What is it about beauty that fascinates us? In fact, more basically, what is beauty? What are the criteria for judging something or someone as being beautiful?

These questions have plagued philosophers and poets for centuries. Now, as we step lightly into the beginning of the third millennium, an American psychologist has written a book giving a viewpoint from the Darwinian perspective. Dr Nancy Etcoff, brain researcher and cognitive psychologist, is the author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty[1], which follows the current popular trend known as 'evolutionary psychology'. Beauty is an asset in the struggle for survival; and according to the Doctor, good looks are a great advantage in many areas of life. For example, mothers pay more attention to babies that they consider to be more attractive than their less fortunate siblings. In school, it is the students lucky enough to have good looks who get the best grades. Moving on to the workplace, the same competitive edge seems to continue. Men who are handsome, when compared with their peers, tend to get hired more easily and also earn higher salaries. They also tend to get promotions more readily than their luckless rivals who are rated only average on the scale of 'good looks'. The same pattern holds for women: a woman who rates high on the 'beauty' scale, has a better chance of getting a job than her less beautiful sister. She also tends to earn a better salary. And, of course, she is more likely to find a husband who is also above average in life's sweepstakes.

According to Dr Etcoff, our notion of beauty is something that starts quite early in life. The latest American research in this area shows that even small infants who are only three months old spend more time looking at pictures of faces that adults have rated as 'attractive'.

Right from the beginning, we are all judges of beauty, or what the world considers to be beautiful. In general, this means symmetry.

That is to say, faces which are symmetrical and in proportion are the ones that most people find 'beautiful'. This basic 'sizing-up' of other people's looks begins early, and continues throughout life, influencing us all the way.

Beauty, to a certain extent, is also in the eye of the beholder. In some societies, for example, a rather large, plump woman may be considered the height of beauty; while, in other cultural systems, slimness is the optimum charm. If one looks back in time, the beauty queens of 30, or 50 years ago were considerably heavier than those who win the Miss Universe contest now. I have not made a statistical study of this, but those observers who make it their business to follow such trends have indicated that the Miss America of today is about 10kg lighter than her counterpart of earlier generations of the lucky winners of beauty contests.

So both historical factors and cultural factors weigh in here, but certainly, in today's market, light weight is a premium in the quest for beauty.

And for the most part one might say that beauty is something that interests men more than women. If one remembers Chaucer correctly: 'The man desires the woman, but the woman does not desire the man; rather, she desires that the men desire her.' So he is the one out searching for beauty, while the female is content with being beautiful to please him. While this might not fit in with today's 'politically correct' attitudes, it has the element of timelessness, if one is a fan of Chaucer.

In the course of more than thirty years of practising psychotherapy, I have had my share of beautiful patients. Strangely enough, many of them are uncomfortable with their good looks, and good luck.

Sylvia, a slender, very attractive photographer's model complained to me one day: "Men are only interested in me for my looks." She was depressed about her relationships with the many men she had rejected in her short life; she was only 24. I suggested there was a simple solution – if she were to gain 10kg then this problem would disappear. This sort of provocation actually aroused her to think about her situation in a new light. Compare yourself with other women, I told her: Would you rather be in their shoes – without your good fortune, and struggle just to meet suitable men; or would you prefer to sit where you are, having lots of possible suitors to choose from, but complaining about their values?

This type of 'cognitive therapy' is what is known as 'reframing' in other terminology. Look at your problem from another perspective.

Think how the world would be if you had some other problem, not the particular one that you think is so awful.

She finally met a man who was quite an intellectual wizard, an astute computer executive, and managed to accept his compliments gracefully instead of complaining about them. She said she felt inferior to him, which made it difficult to relate comfortably. After all, he was a genius, she remarked. I comforted her by reminding her of the old quote – I can't remember where it comes from – 'Beauty is better than genius, because beauty doesn't have to explain itself.'

Shortly after that encounter with beauty incarnate, I met Gloria, a voluptuous blonde with all the fetching attributes of that species. She lamented constantly that men were only interested in her for her body. Finally, tiring of listening to this litany after a while, I told her – be glad you at least have that, what else would they be interested in you for?

And after all, isn't it true that in reality we are all seen and taken or rejected for our various qualities? One person may be liked because of his wit, another perhaps is charming, others have a special skill that eases the social encounters that we all must endure. Why should beauty be denigrated along with these other qualities? For it is part of the self, as are other traits. A man may be accepted because of his brains, or his money, or maybe his fine automobile. All of these are part of his 'gestalt', they make up part of the 'whole' person. How one looks is just another attribute that makes up the entire picture, and should not be set aside as something 'foreign' or alien to the person. If you have it, then enjoy it.

What is beauty?

One writer answered this way: 'Beauty is the promise of pleasure.'


Etcoff N. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. Anchor Books. ISBN 0385479425. 2000.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email: sheldonlitt@hotmail.com.

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