Ep 57: Judging Beauty- Arbitrary, Unsustainable or Outright Dangerous?
This week’s podcast is all about evolving beauty standards. Cultural and psychological factors have shaped our past perceptions of beauty. Dr. Teo Wan Lin tackles interesting perspectives as surreal as beauty being associated with evil, physical torture in the form of tiny bound feet in Ancient Chinese culture, as well as modern day “mean girls” who bully individuals who are perceived to be better looking than others.
Is this all part of our evolutionary psychology? Dr Teo posits that beauty, when judged based on physical appearances alone is merely a game of genetic lottery. Or, in some individuals, fuels an endless pursuit of physical modifications. Such pervasive societal perceptions can inadvertently enable these negative bullying behaviours and also fuel a mental health epidemic of depression and body image issues.
On the other hand, can society in fact positively impact individual mental health by collectively setting positive perceptions of beauty regardless of physical appearances? Tune in to this week’s podcast and tell us what you think!
Evolving Perceptions of Beauty
Dr. TWL: Hi guys, welcome to my podcast, Dermatologists Talks: Science of Beauty. We have a very interesting topic on the subject of beauty today and it’s about the surprising downsides of being beautiful – by that we’re really referring to societal expectations of beauty and society beauty standards. We’ll go into the realm of human psychology in response to beauty, as well as historical perspectives and biases.
Chelsea: That’s so interesting, because if you ask anyone now, most people would like to be more beautiful. Or at least look conventionally beautiful. Take a look at the multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry as evidence. I mean just by observation, it looks like pretty people really do have an advantage over the rest of us. People want to be around you, and this can give you a confidence boost that becomes part of your personality. So it’s interesting to consider that there are actually downsides to beauty. I’m definitely excited to hear more about this topic!
Historical Perceptions of Beauty
Dr. TWL: Starting with the historical perceptions of beauty. The ancient Greeks actually had the saying that beautiful women are evil. It is interesting to note that the Greek notion of female beauty as a symbol of evil actually does still permeate today’s perception. The evil seductress characterized in Hollywood movies has an almost otherworldly type of physical beauty.
Portrayal of beauty in pop culture
In fact, there is a famous line in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, where the detective played by Bob Hoskins actually admitted that he thought that Jessica Rabbit was an evil gold digger, simply because she was incredibly beautiful and sexy. In a very witty way, she replies, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way”. This is quite a hilarious interpretation of our own biases. In ancient Greece, there were actually certain rules of beauty. For women, it was to have a full figure and red hair. Those were the symbols of beauty. Even then, women with these characteristics had to deal with the general perception that their beauty was synonymous with being evil.
Chelsea: Yes, now that you mention it, there definitely is a trope in pop culture. Which actually probably stems from history like you said, that evil = sexy/ beauty=bad. This definitely can bleed through into society’s perception too.
Global Perspectives of Beauty
Dr. TWL: It’s helpful to explore perspectives of beauty from the other side of the world. The ancient Chinese actually associated feminine beauty with feet. This is rather shocking in terms of our modern perceptions of beauty. In fact, my great-grandmother, whom I’ve never met, was always referred to as very beautiful by my family members who remembered her. Simply, because of her dainty, tiny, bound feet. In ancient China, a woman’s virtues were part of her beauty. Therefore, being beautiful was also synonymous with embodying Confucian values. For a woman – her duty as a wife, a daughter, a mother.
Beauty standards around the world
Going back to having bound feet, I remember hearing about these stories from my mother as a child. However, in my mind, I just struggled to imagine how painful that was, and appreciate what I imagined to be a certain level of disfigurement with your feet so abnormally tight and bound so that it wouldn’t be able to grow. I was honestly quite disturbed by that. But as I grew older, I’ve learned more about cultural beauty, and found it a lot less disturbing. As it was no longer how something looked like and how it was juxtaposed against my own values and my perception, or rather what society defined my perception of beauty was. Rather, it was more of an appreciation of what it meant to individuals that were living in the time.
What society defines as ‘ugly’
We look at our modern day culture and what the entertainment world portrays as beautiful. interpretation of beautiful. One thing to note is that heroines in movies are often chosen and displayed as having a certain sort of beauty. That itself is in the plot, and is part of the story itself. Unless the topic of ‘ugliness’ – and I say ugliness really in terms of what society defines in terms of aesthetic characteristics and traits -it is really because it is part of the show and the point that they are trying to communicate of the individual that is portrayed as being ‘ugly’.
Chelsea: I definitely also remember my grandmother telling me about foot binding that was extremely common in her mother’s time. This perception of small feet being equated to beautiful has definitely also stuck with her. She usually buys shoes that are one or two sizes too small for her, just to make her feet seem smaller- no matter how much discomfort she was in! You mentioned before that this also relates to psychology- tell us more about that!
Psychological Perceptions of Beauty
Dr. TWL: The psychological perception of good looks is actually worth studying. Social psychologists at the University of North Carolina have done a thorough literature search of the psychological impact that beauty has on individuals. They were interested to find out if individuals who were genetically blessed with good facial features and proportionate figures actually do better in life. Or, if it is perhaps better to be plain and ordinary looking. The results actually showed that beauty itself does have an effect on others. It carries a certain sort of otherworldly admiration from others. This is merely on a superficial level.
First impressions and assumptions
They concluded that this is really because when we perceive that an individual has a good attribute, a positive point – and looks are really the first point we see when we meet someone new – our subconscious minds immediately associate it with an assumption that they are also equally virtuous in other aspects. I feel that this is the reason why individuals fall for narcissistic personalities in romantic relationships. Because, narcissists (clinical narcissism) have a charisma that shows outward display of virtues that are really just an act. This phenomenon is interpreted by psychologists as ‘what is beautiful is good’. There is a certain truth in terms of how people react to beauty. However, there are situations where superficial beauty does backfire.
Prejudices against beauty
Psychological research have found that sexist prejudices can actually work against physically attractive women. This is actually something that can make them less likely to be hired for high level jobs. The other thing, of course, is a very natural human phenomenon of jealousy. All of us would have no difficulty in understanding this finding that what psychologists found is actually true. Which is that attractive individuals of either genders can be sabotaged by their own physical attractiveness.
For example, in terms of a job interview, if the interviewer feels competitive or jealous because of the interviewees physical attractiveness, this may result in a failure of gaining employment. Another finding from 1975, found that people tend to move further away from an attractive woman on the pathway. Which is kind of strange and quite humorous in today’s world of social distancing and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can beauty be a downside?
This is also something that is constantly shaped by the cultural and societal values that evolve over the centuries. In any case, the findings of this study was that this sense of attractiveness can command a certain sense of distance and being unapproachable. In a modern-day context of employment or school setting, is an example of how being beautiful or physically attractive can be a downside.
Chelsea: It does seem that there is a paradoxical phenomenon that shows being beautiful may actually be more lonely. Though people are drawn to pretty people, they tend to also keep a certain distance.
Beauty in entertainment and media
Dr. TWL: Certainly, this has also spilled over to dating apps. It was reported on the dating website OkCupid that individuals with flawless, beautiful profile pictures were less likely to find dates because the prospective dates were more intimidated by that. The idea here that the psychologists are communicating is that being beautiful is definitely not a guarantee, or even a means of achieving happiness. Although that element of it is helpful, in certain industries like entertainment and media.
Chelsea: Yes, I guess in the modelling or acting industry, it is still important. What does psychology have to say about beauty and its link to happiness?
Dr. TWL: The important take home point of the psychologists is that our own concepts and perceptions of beauty itself, these are actually all superficial and are linked to our cultural ideals. They are not intuitive or even deeply rooted in our own biology which is something that should be independent of our sexuality. That itself is incredibly insightful. This is very relevant to me as a dermatologist. Because, we have developed an entire industry of aesthetic medicine based on this concept of beauty which is constantly evolving. It’s not reliable in terms of a physical objective measurement, and doesn’t really have very much to do with health.
Plastic and reconstructive surgery
I feel that it is very relevant for us to touch on the work of plastic surgeons. For example, the nature of plastic surgery itself is founded on reconstructive surgery. That means there is a focus on restoring the body morphology to its original aesthetic and function. But in today’s world of aesthetic medicine, non plastic surgeons are jumping onto the bandwagon to talk about how you can make your nose better, your eyes look more attractive, or your lips fuller. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with that if that’s how you feel. But, fundamentally, I don’t think anyone is really qualified to say that to another person.
Chelsea: You’re right, there is no universal definition of beauty. We as a society send this message, especially to girls and women, that being attractive is a huge important thing, maybe even the most important thing. But clearly, this isn’t because beauty is a wonderful experience that everyone should have. Rather, it’s because we as a society have decided that beauty is important.
Findings from psychology
Dr. TWL: Moving on, I want to touch upon another other interesting finding from psychology. I read this from an article on psychology today, which is the idea of mean girls, which we often see depicted in movies and TV shows, is actually much more than just a stereotype. In terms of what was reported in this article, men are considered physically more aggressive than women, and women are what we consider more feminine. Sometimes, feminine characteristics are associated with behaviour that is indirectly aggressive. Passive aggressiveness is a phenomenon that can appear in the context of relationships.
Chelsea: I mean, I’ve definitely been passive aggressive to people before, and have definitely been on the receiving end of it as well!
Dr. TWL: So we’ve heard this saying of ‘he who tattles to you is likely tattling about you’. So, gossip is really the method that’s being weaponized against the targets very often in these cases. It’s also been shown that the feminine gender are, in psychology research, more likely than men to ostracize other people. This is something that is observed as a distinct difference between the sexes from as early as age six.
Chelsea: That’s a good point, the bullying we see among girls is very different from the physical kind of aggression we see in guys. And I have noticed that more attractive women always tend to have more gossip surrounding them. I guess it’s not just beauty too that brings out the beast in others. But, it also ties back to people who we perceive are better than us – prettier, smarter etc.
Dr. TWL: I think that it is something which has to do with our primitive instincts. Perhaps even our evolutionary traits that help to protect our mating pool so in a sense. From a biological perspective, we can rationalize how women are made aware of physical attractiveness in another woman, which can cause them to feel like they are competition for a potential mate.
Gossip is certainly not uncommon. In fact, is one of the clearest manifestations of women, in this case of femme-identifying individuals, as a tool to sabotage another individual. Gender itself may not be an issue at all, but these are the findings from psychology research.
Rooted in evolutionary psychology?
If we were to reflect on our own school experiences, you might recall wondering why certain girls are spreading nasty rumours about other girls who were the ‘belle’ of the school. I would say, yes when this kind of passive aggressiveness doesn’t work, some girls might even turn physically intimidating. For example, there was a study done by a social psychologist that confirms women were more likely to spread malicious gossip about other women who were either attractive or were dressing provocatively.
We can clearly associate that with the potential worry that these women are distracting the attention of their potential mates. It’s not surprising and is interesting for us to reflect on the underlying psyche of the bullies. In this sense, the bullies view themselves as having indirect romantic competition with their targets. Or, some sort of aggression related to relationships.
Chelsea: Recently, I saw this play out in a video that was really quite saddening. In the video, four girls from Russia were forcing another girl to drink from a mud puddle because she was “too pretty.”
Bullying for being ‘better looking’
Dr. TWL: There have been a lot of experts on bullying or who have summarized the relationship between being attractive and being bullied. I read from psychologist Gail Gross’ work, who says that it is important to note that not only are the weak targeted, but often a girl that is considered to be too pretty, too smart, too nice. Therefore, making the other girls feel inferior. In fact, bullies may describe a target as ‘too full of herself’. Because of this competition and striving for popularity and positions of power, peer groups may form alliances to cast out and isolate the offending girl.
Chelsea: This is pretty contrary to I guess what is more common on the big screen. In the movies, it’s always the ugly duckling that faces bullies. But that is not necessarily the case in reality. There have been cases such as one 15 year old girl Phoebe Prince, who took her own life after a relentless campaign of bullying and taunting by other teens at her high school. The bullying started after she began a relationship with the boyfriend of one of her main tormentors. This is I guess very much in line with what you have been sharing about psychological research- on seeing other more attractive women as competition for finding a mate.
Changing Society’s Perceptions of Beauty
Dr. TWL: Well, we can see that the goal of these bullies is always to exclude competitions from one social group. They try to damage their reputation, separating and ostracizing them. It’s actually very sad that as our society is sort of indirectly facilitating or enabling this behaviour. We all know it happens, yet, we are promoting this idea of physical beauty. Which of course is a game of genetic lottery and has nothing to do with your personal values, your beauty as an individual, your capabilities.
Chelsea: You’re absolutely right. It is quite sad to see all these instances of bullying over something that you really have no control of. That is, whether people think you are beautiful or not.
Beauty – a possible disadvantage?
Dr. TWL: I do think it would be interesting and important to start thinking of beauty as a possible disadvantage. This would then raise the question of how we can positively impact perceptions of beauty that on a deeper level, we stop this kind of negative behaviour of what we call cat fights and mean girls.
While all these are seemingly humorous, fictional stereotypes, we know that there are actually real life scenarios that happen. At the end of the day, these behaviors amount to bullying and are very detrimental to one’s mental health. It starts from the schooling age, and beyond that, our exposure to media and societal perceptions of beauty deeply ingrains this in us.
So the longer we linger on the topic on the emphasis of physical beauty, the harder it is for us to manage these negative behaviors. Imagine if we were to start teaching children and enforcing that this ideal of beauty if more about how kind or generous you are, and to see beauty in spite of physical traits, that all these may help us walk towards a healthier perception of beauty, and for our own mental health.
Chelsea: That is so important! Like you said, moving towards this healthier stance and perception of beauty is a crucial message that we want to pass on to the little girls who are growing up, for their own sake, and also for the sake of society.
Well we have learned today that our individual perceptions can make a collective impact on societal viewpoints and trends, and unhealthy perceptions of beauty should be discouraged.
With this, we conclude today’s podcast thank you for joining us, follow Dr. Teo on instagram at @drteowanlin for the latest updates, and remember to check out our website at www.scienceofbeauty.net for the full transcript.
Dr. Teo has published a position paper 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]
Conscious Beauty, a coffee table book by Dr.TWL Dermaceuticals stars model-actress Sara Malakul, international burlesque performer Sukki Singapora and dermatologist Dr. Teo Wan Lin. Deminine beauty as a modern tale told by the girls themselves, through the lens of fashion model-turned photographer Sabrina Sikora. Available on amazon kindle and the Dr TWL Dermaceuticals webstore. It comes with a complimentary lip plumper – 100% of proceeds goes to our nominated charities.