Blame the Amygdala

The neuroscience of crime and violent behavior

The Impossible Phenotype

The modification of women.

Model (left) Modified Image (right)
http://www.upworthy.com/see-why-we-have-an-absolutely-ridiculous-standard-of-beauty-in-just-37-seconds?c=ufb1
I recently came across this 37 second video posted on the website Upworthy by Laura Willard, and it demonstrates how by using computer software the image of female models can be modified to an impossible, yet preferred, ideal. The video is creepy for any number of reasons, but as a biologist my mind went straight to theories of selection, and it is here where these images just do not make sense. In animal behavior it is widely acknowledged that certain traits in both males and females of many species are found to be preferable to the opposite sex, and this encourages mating behavior and subsequent reproduction. Controversy abounds as biologists debate natural selection versus sexual selection, and when we try to apply these ideas to humans, things just become even more squiffy.

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But in humans, in light of sexual preference, there are undoubtedly certain characteristics in those we find attractive that speak to our deep and primal sex drive, and can promote sexual receptivity when we see or when we think about the traits that we like. Humans, of course, have remarkable self-control when these buttons get pushed, and we can choose the right time to allow the full expression of our receptivity (with the exception of sexual deviants).

The important point is that there are traits that ‘do it’ for us—chiseled chins, voices and accents, muscles, curvature, hair/eye/skin color combinations, and dare I say it, scent. On top of these characteristics, of course, we also like the capacity for intelligent conversation, a sense of humor, and a number of other behaviors that might be embarrassing for me if I continue to list them. We can all testify to the influence of these traits, and they are no doubt specific to each and every one of us. From encounters with these angels, we know that these traits are real and they shape our identity and our own behavior.

And this is where it gets weird and sinister. The “modified” women, who look doll-like and somewhat vacuous, are not real. We see them in pictures and in media, but we do not converse and socialize with them every day—because they are symbols, not real people. The traits mentioned in the last paragraph, particularly the physical ones, continue to exist because it is people with those traits that got to reproduce. So, if the traits of the “modified” women never existed, they didn’t arise through sexual (or natural) selection, yet they must still push the buttons of what heterosexual men find attractive. I’m sure the preservation of these “modified” women also has something to do with intra-sex female competition to maintain this standard of (sexual) beauty, but the fact that these symbols push the buttons of heterosexual male arousal can only point to cultural hijacking.

I’m sure there are many ideas as to why these awful images exist, but I would like to approach it from the angle of doll culture. While there are many dolls that are not sexualized, there are clearly a number of stark exceptions, which are epitomized in Barbie. It has long been acknowledged that the dimensions of Barbie are just impossible, and if a woman (or man) met the anatomical ratio of the doll, they would be dangerously unhealthy. We should live in a world where we match our dolls to resemble the diversity of real women, but as we saw in the Upworthy video, we live in a world where women are changed to match the impossible dimensions of the doll. This attitude is the height of misogyny—because clearly women, as they exist in the world today, aren’t good enough.

This therefore begs the question, what is so appealing about these awful forgeries? Not only are they misogynistic, but when you look into the face of the changed image there is no soul. The human face is very expressive and can indicate complex emotional states and personal depth. We respond to the facial expressions of others in very profound ways. They intuitively can tell us so much, and rapidly communicate intention and thoughts without uttering a word. They are a crucial aspect of our humanity—indeed there seems to be an area in the occipital lobe of the brain, the fusiform gyrus, which becomes very active during facial recognition. Dolls don’t even come close to having any of this great stuff. So, physically these doll-like women do not resemble real women AND any sign of a woman’s humanity has been stripped away.

Any answer as to why these modified images continue has to include an implicit or explicit desire to encourage sexual receptivity in the absence of real women, which can only mean that the presence of a real woman inconveniences sexual receptivity—especially during times when a person feels the need to flirt or orgasm. Maybe fantasies only require very specific and certain traits for a brief period of time, so everything else is unnecessary? While the role of fantasy, both personal and shared, can be healthy, it is easy to see how it could also become a clinical as well as a social problem. Indeed, some people have clearly decided that a sexual encounter with a designer doll is worth the thousands of dollars it costs over forming a healthy sexual relationship with a person.

 

*Click here for a link to the video on the Upworthy website.

Jack Pemment is a recent neuroscience graduate from the University of Mississippi. He explores the neurobiology of criminal behavior and personality disorders.

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