Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

We all have biases; but we have the power to shift them.

Posted Oct 09, 2016

Source: Pixabay

I will admit, I had a negative visceral reaction to my colleague Marty Nemko’s blog post “On Being Unattractive”.  On the one hand, he trots out the usual evidence for “attractive” people being favored in some way.  He offers some advice including self-acceptance, but also supports plastic surgery.

The problem is that as a society, we have gone way overboard in valuing a very narrow vision of beauty.  Nemko’s analysis simply deepens the wound, by telling us we must accept the current trend as our only reality.  But we have choice.  We can choose not to be superficial about ourselves and others.  We can choose to accept each other as we are, not force conformity or judge each other on shallow criteria.

Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell noted the incredible increase in plastic surgery over the last few decades in their book The Narcissism Epidemic.  Procedures increased from 2 million in 1997 to 12 million just 10 years later.  Breast surgeries on teenagers increased 55% in just one year, from 2006 to 2007.  Brides are demanding that their bridesmaids have botox.  Twenge and Campbell describe how their research shows a significant rise in narcissistic traits and attitudes in America over the last few decades.  “For narcissistic people, good looks are another way of gaining attention, status and popularity.” (p. 153)  Vanity seems at an all time high, with flaunting of selfies, reality TV and an endless parade of “attractive” people on all media outlets.  Not to mention the superficial swipes on dating apps.  (I’ve been watching Designated Survivor on ABC.  Some people are struck by how unrealistic the premise is – a massive attack on the Capitol Building.  It seems more unrealistic to me to have such impossibly good-looking people populate and run Washington, D.C.  I personally wouldn’t mind more diversity in the looks department on TV!)

No one, in my experience, is without self-consciousness about their looks.  We are all insecure – even, or sometimes especially, those who are deemed attractive.  This is particularly severe for young girls and probably to a lesser extent, boys.  (See my article on American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales.)  But by focusing on looks (and wealth, possessions, etc) instead of character and capability, we veer away from our best possibilities, as individuals and as a society.

  • We have the power to choose how we value and treat ourselves and others.  
  • We don’t have to compliment and draw attention to girls’ and boys’ looks and ignore other qualities.  
  • We can question how we appreciate others as romantic partners and friends, and notice if we’re overvaluing looks, or other relatively superficial qualities.
  • We can recognize how culture and media bias us towards certain body types.  This has changed and narrowed dramatically over the years and centuries.  There is an important backlash happening.  We can all do our part to support a fuller view of our humanity and beauty.

Attraction is certainly a doorway to love.  But I think our greatest challenge is learning how to love more deeply.  That means going beyond first impressions and reactions.  It means becoming aware of how our biases and behaviors harm ourselves and others.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

We must become better beholders.

(See the resources for self-compassion and self-acceptance on my website.)

(c) 2016, Ravi Chandra, M.D. F.A.P.A.

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