Every day on our TV screens, in magazines and on billboards we are bombarded with unrealistic images of beautiful bodies that do not resemble any real human being. We might think that this is at the behest of evil advertising executives but there is nothing new under the sun. Just look at the Venus of Willendorf, which was carved some 25,000 years ago or the sculptures of Polyclitus and you will see how they exaggerated the parts that were most important to them.
The idea of beauty though is problematic. We live in an epoch that questions its validity. It is seen as something which is inconsequential or even morally suspect. We are uncomfortable with what seems like an obsessive quest for beauty; that people are prepared have their skin burnt, foreign materials implanted in their bodies and fat sucked out of them must surely be a symbol of a sick society.
In her recent book Bodies the psychotherapist Suzie Orbach claims that there is no such thing as a body outside culture but I cannot agree with her. We are animals and sensitivity to beauty is part of our nature. Ruskin was wrong; the peacock’s tail is anything but superfluous. This is how genes perpetuate themselves. And humans are not immune to this kind of attraction. The people who noticed the indicators of genetic fitness enjoyed more reproductive success and we are their descendents. What we find beautiful is anything that indicates youth, fecundity, health and symmetrical design. The ancient Greeks believed that all beauty was mathematics. As it said in a quote I saw on the web the other day: beauty is in the phi of the beholder. Phi is the number 1.618:1 also known as the golden ratio which is a classical measure of beauty that is seen throughout nature.
Obviously beauty can and does change over the years. When I look at a portrait of Anne Boleyn it is hard to understand why Henry VIII was willing to break with the Vatican over his passion for her. Nature is not the only thing and we do adapt to our cultures and environments. During times of famine the ideal of beauty tends to be a much larger body size, which reflects social status. When the lower classes had to toil away in the fields, to have pale skin was considered the goal. Now of course it is a deep suntan that demonstrates the ability to enjoy leisure time. Obviously cultural mores influence what we find pleasing but remember culture is not created in a vacuum but is a product of human nature among other things.
What are the consequences of how we perceive beauty? We may pay lip service to the idea that beauty is only skin deep but that is not how we actually behave. There is a new buzzword to describe this socioeconomic phenomenon – erotic capital. As our society becomes more sexualised, those who are sexier will obtain greater financial rewards. Preferential treatment of beautiful people and discrimination against the unattractive is not hard to demonstrate. We are probably more aware of racism and sexism because lookism often operates at an unconscious level. We expect good-looking people to be better at a whole range of tasks. They are on average probably better at sex because they start younger and get more practice. And there are also significant economic benefits in such areas as banking, PR and marketing. But these advantages go beyond that. People working in the better-paid parts of the private sector are more attractive than those in the public and sector. One study claimed that good-looking people can earn 10 to 15 per cent more than the average-looking, who in turn can earn 10 to 15 per cent more than the plain or ugly. The classic example is lawyers where the attractive lawyers earn more and have more chances of becoming partners in a firm. This should not necessarily be put down to employer discrimination; they are just better at attracting customers
It’s all a bit depressing if you ask me. Not only are the beautiful more likely to get laid, they also have a better chance of getting filthy rich too. I feel that we have to treat humans as they are and not as they should be. The attitudes about beauty are deeply ingrained in us. In her recent book bodies Suzie Orbach argued that we are now manufacturing our bodies. But I think that we have always done that. The feminist movement has had some successes but many young women now reject their worldview and are conforming to different standards. We have always sought to sculpt, shape and adapt our bodies. What is so frightening now is all the means that we have at our disposal.