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Beauty: Culture-Specific or Universally Defined?

The universality of some beauty markers.

This post is in response to
"Fat is Beautiful"

Social constructivists, who are strong proponents of the blank slate premise of the human mind, have repeatedly argued that there are no universal metrics of beauty (as was the case in Dr. Albers' latest post). The strategy for arguing their case is to identify beauty metrics that are radically different across cultural settings, and hence conclude that universal components of beauty do not exist. I am afraid that this is a grossly incomplete and incorrect perspective.

Lip_PlatesIt is undeniable that indeed there are an endless number of cultural definitions of beauty. However, these are largely inconsequential, when compared to evolutionarily relevant metrics. Let me provide you with two drastic culture-specific examples of beauty: (1) the wearing of large lip plates (Surma and Mursi women of Ethiopia); (2) neck elongation (Kareni and Padaung women of Myanmar). Ah ha! Social constructivists construe these examples as perfect manifestations of the social construction of beauty. Furthermore, social constructivists are quick to point to the heterogeneity of mating preferences within a given culture as further proof of their position. For example, some men prefer blondes while others prefer brunettes. Some women prefer men with dark complexions while others prefer light-skinned gentlemen. Fair enough but this does not imply that there are no universal metrics of beauty.

Symmetric faces are construed as more beautiful than asymmetric faces in all cultures (irrespective of the race of the person being evaluated and the race of the evaluator). You can visit Bedouins in the Middle East, the Yanomamo in the Amazon, and Inuits in the Canadian north, and they will all agree as to who is or is not beautiful (based on facial features). Clear skin is a universal preference. Certain morphological features that connote masculinity (square jaw) or femininity (high-cheek bones) are universally preferred. Rotund Rubanesque women, heavier women preferred in Central Africa, and catwalk thin models, while varying greatly in terms of their weight, all tend to have hourglass figures that correspond roughly to a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.70 (although cultural settings can slightly alter that preference). Babies who are insufficiently cognitively developed to be influenced by socialization gaze at symmetric faces for longer periods than they do at asymmetric ones. I can provide numerous other examples that support the universal components of beauty but I suppose that you get the point. It seems that irrespective of the number of times that these points are made, social constructivists simply cannot accept the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence in support of the universality of some beauty metrics.

Generating cross-cultural differences of beauty and then arguing that this implies that there are no universal standards of beauty is as sophisticated a logic, as to argue that since miniature poodles and Great Danes are so radically different (morphologically speaking), they must constitute different species! One needs to look at the relevant metrics prior to arriving at the relevant conclusions.

For additional details about this issue (and relevant references), the readers can refer to my book The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and/or to my forthcoming trade book to be published in 2011 by Prometheus Books.

To summarize: It is indeed true that many metrics of beauty are socially constructed. However, it is unequivocally clear that many others are universally defined, as these constitute cues of phenotypic quality that hold true irrespective of cultural setting or time period.

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