Advertisers are to blame for what’s considered beautiful, right? As tempting as it is to trace every cultural phenomenon to the fine art of separating people from their money, beauty isn’t just a byproduct of the attention economy. For all of our fretting about insta and tick tock, these are just more portable versions of gathering at the town square. The town square might host a wedding, an auction, a fair, or an execution…
About 60 years ago Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clarke did a series of lab tests that showed internalized sense of self amongst children based on appearance alone; the test results showed that these Black and white kids had already learned that light-hued humans are “good” and “pretty” while melanin-hued humans are “ugly” and “bad.”
This was pre insta, pre HD photography, pre psychologically-harmful amounts of airbrishing.... Technology is not to blame for how we teach our kids to see what’s valuable.
So our sense of what’s pretty is all nurture, end of story, close the book. Right? Not so fast.
There’s a lot of science involved, but let’s get something crucial out of the way: it’s not the Golden Ratio or “Fibonacci” sequence as Julian DeSilva, a sales-focused cosmetic surgeon would have us believe. Amber Heard’s 91% Fibonacci-compliant facial ratio only takes geometry into account... ignoring lighting, makeup, styling, coaching to pose for professional photographers, post-production retouching, and whatever other secret sauce us mortals aren’t even aware of.
The women on DeSilva’s Fibonacci list are beautiful--No one’s puting anyone down and no one’s faulting the Kate Mosses and Emratas of the world for existing in a financial structure that’s capitalized on female bodies for ages. But DeSilva has pulled an anti-Romney… or should we call it pulling a Zuckerface? He’s literally created a beauty Facebook, or a binder full of women who pass his test. He’s playing god as the creator, jury as the measurer, and fate as he invites women to become one of the Chosen Few… for a massive price tag, I might add.
(Thanks to these math literate folks for course-correcting! DeSilva’s claims are genius for business but quite questionable. With a yarn that good I suppose he’s laughing all the way to the bank.)
But not only are the beauty-as-math claims a little too convenient to be true, they also miss how beauty is a byproduct of power because it’s about what we value.
We don’t value a specific nose and how it neighbors with an upper lip. We value the feeling of a lover’s kiss, the feeling of praise in the public eye, the feeling of satisfaction when we look in the mirror. No nose in the universe can give us those feelings.
So we respond to visuals, but we’re motivated by feelings. Isn’t that the end of the conversation?
Almost. Maybe it touches on why the Black children in Drs. Clark and Clark’s study saw dark dolls as “ugly” and light dolls as “pretty.” But it doesn’t take into account why these small Black boys and girls saw themselves as “bad.”
Pack animals that we are, we absorb our tribe’s ideas about aesthetics. Our tribe might be our family, fandom, workplace, social media accounts, school, gym, or anything else that we identify with, by name or by behavior. And every pack has hierarchy. But not some cliché alpha/beta dichotomy. Hierarchy isn’t structure, it’s power dynamics.
Beauty isn’t about what’s pretty or pleasing. Beauty is admission to Mount Olympus. And those who don’t make the cut? Hades.