Ep 59: On Halloween, Mortality & the Art of Expression
In this weekend’s podcast, Dr. Teo Wan Lin shares her research exploring the concept of psychology affecting human faces and perception of aesthetic beauty – via facial expressions influenced by thought and emotion.
Evolutionary psychology shows that our own mental biases of beauty are also affected by perceptions independent of physical markers of beauty. Aging is a physiological process seemingly encoded in all living creatures, the effects of which are summed up in mortality – a final state that reflects our own transcience. Humankind’s perennial quest for immortality reflects a desire linking our physical states to the realm of art and imagination, the historical evolution of which, Dr. Teo posits, is better documented by philosophers rather than doctors.
Listen till the end to hear about the dark side of beauty. Told in the form of an ancient biblical tale of the most beautiful creature and his fall from heaven, it cautions how a change of heart can transform the countenance of even an angelic being to one destined to represent the face of evil eternally. Have a spooky Halloween weekend!
Exploring aesthetic beauty stereotypes
Dr. TWL: Hi guys I’m Dr. Teo Wan Lin of TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre. Welcome to today’s episode of Dermatologist Talks: Science of Beauty. It’s Halloween weekend! While Halloween is mostly about dressing up and having fun, it is also a timely opportunity for us to explore certain stereotypes of aesthetic beauty as well as the concept of good vs evil. I’ve been wanting to do a podcast on this topic for a while now.
By the way, have you ever wondered if there was any logic behind us associating goodness with beauty, and evil with ugliness? Linking appearances to the concept of good versus evil isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, evolutionary psychology also backs this up.
Evolutionary psychology of aesthetic beauty
I will be sharing the contents of my research paper published earlier this year – titled On Thoughts, Emotions, Facial Expressions and Ageing, which was published in the International Journal of Dermatology¹. In my paper, I spoke about how facial expressions are key to the entire process of aging and impact the individual facial aesthetic. The inherent value of recognizing this is that in our society’s pursuit of physical aesthetic beauty, one must understand that it also closely intertwines with our emotional wellbeing. For example, it affects how other people perceive us.
Additionally, our idea of beauty standards can also negatively affect our emotional wellbeing. This is because certain ideals are simply impractical. As I’ve shared before, ultimately, the experience of aesthetic beauty actually boils down to individual perception. According to psychological research, mental biases about beauty are also formed on the basis of whether we think the individual embodies virtues such as kindness and goodness. Evolutionary science is able to explain all of this. Ultimately, we tend to feel that it will benefit us when we seek a relationship with individuals with these virtues.
Chelsea: That is very interesting and I am so excited to learn more about this! I have heard that cosmetic dermatology interventions such as Botox actually help to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is because research finds that when you paralyze the facial muscles that are in use when frowning, for example, your mood also improves.
Therefore, I concluded that if I’m in a good mood mostly, I may never need Botox. Am I right?
Dr. TWL: Well based on my findings in the research paper¹, there is definitely some truth in that. However, what is important here is that we should use these findings as evidence to steer societal expectations of beauty. Further encouraging the concept of positive ageing centred around emotional and mental wellness first, then appearances second.
I feel there is a need to address this. Data has shown that young teenagers are particularly susceptible to social media portrayals of idealised aesthetic beauty. Besides increasing the risk of body dysmorphia – which is a mental health condition where the self-perception of the individual is distorted – it also can bring long-term psychological harm when these ideas persist through adulthood.
The observed impact of Instagram, for example, has been implicated in recent research that shows that users – particularly young, teenage females – were very vulnerable to messages conveyed via Instagram in terms of body image, as well as unrealistic physical aesthetic beauty expectations.
Chelsea: You’re right! In fact, internal research findings from Facebook, which owns Instagram, actually reveal that they were aware that Instagram makes these body image issues far worse. The incidence is as high as one in three teenage girls who use Instagram. Interestingly, teenagers also blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This was an unprompted reaction and consistent amongst all groups. For the teens who report having suicidal ideation, their suicidal desires were traced to Instagram use.
Aesthetic beauty & medicine
Dr. TWL: The purpose of this episode is actually to rationalise a different approach to beauty standards. This is based on a concept known as neuroaesthetics, which is essentially the premise of my research paper¹. Interestingly, the origin of “aesthetics” as a term is actually a branch of philosophy that discusses the nature of beauty and the philosophy of art.
However, what has permeated our society today is a consumerist approach to aesthetics. To illustrate, this has also been introduced in the field of medicine. International medical boards categorically define the practice of aesthetic medicine as what it is not: a medical specialty on its own. We realize the extent of this misconception of aesthetics that has permeated the whole world. Aesthetic medicine is actually a realm that encompasses true subspecialties within dermatology and reconstructive plastic surgery. These are legitimate specialisations of human health of the skin and reconstructive surgery respectively.
Aesthetics and imagination
Chelsea: Interestingly, the etymology of the word aesthetic is actually derived from the Greek word aesthetikos. This refers to the sense of perception. Perception itself has been linked to the imagination – the experience of art. It’s a very broad term that links not just the arts but also to nature. Modern aesthetics was coined by Baumgarten in Aesthetica in the year 1715. It’s important for us to appreciate that various philosophers have examined this topic of aesthetic judgment. This also includes our assessments of aesthetic value from a fundamental perspective.
Aesthetic judgments link to our senses. What we term as beautiful versus less beautiful links to how our senses are able to discriminate between the two. Two different philosophers have had different perspectives on this same topic. David Hume, for example, referred to the differences in our aesthetic judgments as not just the pleasurable aspects of a composition, but also how sensitive we are to pick up on the less pleasurable aesthetic value of the same composition.
Philosophy of beauty
Dr. TWL: So in that sense, one has to link the emotional and mental realm to the aesthetic value of an object that gives rise to our sensory pleasures. So the best assessment of aesthetics is actually one that incorporates your senses – your emotional, mental, and intellectual realms. I feel that we can describe aesthetics much more accurately as a philosophy of beauty, a philosophical thought, and the ability to critically analyze a subject.
The issue of individual taste is also relevant here. Taste itself is influenced by one’s cultural, social values, and also what is transmitted via our education. Philosophers have evaluated how society elites define taste. That it is influenced by one’s socio-cultural influences. Emmanuel Kant, for example, says that aesthetic beauty is inherently a subjective topic and has particular universal properties. This means that there will always be certain objects that we perceive to be as beautiful to everyone. Isn’t that fascinating?
Chelsea: That really resonates with me, because I’ve always thought that it is inner beauty that counts. Looks like it isn’t so much of a cliche now that it is actually supported by experts in philosophy and psychology!
Aesthetic Beauty & Youth
Dr. TWL: If I may add, I feel that there is a deeper revelation in this discussion of how our perception of age relates to the aesthetic beauty experience. The conventional assumption is that an old person is not necessarily as much associated with the concept of beauty as a younger individual is. From a philosophical point of view, this perception is a commentary on the concept of mortality. The fact that our face changes as we grow older is a natural evolutionary process. In the same way, a child progresses from a child, through to puberty, into adolescence and then to adulthood.
There is a certain lesson in nature about the physical changes that involve in our mortal lives. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have always embraced this idea of immortality. Seemingly, as the quest of mankind from time immemorial. I think it is important to reflect on what it means for us humans to embrace our own mortality as a practical approach to our lives. This may actually be the key to our psychological well-being.
Aesthetic Beauty & Aging
Chelsea: That’s really interesting! It is so ingrained in our culture as well as social psychology that youth equates to beauty! While I think there is a trend towards the embracing of the individual outside of these parameters like age, I wonder if it’s going to be enough to overcome this perception that has dogged our mentality for what seems like forever…
Dr. TWL: I’m actually starting to feel that the phrase age is just a number is getting to be quite a cliche. This is because, fundamentally, all of us ought to realize that age isn’t just a number, it’s so much more. We know that there are physiological processes that occur, which are in this case, precisely impacted by the mental and emotional well-being of the individual that is going on during the aging process. This ultimately shapes the individual’s facial appearance on top of naturally occurring processes as well as individual genetics.
Chelsea: As one ages, the emotional and mental wellbeing of the individual is paramount. So it is paradoxical that we are setting these rather unrealistic expectations of physical appearances based on this ideal of immortality. When in fact, the ageing process itself of the entire body is one that constantly communicates our own mortality!
Beauty & goodness
Dr. TWL: This is a relevant point. How do we solve this problem of beauty standards which are unrealistic and causing significant psychosocial harm? From a scientific and evidence-based perspective, I think that it is possible for us to really dissect the various components of our individual perception that leads to the experience of aesthetic beauty. Hopefully, this can convince the individual to start thinking about this idea of physical beauty differently. Then, collectively, societal standards can change.
Chelsea: I definitely think it’s very important to broach this topic. It’s not just having the expectation of having to look good that is negatively impacting the emotional well-being of individuals. Actually, I realized that in your paper¹, you highlight that emotional wellbeing can actually provide the key to beauty – especially so when one ages.
Dr. TWL: You are absolutely right. My aim was essentially to deconstruct the irrationality behind society’s standards of beauty -which are always evolving and dependent on cultural factors. I felt that I needed to do it in an objective manner with my expertise as a dermatologist, researcher, and also as a woman myself!
Kindness & beauty
I think what I set out to do in this research paper¹ was to derive findings from psychological research. These findings clearly show that the way we assess an individual to be attractive is actually an emotional response rather than an objective, physical process alone.
For example, we find that individuals who we deem attractive are actually likely to convey emotions of kindness and altruism. It has to do with our perception of the emotion that our faces convey, the same with authenticity. The fact that there are many stereotypes in pop culture linking beauty and evil further elucidates this. The evil seductress, for example, which we talk about in our previous episode. It is quite clear that in terms of psychological research on human beings, that we actually gravitate towards individuals who appear to be altruistic.
Chelsea: Because it’s Halloween, I can’t help but imagine how my own perceptions of beauty and ugliness, good and evil are actually shaped by religious ideas of angels and demons! It’s really interesting that you bring up this idea that the experience of kindness from another person can cause us to perceive them in a positive way that can even beautify their physical appearance. Is that what you are referring to?
Angels & Mortals
Dr. TWL: I think it is indeed an apt and interesting reference because it’s a common cultural experience that many people can understand. These semi-religious concepts of good and evil, as well as the physical entities represented by these forces. In terms of religious connotations, we can relate the force of goodness with light and beauty. Our physical depiction of angels often symbolise these themes. I think it’s apt that we talk about the biblical tale of the archangel Lucifer who was described as being the most beautiful and perfect creature in heaven. The Bible also tells that this led to his downfall because of his arrogance. He tried to overthrow God himself and was eventually cast from heaven to hell, becoming the infamous fallen angel – Satan.
I think there is a deep philosophical lesson in this. Because of his arrogance, even the most beautiful angel transformed into an ugly devil because of a change of heart. This is essentially communicating the idea that good and evil actually correlate with physical appearances.
Chelsea: Wow I never thought of it that way! I feel that at the end of the day, our campaigning for a change in beauty standards may be futile without us convincing people why there should be change in the first place. It’s just so ingrained in our mindsets in media and in culture and the dollars involved in the beauty industry. So perhaps the correct approach is to rationalise it as you have done from a philosophical and scientific approach.
I personally feel that I am in a much better position now to perceive myself differently. Especially on days when I feel I’m not looking my best, I also feel that this is going to help with so many people who have insecurities about their physical appearance.
If you’ve enjoyed our podcast, please follow us on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Remember to follow us on Instagram @drteowanlin for the latest podcast updates. Finally, happy Halloween and we will see you next week.
Dr. Teo has published a position paper¹ on how our physical appearances and the process of ageing can be affected by emotional aspects, which presents as an opportunity for intervention from a mental health perspective.
- Teo WL. On thoughts, emotions, facial expressions, and aging. Int J Dermatol. 2021 May;60(5):e200-e202. doi: 10.1111/ijd.15443. Epub 2021 Feb 9. PMID: 33559158. [PubMed]