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 Notes after a presentation by Viren Swami in late 2007

The psychological discourse on human beauty has been occupied by research from Evolutionary psychologists, which has in the last ten or fifteen years been mainly concerned with the ‘waist-to-hip ratio’, or WHR. Viren Swami pointed out that this research, which purported to show that men preferred higher WHRs in women, had a poor methodology that used crude outline figures which hid mens preference for healthy Body Mass Index, or BMI. His own and collegiate research shows that BMI is as important, or more important than WHR. Evolutionary Psychology assumes we have not evolved since prehistoric times in the way male desire translates into visual cues and this is universal. VS points out his own research which show the influence of ethnic, contemporary media exposure and particularly economic factors. He finds for instance that desire for higher BMI is related to hunger!

Question: Was the focus on WHR based on prior research which systemmatically prioritised the visual cues of desire? Where things such as: face (itself composed of many elements which could be analysed), hair, leg shape, breasts, hands, feet, skin, genitalia, buttock shape, height, etc found to be insignificant in relation to WHR? The tests described, choices made between female outlines, seem designed to produce reductive results.

To me all these things are important aspects of glamour (as in allure) and the WHR or BMI are only singular factors even if they are the ‘most’ influential. Even if each aspect could be given relative value the dynamism of the relations between each aspect would put considerable strain on any reductive ‘proofs’. Add to that the complex cultural variables and the reductive methodologies measuring single variables seems to have limited use. This does not mean that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ only that the dynamic complexity of such multiple factors makes it appear to be a personal evaluation.

Would it not be possible to use computers to model dynamic responses to complex variables? On the other hand what about using the the choices of real people… much more expensive and difficult to sort out what factor had what effect.

Another point is that in selecting an actual sexual partner we will choose within realistic limits given by our own attractiveness quotient. We are not going to choose people who will reject us. So most people learn early to choose partners within the range specified by their own appearance. Desires outside of these strict limits are left to the realm of fantasy celebrity worship or pornography,

Just to complicate any research, as VS pointed out, factors like wealth, age and health can trump any physical characterics.

VS indicated how our appearance grades our life chances from job applications to being treated in a traffic accident where shocking and repulsive to our ‘ethical’ intelligence. Good looking victims of road accidents tended to get better attention. More awful was the indications that pressures for low BMI were becoming global, even in populations whose bodies genetic inheritance made this attainment naturally rare and harder to achieve through work (Samoa). And this was leading to a global explosion of eating disorders and body related dis ease.

A question: at what point and to what extent does the objects of our sexual desire become constructed? My own casual observations suggest that glamour quotients are constructed prior to the efflorescence of pubescent sexual desire. And that they follow pressures to be normative but may be directed away from norms by a number of factors. As this construction meets visceral pubescent desire, a crisis can emerge. One that is often not understood or appreciated by adults.

One thing that might happen is that early self expectations of beauty may not match post pubescent body development. 

Whether the sexual drive has an inbuilt goal that includes visual and gender related cues is unknown. There are of course a huge cultural/political vested itnerests in this being inate/ genetic and ‘natural’. As body beauty seems to create a hierarchy of human value that is based in the genetic lottery of nature. The implied conclusion is that superiority/inferiority of oppression is either the same (crude level) or has a basis or justification in nature.

C. Wright Mills quoted by John Barker from Variant 30  p24

 “In part they [celebrities] have stolen the show for that is their business; in part they have been given the show by the upper classes who have withdrawn and have other business to accomplish.” 

The spotlight and the self-confidently nosey tone of investigation is hardly ever turned on the power elite, not unless they have chosen the spotlight, which is normally left to those in search of celebrity status. This is because, as Mills understood, a subservient media is part of the elite itself , and because intelligent elitists’, as Jo Freeman put it, will not seek visibility. Rather they will maintain a certain privacy through the command of legal and architectural resources.”

My conclusion at the end of the Eighties was that the classifying effect of glamour had become a vehicle for the mechanisms of oppression/ class, that is with regard to the ideology of superiority /inferiority. So systemic media will tend to amplify that which stresses any disunification of the population or perhaps that which undermines peoples sense of self esteem (the point of class oppression being to instill feelings of unworthyness).

Notes on my response to a talk by Viren Swami on the publication of his new books:

Swami, V. (2007). The Missing Arms of Vénus de Milo: Reflections on the Science of Physical Attractiveness. Brighton: The Book Guild Publishing.

Swami, V., & Furnham, A. (2007). The Psychology of Physical Attraction. London: Routledge.


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