Pursuit of Beauty

20 Jan

Does our desire for unlined, youthful looking faces mean more than just a quest for beauty? Does it not also represent a deeper desire for the life of leisure or at least a life unmarked by trouble that such faces represent?

In describing photographers’ strategy of portraying social groups through portraits of individuals, Howard Becker writes that “the life a person has lived, its good times and bad, leaves its marks. Someone who has lived a happy life will have a face that shows that. Someone who has managed to maintain their human dignity in the face of trouble will have a face that shows that…”  (The quote is actually found in his book Writing for Social Scientists (pg. 74) and comes from an early draft of an article.)

However, this is not always true.  Those who have means and access to cosmetics try to alter their appearance, and in the Western world, this often means applying lotions and make up or even the extremes of cosmetic surgery to look young and carefree. I have even noticed this tendency in myself.  In the past year, quite likely as a result of some very difficult experiences and the subsequent stress, lack of sleep, and ill-health, I’ve noticed new lines appearing around my eyes that I would very much like to erase, so I dutifully apply lotion around my eyes each day. It is almost as if wiping away the traces of the trials would also remove the deeper, unseen scars or at least it would hide them better. We don’t want to admit that life can be hard, and most of us don’t want reminders of how much life’s challenges effect us every time we look in the mirror.

Presenting a youthful, unwrinkled face to the world lets us portray a person who has their act together and is able to float through life without much resistance. It gives the illusion of an easy life and one of which we are fully in command.  We would very much like to believe this about ourselves, and perhaps if we can convince others, we may be able to convince ourselves as well.

Of course, this is not the only reason for the pursuit of beauty or the desire to look young.  However, I wonder if we as a society valued age, wisdom and experience more (and the wrinkles acquired along the way) if it would help us face the prospect of aging with less trepidation.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 20, 2012 in Self-Reflection, Society


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One response to “Pursuit of Beauty

  1. Murakami

    January 20, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Perhaps it is best to avoid writing about the sexism inherent in the perception of the value of age and its physical manifestation – after all, who is not aware of the gender dichotomy in how the significance in greater age is assessed? But I will persist, nonetheless. I think that your analysis on the value of beauty should deeper – yes, it can be indicative of a life of leisure, but there is more to it than that.
    For a woman, age is something to be avoided because her value goes with her youth in several ways. Youth is equated with physical fitness; it is equated with beauty (which is really only a manifestation of genetic value in the viability of offspring.) Our DNA pushes us in yet inexplicable ways to seek out a healthy and viable genetic match so that the information in DNA may be encoded and passed into the future. In effect, we are biological agents of information. It is the DNA that drives us forward through time, reproduction that drives us in our behavior through our active years. That information is expressed through genetic phenotype in a variety of ways, but symmetry is a key aspect in determining reproductive viability and measures of symmetry are rated highly when determining physical beauty. Faces and bodies rated highly in symmetry are also often rated highly in beauty on normative scales, and the same faces will rate higher in physical attractiveness if the images are digitally manipulated to achieve a more perfect physical symmetry (mirroring.) As the body and face age, there are variables than can negatively impact the symmetry (injury, accident, disease) and thus the physical attractiveness can be rated as lesser because of a determinant related to symmetrical bilateralism.
    A man will often evaluate the suitability of a mate based solely upon her physical characteristics (witness the prevalence and social acceptability of “dating” websites such as and so the woman who was initially chosen because of her high degree of beauty (“love” at first sight) will have much to fear as age and usage take their toll upon the body. She would recognize that her suitability as a mate is based largely upon her physical beauty and that a failure to maintain that will result in her being cast aside at some point for a younger model, but there is a genetic determinant in this behavior that goes beyond a man seeking to demonstrate virility by selecting women that show a greater and greater difference in age between his “wisdom” and her youth.
    In reproductive terms, as a woman ages, her fertility decreases, and so does her ability to provide complete and healthy offspring. Her ovaries secrete the “healthier” eggs first, meaning that a woman is demonstrating her peak genetic viability of potential offspring when she is still in puberty. Rates of autism and other genetic diseases such as Down’s syndrome increase dramatically with the age of the mother as damage and toxins build up in her system. This is simply the normal business of living, but the information encoded in DNA drives us to reach for greater rates of reproductive success even though we are not aware of the electro-chemical machinery that drives our behavior and predilections.
    Men, on the other hand, are evaluated in terms of suitability for mating through their ability to produce and maintain economic value. Photos of men shown to women were rated as higher on a scale of physical attractiveness when their images were paired with short descriptions that gave them jobs that were equated with higher economic value and prestige than with jobs that were lower on those scales, even though the photos presented were exactly the same. It is no accident of culture that women choose older men to be their mates as a man’s economic status and security typically grow with age. A man’s economic status correlates directly with his ability to provide for offspring and to be able to maintain a healthier and more secure lifestyle for said offspring – and this of course leads to a greater chance of success for the DNA to be passed forward on that fourth dimensional plane. His increased age demonstrates a greater viability on scales of reproductive success as measured in terms of real-world economic security. Her increased age demonstrates a lesser viability of offspring due to higher rates of infant and fetal mortality linked to hereditary or genetic information. For her, increased age and decreased physical attractiveness go hand in hand. For him, it is the opposite. Have you ever seen a wrinkle cream ad or product for men?

    In other words, wrinkles for him = good; wrinkles for her = bad. Old woman without wrinkles = beautiful; Old man without wrinkles = creepy (Google Image search: Kenny Rogers)

    Biological sexism.


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