Monday, 30 May 2016

The Body Beautiful - Part 1


As I approach my 200th column for the Straits Times's Mind Your Body supplement, I thought I'd take a trip down Memory Lane and share the first ever one, which was published way back in March 2008.


THE BODY BEAUTIFUL

Beauty takes many forms.  A landscape can be beautiful.  So can a symphony or a poem.  Some people find beauty in ballet or football.  Others discover it in scientific equations or games of chess.
My personal list of heart-achingly beautiful things includes: the night sky; the Australian outback; Kate Bush’s song This Woman’s Work; the mathematical proof that there are an infinite number of prime numbers; and Kate Winslet.

But what is beauty?  What is the mysterious, magical quality that beautiful objects possess?  What common characteristics do beautiful objects share?  This is a fiendishly difficult question.  Philosophers have debated it for thousands of years without finding a definitive answer.
But, nothing daunted, in this and the following two columns I would like to explore one very specific aspect of beauty: namely that of the human form.
The body beautiful
People often say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  By this, they mean that individuals’ perceptions of physical beauty are largely subjective.  But I do not agree.
When very young babies are shown photographs of faces, they prefer to gaze upon those that are conventionally beautiful.  This suggests that there are innate criteria for gauging physical attractiveness.  Furthermore, people from diverse ethnic cultures tend to agree strongly about just how attractive individuals from other populations are.  Again, this suggests that universal criteria are being applied.
Of course, there are some individual and cultural differences.  Take skin-tone, for example.  When I was living in Singapore I was amazed to see face-whitening products on sale in drug-stores.  Here in the UK, people buy fake tan.
Despite these differences, by and large, people share similar ideas about what makes someone beautiful.  The ideal male has a strong, athletic body.  He is tall (but not too tall) with an upright posture.  His features are regular and his skin unblemished.  He has white teeth, bright eyes and lustrous hair.
Evolutionary psychology provides one theory about why we find such features attractive.  Good teeth, bright eyes, lustrous hair and upright stature all denote good health.  A strong, athletic physique implies the ability to hunt and fight well.  So the conventionally beautiful man is the ideal mate.  He is likely to produce healthy offspring and be a good provider.
Any woman who is predisposed to find such men attractive is correspondingly likely to mate with one, and therefore stands a better-than-average chance of passing on her own genetic material to future generations.  Insofar as such predispositions are genetically encoded and inheritable, they will gradually come to predominate among women.
Similar considerations explain men’s preferences for certain physical characteristics in women.
In praise of the body beautiful
To me, this theory of physical attractiveness seems very plausible.  In any case, there is no doubt that we humans take pleasure in faces and bodies of certain types.  In itself, this is no bad thing.  Why should we not take as much delight in shapely figures and handsome faces as we do in other beautiful objects?
And, since beautiful bodies are so attractive, who would not wish to possess one?  Not in the sense of wanting a physically desirable mate (although, clearly, most of us do).  But in the sense of wanting to be handsome or pretty oneself.
All else being equal, I would certainly prefer to be a few inches taller than I am, have whiter teeth and not be plagued by a receding hairline.
But here, a cautionary note is appropriate.  Despite what we may think, good-looks actually do very little to improve our happiness.  It is tempting to think, If only I were better-looking, I would be much happier.  But in fact beautiful people turn out to be scarcely happier than the rest of us.  So perhaps it is wise not to place too much emphasis on how we look.

It is natural for us to want to make progress in key areas of our lives.  So we need not be ashamed of wanting to look healthy, well-groomed and attractive.  But as with so much else in life it is all a matter of balance.  This will be the topic of my next column.

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