What is the Value of Beauty?

Beauty is ‘a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction.’ Okay: now we know the definition of ‘beauty’; but what exactly is beauty? Let’s zoom in on the human part of beauty: why are some persons more beautiful than others? Why do men become ‘happy’ when they see Kate Upton, but not as much when they see Queen Beatrix (the former queen of The Netherlands)?

Studies have shown that when we recognize someone’s face as beautiful we are actually making a judgement about the health and vitality of that individual. We interpret facial symmetry (the similarity of the left and right half of a face) and a smooth skin to mean that a person has good genes and is – or has been – free from diseases. But what exactly we find beautiful differs per sex. For example: women attach less value to the looks of their partner than men do. But that begs the question: why do men attach so much value to the looks of a woman? And aren’t we men – by chasing the pretty girls – nothing more than simple puppets of our evolutionary determined instincts?

If you think about it, beauty is – next to its evolutionary function – a totally useless characteristic. The only way in which a woman’s beauty can be of value is in the seduction of ‘primitive’ – or at least superficial – men. Well, that’s not completely true; beauty is not totally irrelevant. For example: if a man sees a woman – of if a women sees a man – that is very fat, it might be a good idea to stay away from this person. You don’t want to waste your food – or your fertility – on that one, do you? And being so fat might not be very healthy. And we don’t want an ill partner, do we? But now we are back again at beauty’s evolutionary value

Beauty might be the single most overrated characteristic a person can have – next to cynicism, which is the most easy characteristic to have. Beauty is either present or it is not: you’ve either got it, or you don’t. Just like you can be tall or short, black or white, handicapped or ‘okay’, you can be beautiful or less beautiful (ugly). But even though it is fully determined by nature, we men still go crazy when we see a beautiful woman. A woman’s beauty alone can be sufficient reason for men to chase her. A phrase often heard is: ‘She’s stupid? So what? She’s beautiful, right?’ But the real question is: who in this example is really the stupid one? The one being chased, or the one chasing? If you value someone for her looks, aren’t you just better of taking a picture and hanging it above your bed? Not only will a picture last longer, but the beauty depicted on the picture will last longer too: beauty, after all, has the tendency to stay only until gravity shows it face. Intelligence, wisdom en experience, on the other hand, come with age.

So: what to do? Should we listen to our primal instincts and perceive beauty as it is dictated to us by nature? Or shall we take control of whoever we find beautiful? Are our bodies leading the way; the happy feelings we get when we see someone beautiful? Or do we listen to our minds telling us that an asymmetrical face doesn’t imply Down syndrome? The ever recurring philosophical dichotomy returns: the battle between the body and mind, between determinism and control.

Who do you think is going to win?

Written by Rob Graumans

2 thoughts on “What is the Value of Beauty?

  1. While I agree that a very fat person might not be an ideal mate (some amount of fat would be enough), I would not necessarily “stay away” from one. I can still have meaningful friendship with another person without mating with her.
    Aside from symmetry, proportion is also an aspect of beauty.
    A man who mates with a beautiful though stupid woman is betting on an evolutionary lottery, there is still some chances that the offspring produced might inherit his genes (assuming he has sufficient intellect) and “beautiful genes” from the mother. That’s how mating works. Ever heard of “opposites attract”? Organisms tend to be sexually attracted to one who has different strengths. A person who comes from a family with a long history of diabetes has a very high probability of also becoming a diabetic someday. If he mates with a woman who also comes from a family of diabetics then their children will have even higher probability of becoming diabetics. It would be an investment to mate with someone who has no history of the disease, hoping that the offspring would inherit a non-diabetic gene — or at least that a diabetes-prone gene would be recessive and not express.

    • Hi Jerry,

      I think I see what you mean, but correct me if I’m wrong. You say that, even though a quality such as symmetry might not be significantly valuable from an evolutionary perspective, size could be.

      You are quite certainly right. The size of a woman might be a good indicator of her having, or not having, certain deceases. Hence it’s a good idea to take a woman’s size into consideration when choosing to date her – at least from an evolutionary perspective.

      But don’t you think that such an evolutionary consideration is a peculiar consideration? The way I see it, and I think you at least partially agree with me, is that such considerations are relevant only to your offspring – not necessarily to you. If you mate with a pretty, not fat lady, you have a higher probability of healthy offspring. Healthy offspring; not a more fulfilling life. And like you say: this is at least partially a lottery. Mating with a fatter lady might give you healthy offspring, while mating with a top model could give you not so healthy offspring.

      Besides such considerations you might simply feel good having a beautiful wife, and sexual conduct with her might actually be more pleasant than with a less pretty lady. However, over time both of these properties tend to fade away, leaving you only with that which cannot be shown from the outside.

      What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *