June 11, 2013

The Beauty Bias: Digging up Some of Its Deepest Roots

Most disco hustlers, the Hooters franchise, DarwinDating.com and BeautifulPeople.com (dating and employment recruitment portals, respectively, for beautiful people only), banks, airlines, upscale retailers, fitness centers, TV news networks, frat boys, sorority sisters and some HR managers are in-your-face frank or at least very obvious in revealing their pronounced beauty biases.

Others are, in spontaneously candid moments, in anonymous surveys or when pressed or tipsy, upfront about whom they put upfront at the head of the pack they track or at the company-client/customer interface of faces.

Of course, other things being equal, it’s the beautiful people who tend to get hired, dated, celebrated, paparazzied, married and promoted best, if not first, and, of course, remembered longest and longingly.

Much documented, lamented and rationalized, the beauty bias nonetheless has lingering mysterious aspects, including it’s amazing cross-cultural universality, its astonishing preoccupation with physical differences measurable in mere millimeters, milliliters or grams (e.g., units of facial liposuction or collagen injections), and, no less prominently, its seeming arbitrariness and irrelevance (to be argued in what follows).

For example, had the fabled Helen of Troy had a nose that veered to the left or protruded another centimeter or two, the mythological Trojan War might have been waged over sending, rather than taking, her back. That would have seemed as arbitrary as the tale’s geopolitical obsession with her beauty must have seemed costly, on thoughtful and painful reflection by the Trojans.

Now, how could such a small difference possibly become such a big deal, if, when viewed rationally, say through the lens of mathematics, that centimeter’s difference is only a photo-finish win or loss by a nose?

Of course, although winning by a nose has to count at the Kentucky Derby, that tiny length or comparable physical-feature measures really shouldn’t have triggered an epic Trojan-horse contest worthy of Homer’s immortalization of the myth in “The Iliad”. (Or you think it was the irresistible allure of her (adulterous) character that set off that mess?)

This is not to say that barely measurable differences don’t have huge consequences, e.g., a single lost nail from the shoe of King Richard III’s horse (as immortalized by Shakespeare) or a win at a derby by a nose.

Still, discriminating on the basis of the length of someone’s nose, rather than on the length covered in a race does seem, on the face of it, arbitrary and irrelevant to anything that really counts or should count.

Beauty irrelevant? Our preoccupation with, if not our standards of beauty arbitrary? How could that be? Before exploring and explaining the evolutionary and cultural roots of the human obsession with the beauty of other humans and themselves, offering a more “existential” overview of the beauty bias may helpfully serve to orient and prepare the mind, starting with irrelevance.

Japanese “Face Eaters”

The always linguistically inventive Japanese have a slang expression for people obsessed with the good looks of others: “menkui” (“面食い”)—“face eaters”. This delightfully insightful Japanese pop-culture concept has its more clandestine, staid equivalent in very prejudicial Japanese corporate hiring practices, e.g., as revealed in the leak of a notorious Kinokuniya book store chain 1983 memo warning against hiring ugly women (and numerous other kinds, including those who are short, live alone, are divorced, like passionate artists or were yearbook editors).

But corporate Japan is no match for pop culture when it comes to open mockery—especially self-mockery. Mocking the beauty bias, “face eaters” is insightful for the same reason it is hilarious in making this point: We can’t eat faces, so why the big fuss over them?

In other words, another person’s beauty is theirs, not ours. As a resource, it belongs to them—something any menkui hiring manager shouldn’t forget, despite the persistent characterization of employees as “human resources”.

As a corollary to this existential fact of life, it should be noted that the beauty of others, as a set of physical traits, seems to have evolved, been developed or otherwise enhanced, and exists primarily for the possessor’s benefit, not that of others (except of those who inherit or blend those genes with theirs)—and is therefore more likely to be seen by them as a license, rather than a gift to give, share or be grateful for. So consider yourself warned.

Like it or not, we have to face the facts about their faces (and other body bits and shapes): Those good looks are theirs (and maybe their  kids’), not ours.

We can fuss or hover over, or succumb to them; we can display them as trophies or use them as bait to hook (up with) mates, matings and customers, to garner more trophies—but, ultimately, those good looks belong to them and only them, not to us (unless we steal them for a face or jiggly-bit transplant).

That existential insight is a sociobiological clue as to the real significance and persistence of the beauty bias as a gene-serving tool of those possessing the coveted beauty. To determine that significance, which dates from the dawn of human (and other species’) evolution, we need merely to ask a simple question: “Cui bono?”—who benefits from somebody’s beauty?

In answering this, we have to allow for the possibility that there may be more than the beholden beholder and the beautiful beheld as the only two players in the “game”.

For example, in the hiring of a good-looking candidate the person doing the hiring may be choosing for his or her personal benefit, e.g., hiring as a “colleague-with-benefits”, rather than for the benefit of the firm (although these are not mutually exclusive, as more than one Hooters manager might privately admit over drinks).

Now, the benefits arguments and analyses to answer “who benefits?”:

  • The “sea shell” argument: Some forms of beauty are genuinely valuable to and beneficial for the possessor only, and only because they are seen to be valuable by others (who, in turn value them, but only because others value them).

Like being famous for being famous, being valued for one’s beauty only because others do or will, as conformists, value you for the same beauty is like accepting sea shells as currency in some island economy: valued mostly because others value it, as a rare, therefore, somehow mysteriously desirable thing (unlike loathed rare things, e.g., 21st-century cases of bubonic plague).

True, the admirers can imagine they benefit by acquaintance with the faux-famous or the beautiful; but that holds up only as long as the conformist illusion and standard does.

“Fluffy”, the Glaucous-winged seagull that perched at the cottage I lived in last year, had an apparently attractive mate—probably in part because of the distinctive red circle around his eyes during mating season (that has to be for the gulls either a sign or normal fitness as a mating prerequisite or of superior fitness as a breeding-and-feeding deal-maker, depending on vividness or other features of the orbital ring).


Why does Fluffy have it? Because it’s attractive to female gulls. Why is it attractive to them? Possibly only because (of some random mutation) it has been attractive to others of their species—maybe as an (arbitrary) species marker.

Therefore, since Fluffy’s male progeny will have similar great, but probably undeserved luck, “Gruffy”, his mate (shown here, with Fluffy), chose him, or at least regarded the red circle as a necessary ante in the breeding game and DNA-poker pot.

To get this goofy process started, all that is required is some initial arbitrary attraction of some attractive other to some feature or behavior that results in offspring attractive to other members of the same species similarly arbitrarily attracted by that feature.

If you don’t get this point, note the characters in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love” who become famous merely for having arbitrarily been declared famous by the media.

Otherwise, carefully consider the peacock’s towering and ungainly feather displays that seem to serve no purpose other than to be attractive (or as a displayed handicap overcome by other over-compensating traits).

  • The “billboard” argument: Like a billboard or other form of advertising, beauty is a valuable marker for other independently valuable, often “sexy”, things, e.g., health, youth, intelligence, child-bearing fitness, muscular strength (and the associated protection it provides).

 For example, like normal, well-formed potatoes, well-proportioned, symmetrical humans are likelier to be free of nutritional deficiencies, parasites, lopsidedness due to lopped-off bits, etc.

It is well known that the physical features we call “beautiful “are signs of some seriously important “fitness”- promoting attributes. In this case, it is likely that everybody benefits—possessor and possessed alike. Among these indicators are

1. Symmetry as a marker of health. Various studies have claimed that the “perfect face” is actually a mathematical average of all faces, presumably with a resulting perfect symmetry most of those other faces, including the most common ones, don’t individually have.

2.  “Sexual dimorphism”: Humans are a “dimorphic” species, which means adult human males and females look substantially different from each other, displaying differences in “morphology”–i.e., form and structure–that are cosmetically and behaviorally reinforced by cosmetics, fashion, mannerisms, voice modulation, etc.

Accordingly, many dimorphic differences are generally considered beautiful or attractive, e.g., the relative scarcity of facial hair and huge biceps among women, and size differences between men and women.

Pairing off with a mate that possesses such highly attractive dimorphic traits contributes to genetic fitness by increasing the likelihood that offspring will possess the same traits.

(Note: It has been theorized that the male beard evolved to intimidate other males in competition for mates as much, if not more than, to attract females. So modern “no-beard” organizations may reflect more concern about the primitive intimidation factor than about irresistible attraction.)

3. Absence of surface irregularities, e.g., spots or lesions where there normally are none, as evidence of poor health.

4. Ideal proportionality as marker of health and fertility: For example, a very recent shift away from BMI (body mass index) as a measure of  degree of obesity to a waist-to-height ratio (of 0.50 or less for normal or ideal weight) incidentally validates widespread beauty biases against being overweight, as well as providing a more accurate marker for cardiovascular health, diabetes, cancer, etc.

Reinforcing this is the sociobiological argument advanced by evolutionary biologists that males who are biased against overweight women may be acting on an ancient perception of excess weight as a marker of a pre-existing pregnancy and a risk of becoming a cuckold, if they marry a woman who may be indistinguishable from one carrying some other male’s child.

Offsetting this is the notion of “famine-inity”: In societies and cultures with food shortages (especially chronic), extra weight implies higher social status (as well as higher cardiovascular/diabetic risk), and is accordingly regarded as a mark of great beauty and, in the case of a queen, serious investment in her food supply by her devoted and smitten king.

On the other hand, the much-documented virtually universal preference for women who have a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.70, irrespective of culture, geography, absolute weight and size, may reflect the aforementioned pregnancy screening as well as some equally documented perceptions of child-bearing potential in terms of relative pelvic width and ease of labor.

For men, a ratio of 0.90 has been cited as a marker for resistance to prostate and testicular cancer as well as for better general health and fertility.

Some such inflexible standards of attraction are present from birth: The reported preference infants have in scanning faces—namely, for mathematically average faces or those with ideal dimensional ratios, e.g. of width and length, of 0.618 (“The Golden Section”), is an example of an even more hard-wired beauty bias (that in some instances may or may not be fundamentally arbitrary, e.g., possibly based on some non-functional, harmless genetic predisposition and trait that persists because it is neutral).

The Ecology of Beauty

Every living thing has one of the following ecological relationships with every other living thing. When reading the list, ask yourself in which of these way(s) does human beauty operate in your professional and personal interactions? Then, thinking along the lines developed above, ask yourself why.

1.       Mutualism—both species (individuals) benefit from the relationship (or trait). This is the corporate, dating and family ideal, in which both the beholder and the beautiful beheld gain something from hooking or hitching up (for however long or briefly).

2.       Commensalism—one species (individual) benefits, and the other is unaffected by the relationship (or trait). Although not ideal, this could appease either party’s conscience, if it is intact.

3.       Amensalism—one species (individual) is harmed or obliterated, the other unaffected, by their interaction, e.g., a much bigger tree blocking light needed by a smaller one.

Hiring a beautiful secretary because she was the most beautiful, only to later discover that she had the IRS audit you because your job turned out to be no better than the one she had before, exemplifies this scenario.

4.       Parasitism—one species (individual) benefits, while the other is harmed as a host, e.g., weakened or eventually destroyed by the relationship. Hiring a handsome sales manager who is so successful that he gets your job illustrates this relationship.

5.       Predation—one species (individual) benefits, while the other’s numbers (or other party/parties) are immediately reduced by becoming targeted prey. A predatory candidate who from the outset wants your job and gets it in virtue of his or her good looks (on top of the requisite credentials) can teach you this script.

6.       Competition—the species (individuals) struggle and battle for resources, as a “zero-sum” game.  Even though a gorgeous candidate may not be targeting you and your job, if competition for resources, e.g., budget, assistants, travel or office space, develops, (s)he and you may find yourself going toe-to-toe over battle lines drawn over such scarce resources.

7.       Neutralism—both species are unaffected by the relationship. Hiring a Catherine Zeta-Jones lookalike from the head office for a Walmart warehouse job in another city is likely to play out this way.

8.       Synnecrosis— A rarely used category, since Mother Nature tends to eliminate any interactions like it, “synnecrosis” (“make dead together”) covers interactions in which both species are harmed by the relationship. Mutually destructive family blood feuds and endless corporate vendettas seem to fit the model closely enough.

If an enthralled HR manager hires a beautiful staffer, has an affair that costs both of them their jobs, spouses and kids, it would be fair to describe that as an instance of synnecrosis.

….or of one more category of relationship.


Read more in Discrimination

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).