception of beauty can change and studies have found that women may prefer softer features of men during particular times and more masculine features at other times depending on the stage of their reproductive cycle. So there are actually several theories of beauty which are discussed here one by one.

1. Beauty as Symmetry and Proportion – As you might have noticed in case of ancient architectural marvels, symmetry was extremely important. Whether it was the great pyramids in Egypt or the architectural wonders in Greece, symmetry and perfect dimensions played an important part in the history of aesthetics. This whole idea of symmetry also applies to every other object or person that we perceive so a person with perfectly symmetrical face would also be considered as an epitome of physical perfection. Perfectly shaped and sharp features are attractive to most people and the most beautiful faces are the ones which have very proportionate features. The same applies to the body and the low waist to hip ratio giving a curvy lower part of the body in women is considered more attractive than a straight shape which usually does not indicate fertility. As human beings are finally looking for evolutionary advantage women with a curvy shapes are considered more fertile and are thus more attractive to men. Similarly men with athletic and muscular bodies are attractive to women. However many men might not prefer extremely voluptuous or curvy women just like many women may not prefer extremely muscular men. This suggests that proportion is also about moderation or maybe human beings are more comfortable with certain moderation in what they perceive rather than excess and that way the perception of beauty may even depend on some sort of social programming.

2. Beauty as a whole rather than parts – When we consider something beautiful, we usually try to take a broad holistic view. Thus when we consider a rose as beautiful, we are less attentive towards each petal and consider the symmetry of the flower as a whole. In a similar manner, when we consider the face of a man or a woman, beauty is the composite quality that seems to represent the entire face of the individual rather than the parts or particular features. Our senses prefer a holistic view and perception of things and thus a person is considered attractive or beautiful only when all features add up to something really pleasant to the senses.

3. Beauty as projection and wish fulfillment – The perception of beauty is not only a mental process but also a deeply personal one. If say your lover has blonde hair, you might find other blonde haired people very attractive because you tend to project your inner fancies on to other people. The ‘he’ looks like my lover or ‘she’ looks like my lover is a common syndrome in our perception of beauty and people who are remotely similar to our mates are suddenly more beautiful to us than others. The same projection applies in case of selecting a mate who resembles a parent. If a man looks like your father or a member of the family he is obviously far more attractive to you than to others. The wish fulfillment theory is also equally true and when we want to be like someone in terms of talents or certain qualities, we naturally consider that person as absolutely perfect and beautiful. Some teenagers may idolize popular actors or actresses and the need to be like them also determines their own perception of beauty.

4. Beauty as innocence and charm – No one can deny that a charming personality with social confidence can be far more attractive than a dull personality. A person who has the inherent ability to attract individuals with the sheer force of personality and presence is considered highly attractive. In some way there may be an association between good looks and social confidence and sometimes individuals with good looks are also socially most accepted and thus more confident. Individuals with baby-face features with high or defined cheekbones and certain innocence on their faces are usually considered very attractive by both the sexes. Beauty is advantageous in social adaptation and good looking people are thus socially successful as well, as they get support and positive assessment from other people. However the opposite in also true and sometimes good looking women and even men can become extremely self-conscious and fail to develop adequate self confidence. Good looks can in certain cases become an impediment as good looking women who are also intelligent may be judged more on the basis of their looks rather than their intelligence and this is sometimes a sad fact in modern society.

5. Beauty as a product of culture and society – This is an accepted fact. The concept of beauty seems to change with time as society changes and the perception of beauty varies in different cultures. Dark skin is considered very attractive in Western societies and whiter skin is considered as attractive in Eastern societies, because of the element of novelty in both the cases. Feet and hair of women are important features in Eastern cultures whereas in the West, the woman’s lips, and hips are considered important. The breasts of women are important indicators of beauty in all cultures and men’s body and chin or jaw and certain masculine sharpness are also considered as attractive. Studies have indicated that women however tend to prefer dominant looking men during the first follicular stage in their reproductive cycle but prefer men with softer more feminine features when they are in their menstrual and ovulation stages. This may have some evolutionary advantage as men with feminine soft natures and faces are considered as more stable and more family oriented than men who have extreme masculinity or a sort of raw appeal. This is however too generalized and there are individual differences as well.

Finally, beauty is about how we perceive the outer world and how we integrate our needs and project our wishes on what we see in the external world. ‘Beauty in the eyes of the beholder’ in completely correct from a psychological viewpoint as our own preferences change with time and so do our desires, aesthetic sense and perception of beauty.

The Pursuit of Beauty

During my commute to Manhattan on the Express Bus one morning, I had the company and pleasure of reading the March issue of Allure magazine. I began by reading the Letter from the Editor Linda Wells and stumped upon this striking catch phrase, the “pursuit of beauty“. Linda explains this phenomenon to be much like the pursuit of the American Dream. It is “a right to determine and improve our essential selves, psychologically and physically…that transcends gender, class, race, age and sexual orientation.” I thought to myself, “this is so true!” What person today does not want to be and feel beautiful? There is no doubt, that we as human beings are acutely sensitive to our physical appearances and will do anything to gain or to maintain our personal beauty. Our insatiable need for all things “beauty” proves that we are all in full pursuit and unapologetically so.

According to dictionary.com beauty is “the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or gives deep satisfaction to the mind.” This emotional bond to pleasure explains why beauty plays such a significant part in our lives. We can’t help ourselves in the presence of things or persons that call to our sensibilities. Physical beauty, though a matter of taste and opinion is also characterized by society’s views. In most cultures, the existence of symmetry or balance is a determining factor of beauty because it suggests the absence of “flaws” or “defects”. Facial balance, complexion, body shape and size, as well as youthfulness are all standardizations of beauty. The characterization of beauty however, cannot be understood without also realizing that beauty has another side to it – One that is not so physical, but rather metaphysical (a more intangible element ). We cannot necessarily see or touch it, yet its presence is undeniable. With that being said, we cannot exclude psychological factors such as personality, intelligence, politeness, elegance or charisma as determining factors in recognizing beauty.

As I researched more into this beauty craze, I stumbled upon some very interesting findings. To my surprise, (ok maybe not so surprised) researchers have found that possessing physical attractiveness can be quite influential in a persons life. Someone who is considered to be beautiful is likely to get higher grades, receive better care from their doctors, receive lighter prison sentences and earn more money. As if we don’t have enough problems in the world today, now we know that uncontrollable factors like our God-given beauty or “lack thereof”, is just another social barrier to add to our list. Whether we acknowledge it or not, and whether we do this consciously or unconsciously, this type of “lookism” has plagued our society for years and can shed some light on the depth of shallowness that exists in our world today.

This daunting truth certainly affects how we perceive ourselves as well as others. The images we see on tv also determine what we consider to be beautiful and is the driving force towards this search for perfection. We spend thousands of dollars and insurmountable time shopping online or at the malls, purchasing all sorts of beauty products, making nail, hair, facial and botox appointments, reading fashion magazines and taking particular note of what our favorite celebrities are wearing, doing and using to stay slim, youthful and yes, beautiful.

Let’s not forget, that there was once a time when we were all mystified by the beautiful models and celebrities, who flawlessly walked the red carpets and flanked the covers of magazines effortlessly, or at least so it seemed. We dreamed about being them and looking like them, thinking they were born perfectly that way. Thanks to our growing obsession with celebrity-life, the shameless and countless invasions of privacy through reality tv, the social networks and the “tell-all” craze, we now not only have the information and the knowledge but also access to the once “top secret” sometimes extreme, physical enhancers.

Don’t get me wrong, the “pursuit of beauty” doesn’t have to mean a trip to a plastic surgeon, nor is it an elusive commodity accessible to only to the rich and famous. We can all be physically beautiful! The multi-billion dollar beauty industry has made sure to fulfill our every beauty need by bombarding us with a plethora of products and services geared towards making us feel and look younger and more beautiful.The opportunities and resources available to us are endless in this department. We have products that make us look younger, products that make our skin smoother, products that make our stomachs flat, products that make our lips plumper, products that give us fuller hair, products that make our lashes longer and thicker, stylists, eyebrow threaders, makeup artists, fashion trends that change every season, adornments like earrings, necklaces, tattoos, hats etc we all use these things to enhance our personal beauty and attractiveness in some way.

The truth is however, our pursuit of beauty is not just about exploiting our “sexual capital”. It’s not just the physical aspect of beauty that enamors us. We are in search of a combination between the seen and the unseen – The physical (outer) and the psychological (inner) because they both thrive off each other. I like many, believe that true beauty comes from within. Inner beauty in my definition, is that undeniable, profound light that shines from you and onto the world. It is your aura, your spirit, the stamp you leave behind after someone meets you for the first time. My father likes to refer to this intangible, spiritual side of our human nature as the “inner man” or “woman”. Though this “inside beauty” may come easier to some than others, it is the beginning stages to fulfilling this intrinsic desire for physical satisfaction or happiness.

If psychologically we can find the power and confidence to see ourselves as beautiful no matter what, then the world would have no choice but to view us that way. Any physical imperfections that we may think we possess can disappear. Possessing internal beauty is the foundation of the pursuit of beauty. After all, we know that with age physical beauty disappears and there are many uncontrollable forces that can easily take away or lessen our physical beauty, like a severe accident or disease for example. Inner beauty comes from a deeper place. It oozes from your heart and soul and serves as a complimentary component to physical beauty.

So why this urgency to want to be beautiful? What lies beneath this so-called pursuit? What is it that moves us into the hunt for near perfection? The truth is, the pursuit of beauty is in fact the pursuit of happiness – they are one in the same. Though Linda refers to this pursuit as being “distinctly American”, to me, it is more so, undeniably human. Whether it is a physical or psychological improvement to ourselves, we are all in search for this completeness. It is a calling to being someone bigger and better than we’ve ever been. It’s about walking out your door everyday feeling like a ray of sunshine, confident with every step you take. It is a goal, a standard to set, that once achieved, is rewarded with a lifetime of confidence, self assurance, pride, grace, poise and enthusiasm for life.

We therefore cannot deny that we are in a new era, where beauty and the acquisition of it, is no longer an enigmatic, perplexing phenomenon, but rather an expression of one’s pride and self esteem. Beauty has now become a lifestyle, and we have learned that physical beauty cannot stand on its own, we can only enhance it. It is only when there is complete synergy between the physical (outer beauty) and the psychological (inner beauty) working in complete balance with each other like yin and yang, can we safely say we’ve achieved our goal in this pursuit of beauty and ultimately happiness.