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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Fair and Lovely (and why we feel the way we do)

Discussing a petition to Unilever against Fair and Lovely, Falstaff writes:
Why is it okay to argue that redder lips make you more beautiful, but not that fairer skin makes you lovely? How is Fair and Lovely any worse than eyeliner or lipstick?
Quite. It isn't necessarily true that the things we are instinctively attracted to are a social construct. Evolutionary psychologists would tell you that the instinctive preference for fair skin and red lips exists because in prehistoric times those were indicators of good health. (That doesn't mean that we consciously think of those matters, but that predispositions to be attracted to indicators of good health would raise the likelihood of the genes that cause those predispositions to flourish in the gene pool, for obvious reasons.) A fair bit of research bears out the hypothesis that our instinctive attractions have been shaped by evolutionary forces, such as the work of Victor Johnston. Describing a part of it, Newsweek writes:
On his Las Cruces, New Mexico, campus, Johnston designed a computer-graphics video that illustrates the spectrum of human beauty, starting with the “hypermasculinized” face (think Schwarzenegger) and morphing gradually to the other extreme, the “hyperfeminized” face (think Kidman). Johnston has shown the video to thousands of test subjects, both men and women, and asked them to choose at which point along the spectrum they find their ideal face. Men, it turns out, unanimously pick as most attractive the face with the most feminine features, which corresponds to a woman with the most accentuated “hormonal markers.” These are facial characteristics developed during puberty from the release of estrogen, which causes the lips to swell, the jaw to narrow and the eyes to widen. These features indicate fertility, and because they’re biologically programmed, they’re common to all cultures.

Women perceive beauty in a more nuanced way. They aren’t always attracted to the hypermasculinized, bushy-eyebrowed, wide-jawed caveman type, flush with testosterone. Their choice of a mate is informed by evolutionary complexities involving not only potential fertility and health but perceived ability to protect the female’s offspring through wealth and power.
Quite as you'd expect. There's more in Johnston book, "Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions". (More on that here.)

Needless to say, all this is just explanation, not justification. Explanations of human nature drawn from evolutionary psychology are often treated as politically incorrect because they are mistakenly thought of as being prescriptive, and not merely descriptive. Not so. I quite understand why many men prefer fair-skinned women, but I believe that the world would be a better place if that preference didn't exist. But everyone's got a right to their preferences, and hounding Fair and Lovely out of the market would hardly solve anything, even if that were to happen.

And what of my personal preferences, you ask? Well, Halle Berry and Bipasha Basu are pretty high on my hotness charts (dark is beautiful!), and in my everyday life, I tend to get attracted to short-haired, brown-skinned women, especially if they like Murakami and Calvino. Not the stereotypical man, I'm afraid, but I have as much of a right to my tastes as does anyone who prefers fair skin to dark.
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