Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Attractiveness and Beauty

Affluenza by Oliver James explores the idea that "there is a correlation between the increasing nature of affluenza and the resulting increase in material inequality: the more unequal a society, the greater the unhappiness of its citizens" (my lazy literal quoting from Wikipedia).

After reading some reviews, the book is not without its critics. But there is one particular point he makes which I find interesting enough that I want to extend on it: the distinction between attractiveness and beauty. His definition is simply a perspective and is by no means objective, but the one he provides is useful to distinguish between superficial attraction (obvious, immediate, instinctive indicators and cues of sexual and physical attractiveness, such as waist-to-hip ratio, long hair, big boobs, a typically slim frame, skimpy clothing, etc) and beauty (a quality and attractiveness that transcends physique and enamates from within, by virtue of one's character, personality and how one carries himself/herself).

There is, for example, little doubt that a bombshell is attractive. Men are instinctively wired to be drawn to such cues of physical attractiveness. Beauty, conversely, has greater subjectivity to it, and is often in the eye of the beholder in the sense that if one is drawn to it, one just is, but at the same time, appreciating Oliver James's notion of beauty requires going one step further than just visually appreciating a person. It involves studying a person in the context of her behaviour and what she says, and then realizing that there's something more to her than simply meets the eye.

What is interesting about Oliver James's distinction is that very often, when it comes to attractiveness, there is often some societal or cultural standard that is in place, and everyone who wants to be attractive will be compelled to emulate it (and he argues that in affluenza-stricken cultures, there is greater incidence of such obsessions to emulate, such as South Koreans all aspiring to look a certain way through cosmetic and plastic means). On the other hand, what is beautiful has nothing to do with aspiring to look or behave in any particular way that is defined or demanded by society. A beautiful girl shines because of who she is, for who she is.

So, in that sense, seeking to be attractive deindividualizes, while being beautiful brings out one's individual beauty and never comes about through conformity to a societal standard. There can be many people who look the same, attractively, while there can never be two or more people who are beautiful in the same way.

I don't want to make this an issue of sex differences, but for simplicity's sake, a relevant example for men could also be in terms of their jobs. What appears to be an "attractive" occupation in Singapore, quite clearly, is to be a banker. This is perhaps the sort of job that a man would often hide behind in order to conceal his lack of individuality or personal choice in carving out a career path that he can call his own. I'm not trying to criticize the industry or its employees, but from personal anecdotal experience, I don't really know of many bankers who actually love their job. It's just something that is worth pursuing because it has high social prestige and pays well. In that sense, it is an attractive job, and it is a job that certainly deindividualizes. It is a big industry where nobody is really his own man. Conversely, having an interesting, "beautiful" occupation would be one where an individual has carved out and determined his own career path and whose job he will shape, rather than have the job shape him. I'm leaving this one at that, because this isn't my main point, but rather simply to explore what other forms this attractiveness/beauty divide can take.

My main insight is that it is quite clear, in which case, a person may feel more or less secure. A person who has a societal standard to live up to will certainly feel less secure than another person who has only his or her own personal standards to live up to. A woman who is compelled to look attractive according to a certain way will be afflicted with the insecurity either that one day, she will no longer look as attractive as what her culture deems "young and hot", or that her value pitted against thousands of other women vying to look just like that attractive exemplar defined by society will only be miniscule. Ugly competition is likely to be rife in this scenario. Contrast this to the woman of beauty whose attractive power comes from the beat of her heart, the thrill of her soul and the strength of her character, and this lady is her own woman - she cannot be bogged down by needless comparison.

It is silly to believe that any of us can be free of this affliction to conform and disregard the pressure that society and others put on us. Even I'm not spared, as I'm pelted quite regularly with social pressure by countless people who are curious, cynical or disdainful about the PhD route I'm taking. But I believe in my path. With every small step we take to actively switch from believing beauty lies in some exemplary ideal and striving to be like that (just like everyone else), to believing that beauty lies in being comfortable with who you are and bringing out the best in yourself for what you believe in, I think we can start to observe a positive shift in our collective self-esteem.


Lynn said...

Not being a bombshell myself, I like your sentiments here, but also question how one can attract a person to "look for the inner beauty" when so often the plain-looking folks get overlooked for evaluation even. Does that make sense? I mean, even though we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, we often aren't tempted to look inside unless the cover catches our eye in some way.

Jose said...

Quite right, Lynn. I do believe that unfortunately there's still a threshold only above which people can attract enough attention to be evaluated, as you have well put it. That threshold separates harsh reality from the ideal, I feel. I guess my post does little to disclaim about the reality that plain-looking people have to put up with, so in effect what I've written is addressed more as a question to why people who are capable of attracting attention in their own way (people above the threshold) are following societal standards that undermine their individuality.

What can people below the threshold do? I think that will just have to be a post for another day.