• Question: why do people have different standards of beauty ?

    Asked by ellengd1039 to Enda, Jean, Tim on 22 Nov 2012.
    • Photo: Jean Bourke

      Jean Bourke answered on 22 Nov 2012:

      Oooh good question. It’s kind of hard to say but generally what we consider beautiful is an indication of good health and fertility. Physical indicators or attraction are also considered beautiful: such as dilated pupils and plump lips.

      Signs of health include good skin, bright whites of the eyes, shiny hair, nice strong nails, healthy flush to the cheeks and so on. That is what the beauty industry is based on:emphasizing how healthy and fertile you look. Eye make up can make your eyes look bigger and brighter, foundation evens out skin tone, blush give you a healthy flush and lipstick/gloss emphasize the lips.

      Things such as hair colour and eye colour can indicate things about a person’s genetic make up and so may be more attractive to people of a certain genetic background. Apparently what we look for in potential mates is a compatible immune system.

      Light eyes and light hair tend to go with light skin which can mean greater vitamin D production (made in your skin in response to sunlight) in climates that do not get a lot of sun. This is desirable as a developing baby needs lots of vitamin D.
      Somewhere that has loads of light would prefer darker skin, eyes and hair as the colour is due to a pigment called melanin that protects us from the sun’s harmful effects.

      To tan or not to tan? We want to make with someone who is of similar or higher social status that ourselves. Sometime skin colour can be seen as an indicator of social status. In some cultures, mainly places that do not get a lot of sun) a tan indicates that someone is well off as they have time and resources (money) that allow them to holiday. In other cultures pale is preferred as it means you haven’t been toiling outside in the sun so again they indicate social status. Uncalloused hands and feet can also indicate social status as you don’t have to work too much and wreck your hands. Painting nails draws attention to healthy nails and soft hands.

      I mostly know about these pressures from a woman’s point of view. I know women want their men to be healthy and of high social standing as well. We want a man who will provide for us and our children and men want a woman who will not stray so he can be sure the child is his.

      Enda what is the male point of view?

    • Photo: Enda O'Connell

      Enda O'Connell answered on 23 Nov 2012:

      Brilliant answer Jean 🙂

      As you can see @ellengd1039 there are lots of psychological reasons for why we find something attractive. Even if we don’t know why we like big eyes, shiny hair and symmetrical faces (for example), there are underlying reasons that we are not even thinking about when we look for a partner, which can explain these traits as Jean has done so well here.

      These reasons are perfectly sensible when you look at it from a cold evolutionary standpoint. We want to mate with the healthiest female (from my male perspective) or females plural (in a lot of the animal kingdom) to produce the greatest number of healthy offspring that will survive long enough to produce their own offspring. These indicators of health are seen as attractive traits and are passed on via our genes to our offspring.

      However, in some species this type of “sexual selection” for the most beautiful mate, can have some pretty unusual consequences. If you consider the plumage of the peacock, for example, it’s hugely ornate tail feathers are completely impractical for flying and probably hinder the bird in lots of ways.

      However, the female peahen finds them attractive and usually the male with the biggest plumage gets the pick of the females, thus passing on his genes for huge feathers to his offspring and continuing the vicious cycle. It is thought that the female finds them attractive (a bit like Jean described humans finding a tan attractive), in that it seems to them that the males must have lots of resources to be able to afford to put so much energy into carrying around such a burdensome tail. Once a feature begins to be sexually selected in this manner, the process can become uncontrolled, resulting in exaggerated examples like a peacock’s tail, a male elephant seal’s massive size or maybe even the giraffe’s neck!

      If you are interested in reading more about evolution, including sexual selection, I’d recommend some of Richard Dawkins’ books on the subject, such as “River out of Eden” which is a fascinating read and a book I picked up around your age and still remains one of my favourites.

      So, most of what we find attractive can be explained by indicators of physical health, which have evolved over thousands of years of our ancestors selecting good mates (they must have been good or we wouldn’t be here).

      I know that doesn’t sound particularly romantic and doesn’t account for free will, which enables us to find lots of different types of potential partners attractive, and that which is deemed attractive in our culture at this time, is not necessarily what will be considered attractive forever (do a Google search for “Chinese foot binding” to see what lengths people have gone to trying to become “attractive”).

      So I think attractiveness is a mixture of what our genes want us to do (pass them on via a healthy mate to our offspring so they can pass them on) and who we as intelligent, rational humans want to be with (someone funny, generous, intelligent, etc.).