Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beauty and Truth

OK, probably more along the lines of 'Bob rambles on about Beauty and Castle's mom', but I couldn't resist.

My wife was watching Castle a few days ago and Castle's mom comes out with a line about women seeking things to cover their imperfections, and when those imperfections are covered the woman thinks she's beautiful, and that's what makes a woman beautiful. Which is, to a small degree, true. It is also, to a much, much larger degree damaging and counterproductive.

First, note that most people equate Beauty and Attractiveness. The two are not co-equal, and never have been. Beauty is a highly subjective thing. Attractiveness, on the other hand, has been studied to a fare-thee-well using reasonably scientific methods. There's even an amusing and informative series of shows on the topic narrated by John Cleese. Then again, if it were narrated by John Cleese, it could be about war crimes and be fairly amusing, but I digress. Point is that Beauty and Attractiveness are not the same, even if people tend to conflate them.

Standards of Beauty are subjective, but in most cases they are based loosely on the physical aspects of Attractiveness. Those aspects include a certain arrangement of features. for which there is a mathematical formula. The imdb for the series, which has more details, is here. Cleese will back me up on this, he's my homie and has my back. Not really, but I couldn't resist. At any rate, the physical aspects of Attractiveness are fairly straightforward. For the face, even features in a particular layout. For the female body, hip to waist ratio and hip in a narrow range and hip to bust ratio in a rather wider range. Everything else, like hair color, eye color, shape of individual features, height, weight and precise hip to bust ratio is more based on what culture tells us is attractive than what our genes tells us will make a successful mate.

So if we posit that Beauty is the bare bones of physical Attractiveness with the socially keyed 'everything else' layered on, that tells us two things. First, in a multi-cultural society each individual is going to have different standards of Beauty, with standards varying wildly in radically different segments of the society. Second, Castle's mom is full of it. There is no way that masking one deficiency is going to make a woman Beautiful, unless they're quite close to it already and the imperfection is fairly insignificant. In other words, some have it, some don't, and some can achieve it with varying levels of work.

However, there is another aspect to this discussion. When Castle's mom (Martha Rogers, played by Susan Sullivan) talks about Beauty, she's not talking about Beauty. She's either talking about Attractiveness, in which case she has a small yet important point, or she's talking about the philosophical concept of Beauty, which is such a massive divergence from the subject at hand, both in this essay and in the conversation she's having on screen that I'm going to set that idea aside for later. Like much, much, later. Maybe when I'm dead, or rich, or both. At any rate, assuming she's talking about Attractiveness, then her point is basically that confidence makes a woman Attractive. In this, she's correct. Healthy adult males like confident women. Note that differing societies have had differing ways for each gender to display confidence, and that there have been (are?) entire societies that were dominated by non-healthy adult males. My point here is that confidence* is probably one of the biggest general non-physical keys to Attractiveness**.

There is still a problem with Martha's statement, and it is what makes it so damaging and wrong. The statement basically posits that to be confident, a woman must find something external to herself which, when she uses / wears / carries it, makes her believe in herself. When she does, she will then be Attractive / Beautiful. Men will want her and women will want to be her. The problem with that approach is that it relies on something external, and confidence is not an external trait. The damaging part of the approach is that it teaches women to look outside themselves for the answer to a question which is, in the end, internal.

That's the real shame of the attitude illustrated in the show. It takes the one aspect of Attractiveness which could be attained by any woman and makes it something external to the woman herself, and then only if she seeks out the external thing which will offset some real or imagined flaw in the portions of Attractiveness which can't be changed short of plastic surgery. The problem, in other words, is not that women are trying to look like 'unhealthy' runway models. The problem is that women are trying to look like someone other than themselves.***

*Confidence, not bossiness. This does, unfortunately, require you to have something to be confident about. However, this can be as simple as knowing exactly what it is that you want. Or even confidence in what you do and don't know. Everyone can find something about themselves to be confident about.

**The other major key being attraction itself. Very little is more attractive than a person confident enough to say openly 'I find you attractive.' when they mean it. Please note, people who are very physically attractive may be inured, as they hear the same words uttered insincerely on a regular basis. Also note that extreme physical unattractiveness may torpedo the entire endeavor, but most people don't get that 'extreme' tag without poor hygeine and general maintenance, which are controllable.

***Men have an entirely different set of problems, which I shant go into here. OK, maybe if soemone asks me to.


  1. I'd like to point out that Castle's mom has been described variously as crazy, a bad mother, unreliable, "eccentric", etc. The attitudes and beliefs espoused by Castle's Mother are not necessarily those of the show, the other characters, or even most of the general public.

  2. I agree, Castle's mom is a flake of the first order. The fact that the writers put that particular gem in her mouth may indicate they have similar opinions to my own regarding the viewpoint she's championing. However, I've seen too many women who really are on a quest for 'the thing' that will make them attractive, whether that thing is an outfit, an accessory, a weight, or a significant other, and too few who look at the search as something to be discouraged in favor of real self-discovery or self-improvement.

  3. Hmm. Would you like a woman's point of view?

    Confidence HAS been proven to improve the attractiveness of both men and women. In order for ME to feel attractive I do certain things that boost MY self esteem, thus boosting my confidence. When that confidence is boosted, I carry myself differently, which in turn elongates that whole bust/waist/hip ratio thingie Cleese talked about.

    What is attractive to me is not what is attractive to you. Someone may LOOK perfect. Their proportions pleasing, their conformation visually stimulating. But if they are hunched over, quiet, unwilling to talk, their attractiveness is diminshed.

    If your spouse was anyone but the strong, confident woman she is you would not have been attracted to her. Her form and face are pleasing, yes, but if she'd been simpering, or foolish, you would have either had fun with her for a little bit and walked away or simply walked away. Don't discount a woman's confidence in her attractiveness.

    So when a woman "hides her flaws" to make herself beautiful, THAT is what we're doing. Whether or not the male of the species can see these "flaws", to us they are real and can be stumbling blocks to that confidence that ultimately lands us our "mates". It's no different from the peacock fanning his feathers in the best way he knows how to attract a peahen. We paint and poke and constrain ourselves until we show off our best plummage, thus gaining confidence in ourselves, which makes us appear strong and sexy.

    In this instance, I'm sorry. I have to side with Castle's mom. This isn't something a man can truly understand. You can spout biology and physiology and hormones. What you can't do is get inside the female mind and understand the psychology of what makes us feel beautiful TO OURSELVES. I can throw my hair in a ponytail, wear ratty jeans, no makeup, and Dusty will want me. I, however, feel crappy dressed that way. A sundress, makeup, and curled hair, and I feel beautiful.

    Trust me. This is about us, not you.

  4. To riff on that last paragraph;

    The mind, both male and female, is created by the interaction of biological components. At that level, everyone is looking for the same thing, but that's a pretty deep level. On a surface level, everyone looks for different sets of cues that indicate those deeper things. Really, those deeper things are abstract enough that there is a certain level of personalization even before the surface cue level is reached.

    However, whether or not the male or female mind is mysterious or not wasn't really my point, nor was recognizing the rituals used by both genders to boost confidence before courtship. Actually, that was where I agreed with Castlemom, and with you. If what a man or woman does to prep for courtship actually improves their confidence, it makes them more attractive.

    My point, and I'll admit that I meandered a bit, was that modern societies' confidence building rituals have gone awry. Women wind up spending so much time focusing on flaws that they wind up destroying strengths in an effort to cover up flaws. Men, who have some biological edges in the area of confidence (testosterone; natures bottled weapons grade ignorance), wind up pushing too far into the area of being cocksure bullies rather than self-confident suitors.

    I suppose part of the problem is that there's no profit in actually finding a solution, whether it be psychological, chemical, or material. There is enormous money to be made in marketing supposed solutions that actually make the problem worse. Hence the massive ad campaigns for inappropriate makeup and dress for women, and liquid confidence for men.

  5. It's not so much that cosmetics or dress are inappropriate - but that there's a certain skill set in applying them to best advantage.

    Cosmetics are simply meant to highlight assets or downplay flaws. Application of cosmetics reflect the personality - what does a person highlight or downplay and what do they perceive as enough in either instance? Heck, cosmetics tell me a lot about a peron's personality on meeting.

    The skill comes in during execution. Some people don't quite get the result they were shooting for when they tried to apply, but they can develop the skill set over time.

    In regards to confidence, supported sometimes by efforts towards appearance, I agree that a woman who is happy with her appearance holds herself with better carriage...increasing level of attractiveness.

    I also think there will always be a lack of confidence amongst people in general, and thus a market for the things that help enhance appearance. It's what can be commercially provided to action a change, whereas inner confidence is pretty much an internal effort established by the individual regardless of what tools they use to build it.