Why Notions of Attractiveness Poison Our Society

Dove’s recent “Real Beauty Sketches” ad campaign has sparked strong praise from those who think it opens the eyes of women to the way their self-image regarding their physical appearance can become twisted and distorted (for a whole number of reasons).  Critics argue that the takeaway is that the women featured in the commercials really are closer to “beauty” than they realize, seemingly reinforcing an illegitimate standard of objective beauty or attractiveness.  My feelings are mixed, as it does both.

In all aspects of life we can magnify small or nonexistent shortcomings and stress over them, and this is particularly true for women and their physical appearance, as they live in a culture that glorifies the objectification of women.  At the same time, the Dove commercials do reinforce illegitimate stereotypes regarding attractiveness that negatively impact the perceptions of self-worth held by many women.

Yet the critics seem too tame when it comes to confronting the real menace.  It is not simply that common cultural standards of attractiveness at this moment in American history are wrong and harmful, but that any embrace of standards of attractiveness—the rating, sorting, and objectifying of human persons based on their physical appearance—is incompatible with respect for the dignity and worth of the human person and stands as a serious obstacle to the common good.

If we really want to cure or greatly reduce some of the most destructive ills in our society, including divorce, infidelity, suicide, bullying, sexual assault, the sexualization of children, sexual and street harassment, the pervasiveness of pornography, racism, colorism, materialism, greed, insecurity, superficiality, eating disorders, sexism, and human trafficking, our society needs to reexamine the way it views attraction and attractiveness.  Fundamentally irrational notions of attraction and attractiveness are widespread, and they lead to the dehumanization—or  the depersonalization—of others, opening the door for injustice, insecurity, hatred, and exploitation.  To be clear, these are all complex problems and they each require a myriad of responses in order to move toward the common good (far more than reducing the physical objectification of others), but what many consider frivolous and fun is actually a grave underlying problem.

Our society glorifies disconnecting people’s physical appearance from their spiritual, intellectual, and emotional natures in order to objectify them so that they can be used instrumentally as sexual objects or observed, classified, and rated like pieces of art or inanimate objects.

This fosters insecurity in millions of Americans.  Few things cause more widespread unhappiness in our society.  It can tear relationships apart with spouses looking outside of their marriage for affirmation of their worth as a person or spouses resenting the other based on whether or not each spouse is seemingly measuring up to standards of attractiveness.  The result: conflict, dysfunction, infidelity, and divorce.

It can lead to malicious bullying, which in turn can produce fear, self-hatred, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, reckless behavior, and even suicide.  And all of these can exist without bullying when people, especially young people, measure themselves against airbrushed models or even their best friend and find themselves lacking the traits that supposedly make one attractive.  They turn to these self-destructive behaviors to fill that void, to overcome insecurities, or perhaps just to escape the pain and unhappiness of the moment.

Irrational notions of attractiveness foster materialism and greed because attractiveness can be purchased if one has the financial resources for expensive cosmetics, clothes, stylists, and even surgeons.  It reinforces the individualism that permeates our society by inciting the person to treat him or herself like an object that can and must be improved, and this self-absorption—this obsession with the superficial—leads people to betray other values like authenticity, community, and justice.

On a societal level, the obsession with physical attractiveness and pressure to conform to the fleeting, capricious standards of the moment bear a heavier burden on girls and women.  Those women who refuse to conform are often faced with scorn, contempt, and mockery, particularly those in the public spotlight, those shattering glass ceilings.  And those women who do accept conformity as a necessity or by choice are nevertheless often punished, seen as less serious than their male counterparts.  This plays no small role in the inequalities that exist between men and women in the workplace.

And this obsession leads to violence against women.  Certainly the desire for power often plays a dominant role in sexual assault, but sexual desire based on physical attraction cannot be left out of the equation.  It is integral to rape culture.  It drives sex trafficking and forced prostitution.

Notions of attractiveness also reflect and fuel ugly forms of bigotry in our culture: racism and colorism.  The preference for lighter skin in American society is both pervasive and repulsive.  Unjust, indefensible prejudice is dismissed as preference and harmful effects are ignored.

All of this should lead to one conclusion: retaining superficial attraction to those toward whom we are not genuinely attracted (as persons not objects) and maintaining standards of attractiveness regarding members of the opposite sex, or even our own, are harmful practices and morally indefensible.  Human persons, equipped with reason and the capacity to recognize the dignity of others, can and should discard them.  They should stop objectifying themselves.  And they should take on social structures that reinforce and perpetuate these practices.  The result would be greater human flourishing for both those who objectify and those who are objectified.  Deconstructing these irrational prejudices would lead to a more widespread appreciation for the dignity and worth of each person and make evermore present the kingdom of God.

Legitimate Attraction

For one whose life is directed by the desire to reach their full potential as a human person, the purpose of physical and sexual attraction is to find joy through communion in a unified relationship with a spouse.  Our notions and understanding of both legitimate attraction and standards of attractiveness should flow from this reality.

For those who are married (or in relationships of that nature, as well as in relationships on the way to marriage), legitimate physical attraction is based on genuine love that manifests itself in the desire for physical unity and sexual expression with one other person. This legitimate attraction is based on love and truth, not prejudice and cultural programming.  It reflects a real desire to be with another person, to share one’s self with them in a unique and intimate way.  And it inspires sentiments and desires that correspond with this legitimate wish for unity.

It is among these couples where we are most likely to find people who have discarded the erroneous belief in the objective beauty of others and turned away from superficiality and the objectification of others.  And it is most often not the product of a conscious choice to reject these, but instead the result of experiencing unparalleled attraction to another person and intuitively comprehending the authentic nature and sources of beauty.  Past notions of what is and is not attractive then seem silly and absurd.  This type of authentic attraction to another person, the real desire to love that person and become one flesh, contrasts sharply with superficial attraction, which is in fact fleeting, arbitrary, and useless.

To try to discern the attractiveness of others for whom we lack this desire and these feelings is to irrationally cling to an artificial construct that generates destructive prejudice and helps no one.  It is fundamentally irrational and pointless, disconnected from the lived reality of genuine, authentic attraction.  There is therefore a responsibility to make one’s understanding of attractiveness align with this reality and to deprogram the prejudices we have inherited and invented regarding superficial attraction and attractiveness.

For those still seeking a spouse, it is better if physical attraction flows from a real connection that holds the possibility of future communion—grounded in some mixture of common values and personal chemistry—rather than acting as a tool to arbitrarily spark relationships with people whose physical appearance will change with time, but whose values may never allow for genuine communion. This is not to say that authentic one flesh relationships cannot be sparked by a superficial attraction shaped by one’s subjective understanding of attractiveness, merely that these relationships would be the fairly rare, exceptionally fortunate outcomes of an approach that tilts heavily toward failure.  The divorce rate may actually be surprisingly low rather than surprisingly high when we consider how many people choose to build their marriages on such a shaky foundation.  But again, real attraction can supplant arbitrary attraction so failure is not inevitable.

A better approach to finding a spouse would be to discard one’s superficial standards of attractiveness and personalize the search for one’s spouse—to base it on the future one would like to build with a spouse and that ineffable, intuitive attraction to the spirit of another person instead of on meaningless, capricious predilections.

It is not just sensible and rational to deconstruct these prejudices; it is a Christian duty.  We are called to treat each other as brothers and sisters.  Think about how ridiculous it is to try to objectively determine the attractiveness of your brother or sister, mom or dad, son or daughter.  Is your assessment distorted by your love for them?  How about the fact that you are familiar with their spiritual and emotional natures?  Are you failing to objectively see them as they are in reality?

In fact, once we realize the notion of objective beauty is a preposterous, fanciful delusion, we might come to see that we are seeing them as we should—as a unified, whole person with not just a physical, but also an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nature—and that capricious standards of attractiveness are in fact distortions of reality.  Our vision is not distorted by the proximity of the relationship, but rather because we love the person and know the person, we see him or her as an integral whole, just as God sees persons, not as a collection of parts or features.  And the more we love someone, the more easily we can see their genuine beauty.

And it’s not a matter of seeing their so-called internal or inner beauty.  We have all heard the aphorism that “beauty is only skin deep,” but this is not true.  The internal vs. external beauty divide is fundamentally false, possible only when we fail to view the other person as they are, as an integral whole with a physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nature.  To appreciate beauty is to see how it permeates another person’s entire being.

And if we can see that is the case with our close friends and loved ones, we should be able to see why this standard—viewing people as whole, integrated persons—aligns with Christian responsibility to treat all as brothers and sisters.

If we do this, we might be able to live up to the challenge Christ places before us—to eradicate lust in our hearts.  This is among his most radical teachings and to most contemporary Americans it must seem like an entirely unreasonable duty.  That is probably true unless effort is made to get to the very root of the problem by eliminating that prejudice that generates that lust.  A person is perfectly capable of leaving behind this prejudice.  And once they do, they will see their past celebrity crush or random object of desire as a human being, a person with dignity and emotions, someone to whom they are not actually attracted, rather than seeing them as an object.  They will then live in reality, where their perceptions match their authentic desires and values.  At this point, the everyday obsession with capricious standards of attractiveness will look just as silly as when Brent Musburger embarrassed himself on national television doing what millions of Americans do every day.

Beauty is Subjective

The science of attraction/beauty is heavily contested.  Some studies equate symmetry with attractiveness while others claim “averageness” is the key to beauty, findings that are irreconcilable.  And this is just the beginning of the contradictions.  These studies range from what we might generously call ‘inconclusive’ to those that can only be identified as outright pseudoscience.  And many of the results, which are supposed to transcend cultural prejudice, seem to resemble precisely what one would expect to see in a similar study from the 1930s by Nazi eugenicists. Can an actual scientist in this day and age actually believe in the aesthetic superiority of whites?  Sadly, yes.  From dubious variables to missing variables to the failure to isolate environmentally-constructed biases, these studies are rife with methodological errors and fail pathetically in their attempt to prove a universal standard of physical attractiveness.  Many reflect the humorous fact that people tend to rate more highly the attractiveness of others who share their own features, leading to results that are more likely to reflect simple narcissism than confirm the existence of some imagined innate ability connected to passing on genes.

Further, in seeking to find some evolutionary basis for objective standards of attractiveness, there is a tendency in these studies to ignore the impact of some of the most powerful forces shaping understandings of attractiveness—fashion, cosmetics, status, talent, fame, public personality, etc.  No person with even a modicum of common sense could deny that these heavily shape understandings of beauty.  Whole industries exist because of their success in shaping perceptions of attractiveness, fostering insecurity, and promoting their products as remedies.  The media is often complicit in this.  This is why people wear makeup, get dressed up, have their hair done a certain way, and engage in various other activities that they have learned will make them more likely to meet contemporary standards of attractiveness.

The reality is that beauty is fundamentally subjective.  Notions of attractiveness are overwhelmingly shaped by personal prejudice, whether inherited from mainstream society, formed by a subculture, influenced by personal experience, or consciously constructed.  Even those with disdain for mainstream culture’s standards of beauty often retain some level of illegitimate and irrational prejudice regarding the external appearance of others.  They might be drawn to those who dress like a hipster or attracted to those who look like their ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend.  And they may feel superior to those who accept popular notions of attractiveness because they have largely deconstructed these.  They have not, however, moved past the type of illegitimate discrimination that impedes the quest for authentic communion.

The alternatives to seeking a spouse based on how they fit momentary standards of attractiveness are often equally facile, whether one is using another’s status, wealth, innate intelligence, “winning personality”, confidence and charisma, or any other characteristic that is not intimately connected to the character of the potential romantic interest.  Certainly these could reflect character traits.  Wealth may signify wisdom or temperance, but not necessarily, making it an ineffective proxy for character (and those interested in wealth are probably more often interested in the wealth itself than in the character traits that may have helped generate it).  There is no correlation between having equally high innate intellectual abilities and achieving marital bliss.  The link is not there between sharing a socioeconomic status and having an increased capacity for communion.   The construction of “types” can only inhibit the quest to find a spouse with whom one can achieve real, enduring emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual unity.

The foolishness of those who claim to identify objective standards of beauty can be exposed by anyone familiar with history, art history, popular culture, anthropology, cross-cultural studies, or a variety of other fields.  The knowledge of other cultures and eras make it clear that notions of attraction are fleeting and capricious.  They change radically with time and across cultures, even in the era of globalization.  The idea that “beauty is in the eye of beholder” is a bit of ancient wisdom that remains just as true today.  This becomes clear when one reflects on the radically different notions, for instance, of what constituted an attractive woman in the Renaissance, Victorian England, the 1980s, and today.  Contrast the past appeal of bound feet in China with how repulsive someone in the United States would find them today.  The differences are so obvious that explaining them would simply belabor the point.

Preferences for certain body types would seem to be the most likely biases to reflect a survival of the fittest instinct, yet these four eras alone show that there is no objective standard wired into the human brain.  Even today, when we look across the globe we can find cultures that obsess over thinness combined with voluptuous breasts (like ours), but we can also find others where the mark of an attractive woman is large physical size (which can be seen as a reflection of health, wealth, fertility, or simply what a woman is supposed to look like).  The dominant traits of attractiveness in one place can be seen as thoroughly unattractive—repulsive even—in another.

One needs no special knowledge of science, history, or culture to see how subjective notions of beauty can be.  Personal experience can show us how notions of attractiveness can (and do) come and go, rather than merely reflect animalistic programing.  A sour experience with someone can make one less physically attracted to them.  Many have developed a strong physical attraction toward someone who they did not find physically attractive initially. As one ages, it is common to shift one’s perceptions of the attractiveness of people at various ages.  For instance, 14-year old girls and 40-year old women are likely to rate the attractiveness of various boys and men in radically different ways.  Dating someone new can dramatically change one’s type.  A change in mainstream culture can alter how one views past attractions, as those with an embarrassing celebrity teen crush can confirm.  Nearly everyone has experiences that confirm just how fleeting and superficial these are.

Reason over Instinct

Let us imagine that there is some inherited instinct to use the appearance of heath and youth and (if we are really willing to stretch it) body type and facial bone structure to find fertile mates to pass on our genes.  It would nevertheless be preposterous for a civilized human with free will and the capacity to use reason to instead rely on irrational prehistoric prejudice to find a suitable spouse.  Animal instincts that reflect a primitive mind are no excuse to fail to develop one’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and even physical capabilities.  Reason allows us to connect notions of attractiveness to actual attraction.  The idea that we should evaluate spouses by their external appearance because cavemen did it and we must be controlled by the same impulses is more than mildly absurd.  Perhaps instead we should select our spouses based on their ability to kill a wooly mammoth.

Others should not be treated based on the supposed natural instincts of the homo sapien.  If an unfaithful man tries to hide behind his natural instinct to spread his seed, this defense rightfully is typically seen as ridiculous and indefensible.  If a man gets into a dispute and turns immediately to violence and kills another man, does he get a free pass?  Not in any civilized society that values human reason, free will, morality, and justice.

We are free to pick a spouse based on our desire to be with someone who will be a good partner and parent, someone with whom we would enjoy building a life together, someone with whom we have a desire to become one flesh.  To do otherwise is to turn away from our highest capacities and embrace irrationality.  Human persons are not ethically permitted to act like irrational animals driven by extinct.  There is a moral duty to eliminate immoral prejudice.

And ultimately if one wants to pick a spouse based on his or her fertility, perhaps relying on their skin tone or the size of the bridge of their nose is not the most reasonable, reliable method.

Race and Attraction

This all ties in to a reality that receives far too little attention: racism has an intimate relationship with popular notions of attractiveness in the United States.  In numerous studies, ideal features eerily resemble Aryan standards of beauty based on notions of racial superiority.  The argument that people are genetically more attracted to others because of their facial bone structure, hair type, or skin color is simply a contemporary manifestation of eugenics.  The premise that attraction based on race, which is itself a social construct, could be driven by natural rather than environmental factors is patently ridiculous.

Yet such prejudice is pervasive.  Data culled from dating websites show an astonishing amount of racial discrimination by those seeking a romantic partner, even among those who claim to not care.  Look at Maxim’s Hot 100 List which is full of blonde white women, yet has only a handful of black women. Consider the fact that fewer than 4% of runway models are non-white.  And where black women are included in a catalogue of objects we are to admire, there is a strong tendency to include only or predominantly light-skinned black women, reflecting and reinforcing colorism.

In 1970, Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye, which is about a young black girl, Pecola, who has internalized standards of beauty that reflect racial bigotry and longs to have blue eyes.  This poison persists in our culture.  On Race in America on CNN, they showed a little girl who was ashamed of her “ugly” black skin.  The real ugliness is the racism connected to the way our society commonly defines beauty.

There simply is no rational purpose for maintaining prejudice regarding facial features, skin color or tone, or other features of this nature.  One can try to hide the ugliness of prejudice behind the word preference but it does not change the basic reality of the situation.  Is it acceptable to refuse to be friends with someone because of the color of their skin?  Is that mere preference?  Then why do so many feel like it is acceptable to exclude those of a certain race from an even more important, more intimate, more potentially joy-inspiring relationship?  Why are we not indignant when we see SWM seeks SWF in a personal ad?  Why is this one area where racial prejudice largely gets a free pass?  There is no good excuse for this.

What the Church Should Teach

The Church should teach a personalist understanding of attraction and attractiveness.  This starts with the recognition that all people have dignity and worth as children of God and that each has an emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual nature.  The responsibility to love others as brothers and sisters demands treating them as integral wholes.  To isolate their physical nature and judge them based on this is to objectify them, to depersonalize them.  To truly appreciate the beauty of another person requires seeing their beauty as a person—undivided—and being animated by love for that person.  Appreciation for the beauty of another can become authentic attraction when it reflects a real desire to pursue the unique, intimate relationship shared by loving spouses.  Romantic, physical, and sexual attraction to others is fundamentally irrational and worthless, and looms as an obstacle to the full communion of spouses, their ability to become one flesh, which all married couples are called to become.  Persons can and should discard irrational notions of attractiveness and illegitimate attraction by deconstructing the prejudices that foster them.

It is not enough to work for individual conversion, it also essential to work for the breakdown of social sin embedded in social norms and structures that punish authenticity and promote the objectification of others.

The Church should work for a society that allows authentic spousal love to flourish.  It should stand against materialism, consumerism, and superficiality.  The idea that we can manipulate our physical appearance through conformity to fashion and cosmetic trends in order to find authentic, enduring love is absolutely senseless, and the Church should make that clear.  The responsibility is to be countercultural—to unapologetically promote a radical understanding of human dignity and love.

I once read a conservative Catholic periodical discuss how you can notice the cute waiter or waitress, but don’t flirt with him or her and embarrass your spouse and kids.  Others subscribe to the “you can look, but not touch” philosophy.  These are pathetic guidelines that reflect a weak, milquetoast faith that is infected by bourgeois values, particularly the supreme bourgeois value, individualism.  We live in a culture where relationships are often two people pursuing their own individual interests and desires, joined together by collective behavior designed to achieve these individual ends through enlightened self-interest.  Catholic marriage instead finds inspiration in the Trinity, seeking genuine communion based on selfless love.  This reality should permeate everything the Church teaches about human sexuality, including attraction and the recognition of beauty.  Sexuality without intimacy and exclusivity is beneath the dignity of the human person.

By opposing the objectification of others, the Church can provide a solid foundation for an assault on numerous forms of injustice and make a major contribution to the common good and human flourishing.  Only when we reject the legitimacy of capricious, fleeting standards of attractiveness can we really take on the insecurity epidemic present in our society and the evil that objectifying others can foster.

Otherwise, how can we tell teenage girls to focus on their character, academic performance, and the other things we value rather than their physical appearance when we fail to reject the legitimacy of their objectification and it has such a concrete impact on their everyday lives?  How can we convince spouses to feel secure and relish the joy of marriage when their spouse is attracted to others and disconnects the attractiveness of others from his or her actual feelings toward the person?  How can we fully utilize the gifts and talents of the female population when social norms often suppress their potential to serve the common good and create rivalry with other women?  How we can destroy rape culture without destroying the legitimacy of viewing other persons as objects to be consumed?   How can we eradicate racism when it is so deeply connected to the most important, intimate aspect of people’s lives?

We cannot get to the heart of any of these social ills unless this type of objectification is wholly and unambiguously rejected as illegitimate.  Given how pervasive notions of attraction and attractiveness are in our society, the promotion of these ideals represents a monumental challenge, but there is no alternative.  Truth, love, and justice demand it.

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