Beauty: Is it really only skin deep? | #dropdeadgorgeous | Life Links | DW | 27.02.2015
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Beauty: Is it really only skin deep?

It’s irrational, subjective and makes life worth living - the world revolves around beauty, be it our perception of beautiful people or objects. But what is it, really? We asked some people in the know to find out.

To acknowledge the diversity of beauty we collected some food for thought from a similarly diverse set of people - an economist, a philologist, a psychologist, a mathematician, a neurologist and a philosopher.

What shapes our idea of beauty?

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
Beauty is at the core of our utmost desires. We strive for fulfillment through beauty. Obviously, that beauty can look different in various cultures and eras. But the very longing for beauty is a constant. It unites us.

Daniel Hamermesh, Economist:
Initially our idea of beauty was shaped by its role as an indicator of health and reproductive fitness. That is still true, although it no longer is an indicator - ugly people can reproduce just as well as good-looking ones.

Eric Jarosinski, Philologist:
Probably the same things that shape our idea of everything else. Ideologies, experiences, biology, media, money, etc.


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We strive for beauty in everything we do and see. We might even find it in a small drawing on a car's dusty rear windscreen

What impact does beauty have on our daily lives?

Eric Jarosinski, Philologist:
When it comes to our own beauty, or lack thereof, more impact than it should. When it comes to the beauty of the world around us, less.

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
[Its impact] is bigger than we would assume. I believe that we base a lot of decisions on beauty. It is the very thing that moves us.


Deutschland Älteste Frauenfigur der Welt bekommt festen Platz im Museum

Venus of Hohle Fels, the world’s first #dropdeadgorgeous pin-up girl

How come we’re all human but consider different things beautiful?

Eric Jarosinski, Philologist:
For better or worse, this is the power of culture - both as a response to our human environment and as an active agent in shaping it.

Daniel Hamermesh, Economist:
Not true. People in all developed countries today view beauty similarly. Standards may differ in poorer parts of Africa because slimness is associated with poor health, there. That was true long ago in the US and other rich countries. For the same reason. My grandmother, born 1887, always told me I was too skinny, as she worried about what it meant for my health.

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
Today, our longing is to be slim and athletic. We long for whatever we don’t have. In times or places where there’s not enough food, people would rather eat - that was demonstrated in a curvy body shape. The Venus of Hohle Fels was one of the first carved figures, today we’d refer to her as a pin-up girl. That was the beauty ideal. And she was really big! But that’s because people were hoping not to starve.

Immanuel Kant said that although beauty is a personal judgement it always also has a more general aspiration. If I find something beautiful, I want others to appreciate it, too; I want to convince them of its beauty. So it’s not just a private matter.


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Most likely we all agree that this world has some extraordinarily beautiful corners.

Is there something universal to the concept of beauty?

Larissa Vingilis-Jaremko, Psychologist:
Symmetry is one influence on perceptions of attractiveness. Faces that are more symmetrical have more redundant information than faces that are less symmetrical. We tend to like anything the brain can process quickly and easily, so people find symmetry attractive in faces.

Peter Deuflhard, Mathematician:
A slight misfit with symmetry is better than actual symmetry. Total symmetry was never the aim of beautiful women.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant also discussed the question of a universal beauty. He assumed that each individual’s mind just adds up all pictures they have come across in their lifetime. This is where the brain does some kind of averaging. It compares this accumulation of images with a new person or face. When this new face “agrees” with the one our mind has created, then we consider that to be beautiful. But, Kant was only partly right here. Each of us has a different history of accumulating images, so this is an argument for an individual beauty.

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
We can overcome cultural differences, if we attempt to understand a culture better we also understand their beauty ideals better. The strive for beauty, the desire for it, is what unites us. For beauty, people die or start wars. That is what is universal about it, even if its configuration is different.


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We should all use these three words more often.

How much do we depend on beauty?

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
Beauty is the one reason to live. It’s quite an abstract concept, but beautiful moments of any kind make life livable. What else, if not beauty? I think we’d become very depressed very quickly if we stopped longing for and seeing beauty.

Larissa Vingilis-Jaremko, Psychologist:
The Halo Effect is the idea that many positive qualities are associated with people who are perceived to be attractive. For example, attractive individuals are also judged to be more intelligent, more successful, and more socially skilled. They also receive better treatment including more attention, reward, and cooperative behaviors than those perceived as less attractive. This differential treatment could provide an enriched environment for development for some children compared to others.

Daniel Hamermesh, Economist:
It raises our earnings, helps us advance in jobs, gets us loans on better terms, gets us higher-educated and better-earning spouses.


goldener Spiegel an einer Wand

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

Do you find our apparent obsession with and addiction to the physically attractive alarming?

Peter Deuflhard, Mathematician:
I don’t think it’s alarming at all. Beauty is just one factor of our lives, like intellect or health or wealth, so why should it be alarming? It’s a normal way for humans to make comparative judgements.

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
Physical attractiveness is nothing more than a teaser: it can fascinate us, make us attentive, but it shouldn’t be left at that. Appearance shouldn’t be a factor - especially not for employers.


Karneval in Venedig

Outer beauty can mask the human within.

So are there any disadvantages to being considered beautiful?

Eric Jarosinski, Philologist:
Never fully knowing the beauty born of rejection.

Daniel Hamermesh, Economist:
There are almost none - despite the fact that some people believe good-lookers are discriminated against, there is very little evidence to support that view.

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
With superficial beauty the disadvantage is that you hide behind a mask. A beautiful mask though is always better than an ugly one, but is still, after all, a mask. All other people see that human mask, but not the human behind the mask.


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Can we find someone “only” beautiful?

Can we find someone beautiful without an agenda or do we automatically think of love or sex?

Eric Jarosinski, Philologist:
Nothing is ever done without an agenda.

Peter Deuflhard, Mathematician:
I don’t think these [love and sex] are the dominant factors. Beauty is a feature of its own although it may be easier to have sex with someone who is beautiful.

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
Kant said that beauty mustn’t have an agenda. He would say that beauty is enjoyment without having an interest. I can’t really have an agenda because as soon as I have one, my personal sense for the beautiful is disturbed. And I can find people beautiful, I can find pleasure in beautiful men as a heterosexual, I can find a woman beautiful who doesn’t actually exist, say, if she’s in a painting - without wanting to procreate.


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Besides the superficiality of appearance, we discover other people’s inner beauty when we get to know them.

Can you love someone without finding them beautiful?

Eric Jarosinski, Philologist:
I don't think anyone could. Luckily, those who have loved me have evidently seen it differently. At least temporarily.

Peter Deuflhard, Mathematician:
Of course, that’s possible. Otherwise humankind would die out. Beauty is a rare event. If only beautiful people were able to have children, the world would stop working. But on the other hand there’s Daniel McNeill (who wrote a book on the beauty of faces) who says “love and the feeling of being loved can create beauty out of nothingness”.

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
I don’t think so. The dimension or type of beauty can vary though. I think love is just another type of beauty. Superficial beauty takes a backseat when that type of beauty is at play, the one you perceive when getting to know the human behind the surface. If you know and love the entirety of a person, their face, body and soul, the outside beauty perhaps becomes less relevant and a different kind of attractiveness overshadows the rest.

I know an incredibly beautiful woman who makes heads turn in every bar. She said that beauty is passing. There’ll be a day when it ceases to exist. But inner beauty is a process, inner beauty allows a constant exploring; it never ends. And this is what love is being directed at: a deep, whole beauty.


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Seems like we know beauty when we see it.

Where would the world be without the beautiful?

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
It would be terribly dull and brutal.

Anjan Chatterjee, Neurologist:
The response to beauty is often automatic and occurs even when people are not explicitly thinking about beauty. Since beauty is directly linked to pleasure a world without beauty would be one in which pleasure in our surroundings is severely attenuated.

Eric Jarosinski, Philologist:
[That would be] a world I would not want to live in.

Daniel Hamermesh, Economist:
The ideal world would have beauty not affecting economic outcomes but still being present. As long as people differ, we will think about beauty.


Symbolbild Mathematik

Rumour has it even an algorithm can be beautiful...

Now that we’ve spent so much time trying to define the impact of it, what is beauty?

Tobias Hürter, Philosopher:
I have no idea. Beauty is one of the biggest mysteries. Philosophers have been agonizing over that for 2,500 years. You just can’t define it. Beauty is either in the eye of the beholder or the object is universally found to be beautiful; Is this face beautiful or is that my personal opinion?

Peter Deuflhard, Mathematician:
If I’d look at a mathematical theorem and its proof or at a numerical algorithm that is fast, efficient and supported by an underlying theory, I might call it beautiful. If you’d ask: ‘Is this female model more beautiful than the other?’, I might not have an answer.
But if you have an individual concept of beauty, as I have, you would never even come to that question.

Daniel Hamermesh, Economist:
I would define beauty as a subjective of a person’s physical appearance with particular emphasis on the person’s face.

Anjan Chatterjee, Neurologist:
Visual beauty from a neuroaesthetic point of view has to do with configurations of elements that give us pleasure. Our brains respond to these particular configurations by activating the relevant parts of our visual cortex along with relevant parts of our reward systems.

Eric Jarosinski, Philologist:
I don't have a good answer myself, I'm afraid. Perhaps beauty is simply that which speaks to us in a way that is both powerful and powerfully irrational.

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