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Physical beauty is assumed to be a passport to a better life, but in truth is a transitory visa. When it fades it can leave an unfillable void.


Welcome to Articulate, the show that examines how creativity is the very essence of our humanity. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, “In the Eye of the Beholder.”

As humans, we’re drawn to that which is beautiful, in nature, in art, and in each other. Throughout history, philosophers, scientists, and artists have tried to measure and define the characteristics that make something or someone beautiful. In more recent years, we have come to understand that much of our perception of beauty is culturally constructed, but despite the difficulty of defining what makes something appear beautiful, we do know that encountering beauty in our lives can make us, and the world, better.

Rhett Diessner: There’s a pro-social effect of noticing nature and beauty. The more you notice nature and beauty, the better person you become, you’re more likely to be kind to others around you. So it just has endless benefits.

That’s all ahead on Articulate.

Every day of our lives we are in some way guided by beauty. We’re drawn to it in nature, in people, in design, in music, and in art. It influences our perception of the world, our desires and even how we behave, but for something so powerful, beauty is a pretty malleable concept. Our definition of beauty is largely a cultural construct that can evolve with time or changes in mood or attitude. It’s a force that helps shape our lives but it’s also something we can shape. But what do we mean when we say something is beautiful?

Priscilla Yuki Wilson: I think beauty is an essence. It’s way deeper than anything physical we’ll ever understand.

Jill Helms: Maybe those laugh lines and the smile that just seems to be underneath it all and the sparkling eyes, the warmth that they exude that you pick up on.

Diessner: When we say beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, I like to switch that up a little bit and say the beauty experience is in the eye and the brain of the beholder.

Rhett Diessner is a professor of psychology at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho and studies the appreciation of beauty. He knows that while we all may have our own ideas about what constitutes beauty, all of our brains process the phenomenon in much the same way.

Diessner: We got the sensory motor brain system, the knowledge-meaning system and the emotional valuation system. And these three are in constant interaction in all our aesthetic experiences. The sensory one obviously is the beginning, right? We see something, we see a beautiful mountain. We see a beautiful painting and those photons are coming into our eyes and that’s the sensory part. But as soon as it’s in there, the knowledge part starts in and creates a perception. And the knowledge part brings our whole past history of our knowledge of aesthetics about objects like that. So it instantly starts morphing our understanding of it, our interpretation of it. And as soon as we begin any kind of evaluation which happens in milliseconds, our emotion system kicks in with the primary one: I like it, I don’t like it. And then if it’s on the like it side, boom, we get this whole rush through our reward system of pleasure. And then those three all then constantly interacting with each other, influencing each system.

And we’re so predisposed to seek out and prefer beauty, it can guide our opinions and decisions about seemingly unrelated subjects. Even something as supposedly objective as science has been shaped by our affinity for beauty.

Diessner: Well, when we think of the most fundamental science, which is physics, propped up by mathematics, physicists and mathematicians are often guided by the beauty of their equations, both in constructing them and selecting them. Einstein was well-known for describing how important the beauty of equations were. And then Frank Wilczek, who got the Nobel prize for explaining the atomic strong force, he’s written an entire book about how beauty guided him to those equations.

But it is in the realm of daily human contact where our bias towards the beautiful is most evident. Before we know anything else about a person, we often use visual cues to predict their character.

Helms: There’s this segment of our brain that is allocated to recognizing faces. And so we are hard-wired to, in a moment’s time, capture what we can about an individual based on the appearance of their face.

Jill Helms is a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine who focuses on plastic and reconstructive surgery. In her lab, she researches craniofacial development and what our faces can tell us medically, and what we only imagined they can tell us socially.

Helms: There is a deep science, it surrounds the field of facial anomalies and within those facial anomalies are the asymmetries. So there is a medical basis for many, many kinds of syndromes or conditions where the face is asymmetrical. And this is sort of a harbinger of an underlying disease state. So it’s no wonder that we’ve evolved a way to recognize even subtle asymmetries and have some aversion to them because they represent a diseased state. Now, how does that sort of concept and strong medical evidence, how does that apply to beauty? Well first of all, nobody’s face is symmetrical. Not really. If you’ve ever wondered what you would look like, you can hold a mirror up to your face and you look rather odd—

AJC: It’s horrifying.

Helms: Yeah, and it doesn’t look good. So perfect symmetry is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Helms says that in the 19th century, some people even believed you could determine a person’s character just by assessing the beauty of their face. The idea came from Francis Galton, an English eugenicist, psychologist, and early criminologist. If you look different on the outside, he proposed, you must be different on the inside. Galton theorized that unusual patterns in facial features could signify moral failings and criminal tendencies. And though we might like to think we’ve moved on from such discredited ideas, we may still have a ways to go.

Helms: But I heard somebody just recently say the phrase “ugly as sin.” So this is a phrase that is from the 1900s, because the morally best were the most beautiful and the morally worst were the most unattractive. So ugly as sin was like, no, the two things don’t go together. Moral character is not determined by this.

Yet quite apart from defining what beauty means, we’ve struggled with the very concept of what beauty is. And we’ve spent thousands of years trying to systemize and understand this. Ancient Greek philosophers studied the geometrical ratio of one to 1.6, which occurs in the natural world, to better understand balance and harmony in the universe. That same ratio has guided artists, designers, and architects in pursuit of elegance and symmetry. Leonardo DaVinci called it the divine proportion. But it wasn’t until 1935 that a German mathematician, Martin Ohm, first called it the golden ratio. The great architect Le Corbusier, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali, and even composers like Claude Debussy have drawn on the golden ratio to create what they consider to be the most aesthetically-pleasing creations. And even in science, there has been some buy-in into the unproven concept that these proportions guide our sense of beauty. In the early 21st century, a surgeon named Stephen Marquardt, developed a golden mask depicting the perfect face based on the golden ratio.

Helms: The concept, it sounds good, golden is good and ratio is good, and superimposed it on to the sense of what is beautiful. You have to have this width of the lower face, this width of the mid face with the forehead. I think it’s more, it sounds good. Maybe it sounds good. I don’t think that it’s really something that people adhere to very much in the medical field.

AJC: Interesting, because there was certainly a trend in the late ’80s, early ’90s where there were physicians who absolutely swore by it.

Helms: Absolutely.

Yet when it comes to the beauty we see in each other, there really is no universal standard. Rhett Diessner says the roots of beauty can be found in evolution, but exactly why or how is still unclear. In the animal kingdom, there are countless examples of mate selection based on what appears to be beauty, the plumage of a peacock, the antlers of a stag or the large cheeks of an orangutan, but biologists still don’t understand why these aesthetic preferences exist. Some argue that these traits must represent a hidden survival advantage, good health and vigor, while others propose that they evolved as a way to simply be noticed. Today, a new generation of evolutionary biologists, notably Yale’s Richard Prum, are even beginning to advance the idea once held by Darwin himself, that animals develop aesthetic preferences in mates independently of other evolutionary advantages. That’s to say, animals simply find certain colors, shapes or sounds to be beautiful. In humans too, we’re still figuring out exactly why we’re attracted to certain physical features.

Diessner: Things that make us healthy, that make us effectively reproductive, I think these are things are gonna be consistently found beautiful, but once culture came on the scene, 75,000 years ago, we humans, we mixed it all up then. And so anything goes for beauty. Culture tells you it is, you think it is.

Wilson: I think anyone who finds me beautiful is really in proximity to whiteness, always for me. And even my hair. I’m half black, half Japanese and people are mind blown by that. But all the parts of me that I still question when people find me beautiful, is it because my hair is just a little straighter?

Priscilla Yuki Wilson set out out to explore alternative conceptions of beauty back in 2014. She was following in the footsteps of her friend, Esther Honig, who had sent a photograph of herself to different artists around the world, with the instructions to Photoshop the image to make it look more beautiful. Yuki Wilson did the same. Some artists made her nearly unrecognizable, manipulating the angle of her eye, the bridge of her nose, the shape of her face and the length of her hair. A beautiful face, it turns out, has very different meanings in different places.

Wilson: I interpreted as no one really knew what to do with my face, and that’s how I kind of experience the world. No one can’t interpret my face, and I think in some ways that in itself beholds a beauty of hopefully the future of, we won’t compartmentalize people into these categories, right? Yet the reality is that we do, yet the reality is that we’re still comfortable with doing so when we want to identify people in those ways.

So beauty isn’t a universal idea to measure our world and ourselves against. Instead, it’s something we create with the values and myths that compose our cultures. As our needs and desires change, so do our opinions of what is beautiful.

Helms: That we can learn to accept a range of facial features as being beautiful.

Diessner: As we appreciate unity and diversity more and more, and appreciate diversity more, we’re finding many more shapes attractive, and as the world, as you know is shrinking into one world, we see all these different cultures in the media and start realizing, wow, there’s all sorts of kinds of people that are beautiful, that it never crossed my mind.

Wilson: In the world today, I feel like with everything happening politically, the world is little by little telling us that we’re being desired more as well. And I use the word desire because I think desire goes so hand in hand with my understanding of beauty.

So the idea of a beauty standard may be starting to crack but it’s still a force to be reckoned with. The beauty industry has ballooned into a half-a-trillion-dollar juggernaut, not just through the power of advertising but because there are material benefits to beauty. Being perceived as conventionally beautiful confers measurable advantages. According to research, beautiful people, for example, are seen as more competent. One study even found that companies in the S&P 500 Index with more attractive CEOs had higher financial returns than those with less attractive chief executives. But in our society, conventional beauty is primarily associated with the young and the vivacious, but despite conventional wisdom, it isn’t actually a universal passport to a better life. If anything, it’s more like a visa. It has an expiration date.

Helms: I have heard it said from beautiful women who are models that the most insecure person in the room will be them because every moment their visa, as you call it, is getting closer to expiring. And if you don’t have anything else behind that, that’s quite a loss, isn’t it? It’s quite a loss of sense of self, sense of purpose and your place in the world. If your place is achieved because of something, that through nothing you did, it was the roll of the dice, mom and dad’s, putting them together and boom. Through no fault of your own, through no benefit of your own, you were given a certain appearance. That’s a pretty hard thing to have to deal with, I think.

But Priscilla Yuki Wilson has come to see things differently. Through burlesque, a kind of performance that both caricatures and elevates the empowering aspects of the art of seduction. Beauty becomes something for performers to summon, control and mold to their liking.

Wilson: Burlesque as an art form gives a lot of folks a chance to define that for themselves, to define that, if you’re a fat-bodied performer, if you’re a dark skinned black performer. One of my best friends, one of the most amazing burlesque performers I know, is a 60 plus year old woman. And she is magnificent. She is so sexy. She so beautiful. She is a genius when it comes to the art form that she expresses. and I think when someone can ignite that magic and awe, that’s when you know you’re generating on beauty. And I think it’s something you access. We have to go back to the idea of how we define beauty, which initially we said it was an essence. And if that is true, then why when our body changes, that would be taken away if our essence is inherent in us, right? And I say that because beauty doesn’t equate happiness. It isn’t necessarily even sex appeal or anything like that. If anything, it’s like a sense of awe, I believe. When I look at someone beautiful or witness something beautiful, tears can be flowing down my face. I can be hysterically laughing. It ignites the sense of the magic of this curiosity of life, and I think anyone who is exuding that, no matter what stage of their life, will always have that. And again, so I think we have really what beauty is in one corner, and then we have beauty in another corner, what we’re told it is. And so my work that I’ve done, whether from the original project to what I do currently today in burlesque is the constant challenge of what I’ve been taught, right? The un-rewiring of my understanding of beauty and that is inherent within me. I will always have it.

Yuki Wilson is not alone in her analysis. Though the beauty industry may tell us that an attractive face is the result of perfect physical proportions and balanced coloring, in reality our perception of one another’s beauty is more than skin deep. Oscar Wilde articulated this idea in his 19th century novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In it, a vain Dorian Gray sells his soul in order to ensure that his beauty will never fade. Instead, a portrait of him will age in his place, but as Gray himself becomes more sinful and corrupt, the aging portrait begins to mirror his inner ugliness.

(Excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray)

He grew more and more enamored of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy central mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age.

Helms: That entire Oscar Wilde story was about how your actions in life paint your face. Yeah, I think it’s quite profound that the people who are joyous or who live with intention, who serve others, who love, I think it’s quite obvious on their faces, don’t you?

Diessner: I think one of the most interesting things about physical beauty and its combination with moral beauty is that even a person that’s physically unattractive but has moral beauty, the more you get to know them, the more physically beautiful they seem to you and vice versa. So I like that part of the universe.

But there’s another powerful cue for human beauty beyond these fixed traits: a smile. One study found that smiling makes people look healthier and more attractive, but there’s a catch. It has to be a genuine smile; a real smile engages the muscles that wrap around our eyes. And the benefits of a genuine smile are more than skin deep. It can help both us and the people around us to feel happier and more connected.

Diessner: Yes, the so-called Duchenne Smile, right? You get the little crow’s feet happening here and our brain interprets that that person is sincere. They’re being authentic and there’s been, yeah, quite a few studies on it. Your brain is constantly doing something called intraception and reading your muscles. So when your brain sees those little crow’s feet on the side of your face, or it doesn’t see them, it interprets, it knows it’s happening. Those facial muscles, your brain thinks, “Oh “I actually really am happy.” And then as you say, then you get the feedback effect from others around you. You smile at them and they think, “Wow, “this is a good situation.” And smile back, which tells your brain, “Oh, “I’m in a good place with these people.” Yeah, it’s a virtual circle, virtuous circle of happiness. Just spirals up.

Helms: Have you noticed, now that we’re wearing masks a lot, how much more important is the smile with the eyes? And it’s so important that in the hospitals, people are putting pictures of themselves on their chest of them smiling so that the person that they’re helping recognizes you can’t see all of my face, but this is who I am. I’m this smiling person.

It’s a good reminder that encountering beauty isn’t just a superficial experience. It’s critical to our wellbeing and to how we behave in the world. This reality, not aesthetics, is what pushed Diessner to study beauty in the first place. Early in his career, while teaching in Switzerland, he developed a hypothesis.

Diessner: I thought, wow, I think beauty is an antidote to hopelessness. And I came back to the States and set up my first beauty lab at Lewis-Clark State College and did my first experiments. And sure enough, there is a real connection between beauty and hope.

And beauty doesn’t just make us feel more hopeful. It also helps to create the real-world conditions that might warrant hope. Many studies have shown that encountering beauty can aid us in our efforts to build a better world.

Diessner: Yeah, so there’s many, many studies supporting this. One of the most recent ones specifically on appreciation of natural beauty was performed in three different countries, Japan, Canada, Russia. And they show that the more that people engage with natural beauty, the better their psychological wellbeing, the better their emotional wellbeing, the more meaning they found in life. Other studies have shown there’s a pro-social effect of noticing nature and beauty. The more you notice nature and beauty, the better person you become, you’re more likely to be kind to others around you. So it just has endless benefits. Also with art, being engaged with beautiful art. One of the most refreshing aspects of that is it tends to open up our minds. Quite a few studies showing the connection between engaging with artistic beauty and being open-minded and being a more effective creative problem solver. And this even has a big effect in science. So it kind of does a mind reset. And then beauty’s important for the science of climate change. My students and my colleague, Rachelle Genthôs, we did a study that recently got published in Ecopsychology, showing that people that engage with natural beauty were much more likely to do pro-environmental behaviors. So there’s a chance that beauty really can save the world.