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The Eye of the Beholder

By Jeremy Ireland on January 2, 2020 in Other

Such a handsome devil, by Robert Bruns.

You may have noticed over recent months how the demographic of the Eastern Suburbs changes as summer moves in and the UV index nudges up, the main shift being the huge numbers that flock to the beach. People from all walks of life gravitate towards the coast, providing ample opportunity to see and be seen. Like bees to a honey pot, our beaches seem to attract an endless display of ‘look at me, look at me’. And why not? If you’ve got it, why not flaunt it? If you don’t have it, why not look at it?! But what exactly is it that we want to flaunt or look at? One word: beauty.
As kids we are taught that ‘beauty is skin deep’, yet research overwhelmingly shows that as adults we react more favourably to those who are physically attractive than to those who are not. This bias towards beauty is widespread across all cultures.
But what is beauty? There does seem to be a standard, particularly with regards to the face. Numerous studies have shown that all of us, across all cultures and including children, agree on what makes an attractive face. The same trends also tend to make up what we deem to be an attractive body, but let’s stick to faces for now.
Some features of what makes a beautiful face may seem obvious, like smooth skin, pleasant expression and youthfulness, but what may not seem so obvious is our desire for average features like the nose, eyes and lips. In other words, the more average the composite of the face, the more we seem drawn to it.
It does seem odd that an ‘average’ face should be deemed attractive when the faces we find most beautiful are anything but average. This is where symmetry comes in, i.e. the more symmetrical the face, the more we like it. Average features combined with symmetry are the pinnacle, and from an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense. As far back as the Flintstones a beautiful, symmetrical face has been associated with biological heath, fitness and, above all, fertility. This preference relates to both male and female faces, although there can be a cultural variation when it comes to facial hair.
Now for the body. In a general sense, especially in Western societies, men tend to go for the ‘hourglass’ figure in women of average weight. This means that the waist is one third narrower than the hips, or a waist-hip ratio of 0.7 (think Marilyn Monroe). Why? It boils down to reproduction: the closer the female is to 0.7, the more they are associated with fertility and hassle-free childbirth.
It’s similar for men. Women prefer taller men with a waist-hip ratio more like a ‘V’, signifying more muscle than fat and indicating an ability to provide or hunt (think Hugh Jackman or Ken Doll). In more recent times the ‘V’ has possibly been replaced with earning capacity, although both are desirable from a provision standpoint.
The cave man may have had it sussed but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have predicted the complexities that have arisen in today’s world regarding body image. Current studies suggest that around half of Australian women place undue pressure upon themselves to look beautiful, leaving them feeling insecure, especially at places like the beach or when they’re surrounded by others that they perceive as beautiful. Undue pressure can lead to unhealthy outcomes.
Is the lure of beauty something that has been forced upon us by magazines, movies and the like? Or is it something more primitive, driving us to seek a mate for reproduction? Consider an experiment done back in 1969 by Lerner & Gilbert. Kids aged between 5-6 years were shown a range of photos depicting various body types. Most kids could identify their own body type and that of their peers. 86 per cent expressed an aversion to the photo of the chubby kid. In 2014, the experiment was taken one step further by different researchers who used dolls rather than photos and girls aged 3½-5½ typically assigned positive characteristics to the ‘thin’ doll over the ‘fat’ doll.
Are we blinded by beauty? You could always ask Jaime Lannister, but if you feel like body image is getting the better of you, please seek professional help.

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