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Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 253-256 ( 25 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/etcoff.html
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
by Nancy Etcoff
London: Abacus Books, 2000
Reviewed by Bojan Todosijević, Department of Political Science, Central European University, Nador u. 9, 1051 Budapest, Hungary.
While there are some who claim that they do not react or pay attention to physical appearance, whether to their own or to that of others, there are not many who would claim that they actually do not perceive any individual differences in physical attractiveness, or “beauty”. Despite the age-long tradition of aesthetic relativism, from Latin De gustibus non disputandum est, to contemporary postmodernism and critical feminism, Nancy Etcoff argues that "the assumption that beauty is an arbitrary cultural convention may simply be not true" (p. 24). In support of the claim she quotes, for example, a study showing that regardless of cultural, racial or other background, people would generally agree in rank ordering of other people according to their “beauty”.
The core argument of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty is that "beauty is a universal part of human experience, and that it provokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure survival of our genes" (p. 25). In other words, and in fact less cautiously than the quotation suggests, the author tries to demonstrate that sensitivity to (physical) “beauty” is part of the human genetic make-up (hence cross-cultural universality), since basic features that construct human 'beauty' have tended to reflect the adaptive fitness of the bearers of these features. She even goes one step further and suggests that many things people do to themselves in order to enhance their look can also be interpreted from the evolutionary perspective.
In order to answer the question "What we find beautiful and why" (p.7), Nancy Etcoff overviews a large body of relevant recent research in social psychology, cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. The book does not present any particularly original argument or innovative synthesis of the existing research. She rather integrates numerous findings, theories and hypotheses from several disciplines, aiming basically to demonstrate certain universalities in perception of human physical beauty and the pervasiveness of human concern with appearance, and to provide evolutionary explanatory account for these tendencies. References to scholarly literature are intertwined with her observations on fashion industry and popular culture.1.
Among the many quoted studies, one may find, for example, reports on findings about infant perception which show that even small babies are able to discriminate between attractive and ordinary faces - they tend to stare longer at the former (pp. 33-36). Social-psychological research shows that physical attractiveness is a significant asset in various social interactions. The attractive are, for example, more often offered help, and help is less often expected from them. However, despite many privileges, the “beautiful” seem to be happier basically in their romantic life, but they do not express more satisfaction in other spheres of life. Etcoff argues that it may be due to their higher level of aspiration (pp. 89-92). Research in evolutionary psychology demonstrates evolutionary relevance of a number of physical features that are perceived as beautiful. For example, low waist-to-hip ratio is perceived as attractive in human females since it has been a reliable clue to fertility and general health (pp. 202-7). Sexual dimorphism in physical features that are perceived as attractive is explained with reference to different evolutionary pressures which made women more sensitive to clues of ability to secure and share resources, while men are supposed to be more sensitive to clues indicating reproductive value and fertility. As a result, women like men with features that indicate dominance (height, prominent chin), while attractive women posses features that indicate their reproductive value (facial neoteny, low WH ratio). The book covers also a number of other more or less related themes, from ancient attempts to discover canons of beauty, to an entire chapter on fashion (in order to "point out the many things the human beauty is not, but is confused with" p. 219).
The book is generally well written, in a concise but clear style. The presented scientific evidence is interspersed with numerous examples and illustrations, including for example, anthropology, history, and fashion magazines. On the pages of "Survival of the Prettiest" one can meet really diverse characters, from Plato and Aristotle, Leo Tolstoy and British monarchs, to Cindy Crawford and Elvis Presley. Combination of such elements with the serious scholarship makes the book very easy and entertaining to read. There is no doubt that it will attract wide readership and that it will contribute to popularization of evolutionary psychology.
Despite the many qualities the book possesses, there is room for some critical remarks. From the outset it is clear that the book is not only about scientific evidence but almost equally about ideology, i.e., about ideological interpretation of the preoccupation with physical appearance or 'beauty' in contemporary popular culture. Dr. Etcoff's position is clear - on the very first page of the text she places herself in opposition to critical feminist perspective personified by Naomi Wolf (Wolf is quoted as saying "beauty as an objective universal entity does not exist" (p. 3)), and in opposition to "many intellectuals [who] would have us believe that beauty is inconsequential" (p. 4). The problem is that Etcoff presents her position as being opposed to the “prevailing” or dominant view, while in fact her “essentialist” understanding of beauty has dominated the Western world, from ancient Greece, to 19th century eugenics and contemporary fashion industry, as some of examples from her own book show. The fact that in the USA "more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services" (p.6) suggests that neither essentialist interpretation of “beauty”, nor “beauty industry” are really in an endangered position. Etcoff clearly stands on the side that has had the upper hand, and presenting herself as challenging the dominant view is simply not fair.
Those interested in promoting greater gender equality would perhaps find Dr. Etcoff's treatment of the cult of beauty in the popular culture objectionable. She writes, for example, that "women cultivate beauty and use the beauty industry to optimize the power beauty brings" (p. 4), or that "Women are heavily rewarded for their looks in a way that they are not always rewarded for their other assets, and it is only natural that they put some of their resources into its cultivation" (p. 256). However, the evidence she herself presents suggests that "the penalty for ugliness might be even greater than the reward for beauty" (p 53), i.e., that women (and men) are punished for not obeying the rules prescribed by the mainstream “culture”. The argument that the “beauty industry” only provides what people want, as suggested by her parallel with McDonald's saying that they do not create preferences for "sweet or fatty foods" (p. 4) but just exploit what is evolutionary given, is not too persuasive. Evolutionary rationale does not make this food less junk-food, as well as it does not mean that beauty industry does not contribute to the perpetuation of various gender-based inequalities.
The treatment of the issue of the preferences for the skin color and related themes might leave some readers suspecting traces of ethnocentrism. She seems particularly enthusiastic about proving that "gentlemen prefer blondes" and as light skin as possible. One wonders, however, what happened to solariums, and how would pop-singer Michael Jackson, perhaps the most famous case of skin-whitening, fit into her scheme.
The aforementioned objections reflect a broader tendency to exaggerate and overgeneralize the available scientific evidence. This tendency is noticeable throughout the book, and leaves somewhat unpleasant impression. Etcoff, for example, writes that "beauty is an advantage in all areas of life" (p. 53) - a clear example of overgeneralization especially since it comes just after a paragraph showing an example of disadvantage that beauty brings - there is a tendency to punish the beautiful more severely for swindling. Universality and extensiveness of the concern with appearance is also often exaggerated ("there is no such thing as a minor imperfection when it comes to the face or body", p. 6). The problem with such statements is that they tend to be either wrong, if taken literally, or trivial.2.
The tendentiousness in argumentation is also evidenced by stylistic features, such as enthusiasm in arguing certain points or the amount of space devoted to certain issues. I found particularly difficult her too frequent use of the first person plural (e.g., "we pose…" "we attempt..", "we want…" (pp. 14-5). Perhaps there would be some readers who would feel a Monty Pythonish need to say "I don't".
To a certain extent, simplifications are unavoidable in a book designed for a popular audience. The text would be less attractive if every other statement would be accompanied by a qualification that it is a "a slight but detectable tendency at the Alpha level of .05". But, the problem is occasionally more serious than the necessary simplification required for popular science edition. Numerous claims are not supported by strictly scientific evidence, but by quotes from magazines, statements of famous individuals, or dubious references to the common sense.3. Desmond Morris is quoted perhaps more for the sake of the effect of his striking arguments than for the scientific quality of his research. Ramachandran earned a considerable space in the book (five entries in the Index) by an article two pages long.
The most important problem is actually the selective use of references. Dr Etcoff almost exclusively quotes studies that support the main argument. In this way, not only that the book creates somewhat inaccurate picture that scientific evidence consistently supports the main hypothesis and that there are no inconsistent findings and numerous alternative hypotheses and theories, but readers are actually prevented from obtaining a more interesting picture of the lively and exciting scholarly debates and controversies. Thus, there are studies that, for example, not only did not find the connection between facial attractiveness and physical health (in both sexes), but physical attractiveness interfered with the accurate assessment of someone’s general health (Kalick et al., 1998). More attractive individuals were inaccurately perceived as being healthier.
A related objection can be made to the casual manner in which the evolutionary hypotheses are occasionally used. All too often the main criterion seems to be the apparent plausibility, not necessarily specific theories and solid empirical research. For example, the fact that some fashion models smoke and drink is taken to mean that they advertise their genetic fitness (pp. 105, 115-6).
In general, the book downplays the evident heterogeneity, whether intra-cultural, inter-cultural, or concerning the availability of alternative theories and hypotheses and inconsistent findings, or concerning the very concept of “beauty”. Ashmore et al. (1996), for example, demonstrate the multidimensionality of the perceived physical attractiveness. An attractive person can be "cute", "sexy", or "trendy", but not necessarily each. This rises interesting new questions, such as what physical features correspond to each of these dimensions?, with which of the dimensions should physical health correlate?, or which of the dimensions predicts benefits in different social encounters.
As I said, Dr. Etcoff is a good writer, and it is not that easy to defend the charge of overgeneralization and exaggeration, since the text contains a number of sentences and paragraphs with qualifications and cautionary notes. An example: "Beauty is an advantage is all areas of life. But it is important to realize the magnitude of the advantage. In most studies, attractive people have an edge but it is small to moderate rather than large." (p. 53). Possible ideological charges are forestalled by ending the book with a biographical sketch about George Eliot in a sort of a small eulogy to the spiritual beauty.
The author of "Survival of the Prettiest" has succeeded in writing a highly interesting and engaging book that in a stimulating way presents the contemporary research on human physical beauty. However, somewhat higher degree of scientific rigor would probably be tolerated by popular audience, and it would make it more useful for the academic public. The book clearly shows that "beauty is a basic pleasure" (p. 8) and an essential and inseparable element of the human existence. In a world that it is not too abundant with basic pleasures, Nancy Etcoff deserves many compliments for bringing this to our attention.
1. For example, in the Index there are five entries under David Buss, and six entries under Cindy Crawford.
2. Another example: "every woman somehow finds herself, without her consent, entered into a beauty contest with every other woman." (pp. 70-1).
3. For example, claim about the importance of hair is supported by answers of women to a Glamour magazine survey.
Ashmore, R. D., Solomon, M. R. and Longo, L. C. (1996). Thinking About Fashion Models' Looks: A Multidimensional Approach to the Structure of Perceived Physical Attractiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22 , 1083-1104.
Kalick, M. S., Zebrowitz, L. A., Langlois, J. H. and Rosen, A. J. (1998). Does Human Facial Attractiveness Honestly Advertise Health? Longitudinal Data on an Evolutionary Question. Psychological Science, 9, 8-13.
Speed, A. and Gangestad, S. W. (1997). Romantic Popularity and Mate Preferences: A Peer-Nomination Study. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 928-936.
Stevens, G., Owens, D. and Schaefer, E. C. (1990). Education and Attractiveness in Marriage Choices. Social Psychology Quarterly, 53, 1, 62-70.
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© Bojan Todosijević.
Todosijević, B. (2002). Review of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff. Human Nature Review. 2: 253-256.