Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Breaking Down Beauty: Physiognomy Revisited

 If you really want the magic decoder ring, scroll to page 61.

Just when you thought you’d read enough from me about physiognomy—the discredited pseudoscience of face-reading to determine character—for one month, here I come, wagging my charts with dimensions of bulbous foreheads and “lipless mouths” that “denote housewifery.” It’s just that in thinking more about the notion of “It” girls as a modern-day version of the science of face-reading, I realized I’d sort of fast-forwarded into that idea without looking at the more direct ways physiognomy is very much alive today.

Its rebirth isn’t called physiognomy, of course; it’s called something like "a universal conception of personality structure," which sounds much less nefarious than a discredited science based on phrases like “I have never yet seen a nose with a broad back, whether arched or rectilinear, that did not appertain to an extraordinary man.” Researchers use facial characteristics to explain things like gaydar, the trustworthiness of baby-faced adults, and women’s supposed preference for manly-men, and even conscientiousness. Even more so than with modeling, modern adaptations of physiognomy are often specifically not about beauty; they’re about classifying features in order to (supposedly) understand more about how we function. Physiognomy has its direct progeny in these areas of study. But the more I think about it, physiognomy is also a grandparent to the extraordinary attention paid to beauty by science researchers.

I’ve questioned the scientific drive behind beauty research before, and I don’t want to be redundant. In a nutshell: There’s an enormous body of research trying to pin down what exactly makes someone beautiful (rather, what makes someone conventionally attractive, I’d argue), and how/why people react to good-looking folks the way we do. I suspect it’s the very mystery of beauty that drives academic research behind beauty. There’s so much literature about how beauty leaves us powerless in its wake; why wouldn’t we want to demystify it in order to lessen its supposed power over us? (The next logical question question is gendered—why do we want so specifically to put a fine point on women’s beauty—but that’s a different post.)

Beauty science is the richest heir to physiognomy. What physiognomy attempted to do was pin down the mysteries of character and behavior, using a highly coded and essentially arbitrary system of classification. What scientists and economists are attempting to do with its glut of studies on beauty is pin down the mystery of fascination, using the highly specialized—and often subjective—tools at their disposal. When attempting to decipher what puzzles us, it’s assuring to turn to something unassailable to provide us with order. We can now look at physiognomy and see it’s ridiculous, but plenty today are happy to give credence to evolutionary psychology as it pertains to beauty without giving it a second thought. We can see the blatant racism, or at least the potential for it, in evolutionary psychology; we may not be as able to see how it enshrines subtler beauty norms, in part because there’s so much mystery, doubt, fear, and wonder about human beauty, particularly our own. (Is it possible to read any study on what determines beauty without attempting, however briefly, to figure out where you’d fall by its measure? I once actually measured the circumference of my wrist because it was supposed to tell me something about my desirability as a mate.)

I’m not trying to say that beauty researchers are as full of hocus-pocus as physiognomists. Where the father of 18th-century physiognomy Johann Kaspar Lavater said ,“Meeting eyebrows, held so beautiful by the Arabs...I can neither believe to be beautiful nor characteristic of such a quality,” the new set of beauty science at least attempts to set objective criteria. (At least, some of the time it does; much of the time it’s just as subjective as a 1794 fortune-teller. The aggregate study from Daniel Hamermesh that got a lot of ink last year examined five studies on beauty; four of them relied upon the beauty assessment of exactly one person.) I’m also not saying there’s nothing to the evolutionary science of beauty. I’m not qualified to make that statement, and it makes sense that the science of beauty, including evolutionary psychology, has a valid place in any thorough discussion of beauty. But what I’ve repeatedly found is that when people rush to bring in scientific “proof” of why we find certain features beautiful, it shuts down the conversation instead of enlivens it. It’s a way of saying, Sorry, babe, there’s nothing you can do about it, whether “it” is the incessant ogling of a woman with the desired waist-hip ratio, or someone feeling excluded from the realm of the beautiful because her features don’t match up quite right.

And that’s just a shame. I don’t think that the people behind these studies mean to shut down discourse about beauty; I think the actual researchers want to do the opposite. The most prominent researcher on the science of beauty, Nancy Etcoff, presents her work as a launching point, making it clear that she just wants the science of beauty to have a place in the conversation; her book, Survival of the Prettiest, is as much a cultural study as it is a scientific one. Actually, Etcoff’s introduction to her book makes it clear that she’s only trying to bring science back to beauty. Science had been concerned with looks at one point, she writes, until such studies became discredited as arbitrary, racist, and generally faulty. The science she was writing of, of course, was physiognomy.

Last week I wrote that it’s useful to look at a now-discredited pseudoscience in order to understand the collective cultural forces that go into taste-making, specifically in the modeling industry. But the consideration of physiognomy has a far more direct application to most of us: If we can give the science of beauty the same skepticism we now give to physiognomy, we may be able to see how little of the story evolutionary psychology really gives us when it comes to looks and attraction. Again, I’m not saying that Etcoff and the like are the equivalent of Lavater, making wild proclamations based solely on their own experience. But physiognomy’s, erm, limitations can illuminate those of the beauty sciences. More important, they can show us that there’s something more at stake than simple research. Lavater wrote Physiognomy in 1775—the early years of the Industrial Revolution, which would change the entire world more rapidly, and more radically, than any developments that came before it. The science of beauty began to see a resurgence in the 1960s, another time of blistering change. So let me ask you: What is going on now that might make scientists and economists put hard numbers on beauty? What sort of threat might a pretty face—or, for that matter, a not-pretty one—pose to social order? Why might we want to boil down beauty to a series of tables and charts, measurements and ratios, and why now? If we understand beauty in a rational way, who benefits—and whose power is curtailed?


9 comments:

  1. Hm, I'm drawing a blank on the current threat to the social order although I suspect that intermarriage may ultimately change what we see as an attractive face. The pale skinned powers-that-be are far outnumbered.

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    1. I'm not entirely sure either. I think it's gendered but I don't think it's as simple as that either--that it's just a way of putting women in their place. That's part of it but there's more too, not quite sure what.

      There was a survey done by Allure last year about Americans' ideal vision of beauty, and women with skin tones indicative of a multiracial background were deemed the most beautiful. And composite faces are considered more attractive in studies than actual faces, even without retouching and such--certainly I think that our vision of beauty reflects that.

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  2. I wish I could think of examples that don't Godwin my comment. Unfortunately, when you're half-German (exactly half; Mum was born and raised there), and your grandmother and your aunt had/have traits that were considered Jewish by Nazi standards, it's kind of hard not to go there.

    Modernising the example, I suppose, we already have young women of color undergoing plastic surgery in order to look more Caucasian, and artificially straightening their gorgeous hair. There's a hierarchy among African-American women in particular: the prettiest is the lightest-skinned, the one with "good hair". Since women of color tend to lack privilege compared to, say, scientists on big-name projects that could potentially change our views on beauty, I am a little worried about the implications. Okay, very worried.

    Then there's the problem of subjectivity. There really is no accounting for personal taste! I'm often told I'm an oddball for thinking certain older men are hot, and preferring their looks to those of model/actor-type men my own age. Sue me, I prefer a face with character. I don't believe we ought to attempt to standardise the wonder that is finding someone else attractive. I will adore the men I adore no matter what science tells me, including my tall, aging, generously-bellied Beloved, and he finds me irresistible despite what I charitably call an unconventional beauty.

    Could science take the pressure off people to mold themselves after a certain cultural ideal? Only if science finds that the question is indeed cultural in nature, and changes as fashions do. I feel most free when I see historical images of women who look more like me. I am loving the resurgence of the 1920s on the runways, because I'm built for those fashions. It was my turn then, and maybe my turn is coming back around! Who knows?

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    1. Cassie, I'm not sure if you're familiar with the "work" of evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa; he's pretty much the worst of the worst and last year published a "study" about how black women were less attractive than white and Asian woman. And it was SCIENCE! You can't ARGUE! I hate to even mention him but I am because, sadly, work like his shows that your worry is founded. The good news is that there was a public outcry, and he was disciplined by his university and fired from his writing post at "Psychology Today." So there are people paying attention in the right way to such tripe.

      As Terri points out, a multiethnic look is now considered beautiful--but as your examples here show, that often just gets boiled down to "black women with traditionally European features." Which is how plenty of women look--but which does create a loaded beauty standard for women of color. Have you seen the documentary "Good Hair"? Excellent movie.

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    2. I have not seen "Good Hair", but I would like to, and I applauded its making!

      I'm also relieved that Kanazawa's been shamed for his downright racist "science". I think if the establishment is willing to punish such blatant prejudice, then I could be more comfortable with better research going forward. I'd love to see social scientists explore the cultural reasons for our standards of beauty. There are places in the world where thin is ugly; is that, as it once was, because fat women represent wealth and the ability to survive lean times? Is it aesthetic? I honestly couldn't say--someone else might go to the trouble, though, and I'd read that study.

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    3. Cassie, I too would LOVE to read a "scientific" study of cultures where the beauty standard differs from North America and Europe. There's plenty of sociological and anthropological research, but those "soft" sciences don't put as fine a point on things as many of the studies I'm talking about here. (Though economics, another "soft" science, also seems fascinated with beauty.)

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  4. If you're inclined to accept the basic premises of evolution and its mechanisms then it follows pretty clearly that beauty will have a degree of plasticity within a fairly wide range. Whatever cultural mediation of that occurs will be specific to the degree that particular cultural circumstance allows for deviation from a kind of 'expedient norm.' I think perhaps part of the reason that NA and Europe have sometimes grotesquely overwrought 'standards' is that their is very little environmental pressure to conform to any specific physical type. And absent any punishing evolutionary pressures things like beauty and attractiveness become more and more esoteric and arbitrary and as such (within that wide range) reflect cultural or commercial interests with the intention and ability to influence the paradigm. So if dudes are setting the agenda then you'll see whatever their somewhat monolithic conception of beauty is held up as the standard-- and those interests seeking to curry favour with the dominant group with reinforce those 'standards'. Anyhow, just a thought. Fascinating post-- followed a link from Andrew Sullivan and I'm glad I did.

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    1. >And absent any punishing evolutionary pressures things like beauty and attractiveness become more and more esoteric and arbitrary and as such (within that wide range) reflect cultural or commercial interests with the intention and ability to influence the paradigm. <

      Fascinating--sort of a geographic psychology. I hadn't thought of it in that way before but it's intriguing. Geography influences economies and political systems; why not beauty standards as well? Pleased you found your way over here!

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