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Explaining the "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder" Myth

post #1 of 32
Thread Starter 
Many people claim that physical attractiveness is subjective. Even many people who consider finding an attractive mate very important and agree on the attractiveness of apparel combinations make the claim. This despite the strong cross-cultural agreement on physical attractiveness found in many studies.

Therefore, it isn't simply a matter of ignorance or even denial. Nor should one conclude that, in the case of men, there is total faith in the kind of statement that, like many other women, Nicole Kidman has made, that she could fall in love with a physically unattractive man.

No, it does happen that unattractive people find mates and that average-looking people sometimes find very attractive mates. But people make many mistaken assumptions about such pairings, such as assuming attractiveness was the same at the start, that the attraction is mutual, or that the relationship is solid. They also make the correct assumption that personality factors can skew perceived attractiveness, though they might not realize the limits of the skew (personality more readily lowers attractiveness).

The one thing very few people realize is the grain of truth in the old saying that "love is blind." It can be, where chemistry (MHC) is involved. However, chemistry is impermanent. Within a few years, flaws in appearance (and personality) will be noticed more and, often, the better-looking partner will realize she can do better and end the relationship. (The relative instability of couples in which one partner is much more attractive than the other has been noted by researchers.) Furthermore, chemistry won't be given a chance if two people never meet because of an unflattering picture on a dating site or sorting into very different social (or socioeconomic) circumstances on the basis of looks, and a would-be good relationship with unspectacular chemistry is less likely to be given a chance to develop if a person's appearance doesn't hold the door wide open.

It would be nice if this admittedly off-topic argument has swayed a few people away from the irritating idea that persists in this and other places, that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Hopefully everyone agrees that only personality should matter in love (and that, in a whole other issue, only ability to do the job should matter), but acceptance of the distateful way things really are is a necessary step toward any chance of changing the reality.
post #2 of 32
Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If it was not, how would you describe different tastes in art, cars, furniture, architecture, clothing etc. I am not sure why you want to perpetuate your idea of absolute beauty, but if you do, better arguments are necessary.
post #3 of 32
Quote:
Originally Posted by iammatt
Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If it was not, how would you describe different tastes in art, cars, furniture, architecture, clothing etc. I am not sure why you want to perpetuate your idea of absolute beauty, but if you do, better arguments are necessary.
iammatt for the first time i agree with you wholeheartedly. im not sure what the original poster is trying to do by implying love and attraction is empirically deduced? sort of dehumanizes it, just leave it alone, i guess you dont know, sir, but there are many other emotional, spiritual, and deeper reasons why love and attraction come about for many.
post #4 of 32
Iammatt, you're absolutely right. The little dissertation above is based on a few studies in the social-psychological literature that tend to suggest that certain facial features are more appealing than others. In particular, faces that are "neonatal" (or somewhat reminiscent of a baby's face) are perceived, across cultures, as appealing--and the term "neotany" has crept into the research literature. There's a little more to it than this, but not much, and the rest isn't worth detailing.

However, these findings are pretty limited in their scope, and certainly a great deal of personal beauty is precisely in the eye of the beholder. Some women prefer men with high cheekbones; others with strong chins, etc., and how often do we hear it said that although her friend thinks her boyfriend is really handsome, she doesn't think so at all.

And when we leave the realm of personal appearance to those of clothes, art, music, architecture, cars, etc., the "beauty in the eye of the beholder" phenomenon certainly accounts for almost everything. For some of us, very elongated, sharp pointed-toe Italian shoes are the epitome of beauty, whereas for others, such shoes are seen as extremely ugly, and only prototypical British shoes like Edward Greens look beautiful. To some, Paul Smith suits epitomize beauty, but to others they look like hell, and Kiton suits represent the epitome of beauty. The concept of beauty being in the eye of the beholder is a correct one--borne out countless times daily--and certainly not a "myth."
post #5 of 32
Unless I misread your statement, your assertion of absolute beauty is close to Ayn Rand's objectivism - and her epistemology is wholly untenable to anyone who understands how the mind works.

While I believe that we live in an objective universe, none of us can ever know the nature of that reality other than through the subjective processes by which our mind organizes its experiences.

We do not learn about the world in the mechanistic fashion of a video camera recording sensory impressions. Rather, we interact with our world, organizing our experiences into categories and concepts by which we make comparisons and contrasts. It is the mind, alone, that creates these categories; they do not exist beyond the boundaries of our mind. What we think of as the world is simply that: thoughts about the world. In the words of Arthur Eddington: "mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience; all else is remote inference."
post #6 of 32
Bob, I'm not sure that objectivism is necessary to dispute a relative view of beauty (as being in the eye of the beholder). There can be instances in which everyone's (or close to everyone's) subjective reality is similar. An example would be the subjective experience of feces. There's little doubt that in this case that the olfactory "beauty" (actually the complete absence of it) is hardly in the eye of the beholder, even though its perception is a subjective one.
post #7 of 32
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger
Iammatt, you're absolutely right. The little dissertation above is based on a few studies in the social-psychological literature that tend to suggest that certain facial features are more appealing than others. In particular, faces that are "neonatal" (or somewhat reminiscent of a baby's face) are perceived, across cultures, as appealing--and the term "neotany" has crept into the research literature. There's a little more to it than this, but not much, and the rest isn't worth detailing.

However, these findings are pretty limited in their scope, and certainly a great deal of personal beauty is precisely in the eye of the beholder. Some women prefer men with high cheekbones; others with strong chins, etc., and how often do we hear it said that although her friend thinks her boyfriend is really handsome, she doesn't think so at all.

And when we leave the realm of personal appearance to those of clothes, art, music, architecture, cars, etc., the "beauty in the eye of the beholder" phenomenon certainly accounts for almost everything. For some of us, very elongated, sharp pointed-toe Italian shoes are the epitome of beauty, whereas for others, such shoes are seen as extremely ugly, and only prototypical British shoes like Edward Greens look beautiful. To some, Paul Smith suits epitomize beauty, but to others they look like hell, and Kiton suits represent the epitome of beauty. The concept of beauty being in the eye of the beholder is a correct one--borne out countless times daily--and certainly not a "myth."

Most likely, there are some objective criteria for judging the beauty of furniture, architecture, and especially cars, but not having seen data and this not being a forum about those subjects, their attractiveness won't be explored here. Besides, there clearly are functional values to such objects that can override aesthetic judgments, which unfortunately is much less common in how human beings relate to each other.

Many tastes in clothing reflect how clothes would look on the judger's person and how that, in turn, would affect rather objective measures of attractiveness, such as shape and relative size. (An easy example is the man with big feet who dislikes those Italian shoes because they make his feet look disproportionately large.) Also, within certain more traditional genres of style (like this forum), there is a high degree of agreement on aspects such as color and fit (which, to some extent, reflects shape, relative size, and - edit - the important factor of symmetry).

The face is the area on which most research has focused, and it's very likely that the most cross-cultural agreement is on elements of the face (shape, nose size, eyebrow shape, teeth color, lip size, skin texture, etc.). There is moderate documented agreement on body shape, height, etc. Arguably most important are the deal-breakers, things that most people find repulsive or unacceptable, and of course total ratings (the Golden Ratio is probably the best single measure). Neoteny, by the way, aids female attractiveness much more than it aids male attractiveness.

There will always be moderate differences in actual individual taste due to culture, upbringing, genetic similarity, hormone levels, personality (i.e., sought-after personality traits, which physical features can communicate), and probably some other factors. One could say that the range of what's subconsciously sexually worth considering to most is quite similar, but that rankings within the middle and lower portions of the acceptable range vary significantly. Also, because of social acceptance, ego needs, etc., what one would accept in practice (stated tastes, sort of) can be much narrower than what that person's instincts would accept.

Individuals often will become satisfied (or tell themselves they are satisfied) with the features of the person they love. From positive personality associations, tastes can broaden, and often the loved one's flaws aren't noticed the way they would be by a more objective observer. While appearance discrimination is a big problem for society, there is hope for most people who put a modest amount of effort into how they look.

Questions are welcome.
post #8 of 32
Thread Starter 
Also, while reasons for it probably are obvious only in cases of rejection and direct competition, sometimes people will underrate the attractiveness of others. And clearly people will tell "polite" lies of flattery. If something strongly conflicts with your own judgment, be suspicious.
post #9 of 32
Elizabeth Taylor has often been called the 'world's most beautiful woman.' You could have fooled, me.

post #10 of 32
I think physical beauty is actually quite objective. If you were to parade 100 people of varying attractiveness in front of a group of people required to rate their attractiveness in to general categories that you'd probably see some trends. When people use that expression, they are confusing physical beauty with their feelings for the person in question. I've had feelings for a girl that I objectively knew was just average but was nevertheless attracted to for other reasons. That was a long time ago and these days i'm more selective because i fear the day when i end-up in a long-term relationship with someone that starts off as average because i know they'll only get worse =(
post #11 of 32
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ivan Kipling
Elizabeth Taylor has often been called the 'world's most beautiful woman.' You could have fooled, me.



She's the one on the left, right?
post #12 of 32


Even when she was young, I never thought she was any more than pretty, if that. Poor thing has the world's worst hairdresser, and lousy taste. But her heart's in the right place. And her pefumes have been steady sellers . . . regardless of how they may smell. Or, stink.
post #13 of 32
I don't consider myself overly attractive or anything but I know that I've ended a few relationships because I knew I could do better. They lasted for a short while but eventually things about that person started to annoy me and I finally gave up on the relationship.
post #14 of 32
You Kant always get what you want.
post #15 of 32
Quote:
Originally Posted by DucatiCole
I don't consider myself overly attractive or anything but I know that I've ended a few relationships because I knew I could do better. They lasted for a short while but eventually things about that person started to annoy me and I finally gave up on the relationship.

'could do better', is this from a purely physical point of view?
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