Rightly or wrongly, a young slim female is seen as more pleasing than an older bigger woman. As women we chase this while arguably men and society perpetuate our need to. Beauty promises the fulfilment of many of our deep-seated psychological drivers: a need to be judged as attractive, to have sex, to remain in a relationship and to feel validated by our social groups. This desire to be attractive is startling when measured in economic terms.
– Globally, our investment in appearance totals over £122 billion a year with spending on everything from make-up, clothes, shampoo to facials, manicures, hair styling and dental work.
– Research published by the AS Watson group in 2013 showed that women, over a lifetime, spend an average of £18,000 on products for their face. In the same year, the average income for women in the UK was £23,100.
– In 2012, when the UK was in recession, cosmetic surgery procedures totalled 43,162 with women accounting for 90.5% of the figure (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons).
This all stems from a primitive driver which our rational brain may view as superficial or insignificant. So why can’t we just rise above these more primitive instincts? In large part because it’s biological, but also because it’s become ingrained in our culture.
Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, is someone we’d expect to be celebrated for her intellectual capability. In 2012, Beard wrote and presented the BBC 2 documentary Meet the Romans which helped make Roman history more accessible and received accolades for Beard became who became one of the few intellectuals able to entertain and educate at the same time.
However, critics focused not on her subject matter, which she so skilfully brought to life, but her appearance.
“For someone who looks this closely at the past, it is strange she hasn’t had a closer look at herself before stepping in front of the camera. Beard coos over corpses’ teeth without apparently noticing she is wearing them. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment.”
This scathing review shows our tangled attitudes towards beauty and appearance. Tweets included: ‘she looks like a human scarecrow’, ‘Can’t she brush her hair?’, ‘Did she try to look so haggard?’ and ‘Shouldn’t she be sexing herself up a bit?’ And it wasn’t just men, TV producer Samantha Brick said: ‘Ms Beard is too ugly for TV … The greatest tragedy isn’t Ms Beard’s wild hair, ungainly posture or make-up free face: it’s the fact that the BBC didn’t offer her guidance on her appearance in the first place.’
Unfortunately, attractiveness often supersedes what a woman can offer to the world beyond her sexual worth. Despite this advanced civilisation we live in, with our apparent respect for sophisticated meaning-driven values, the male brain still harbours primitive impulses that override the best intentions and society gets caught up in this way of thinking.
Australian psychologists Ronay and von Hippel did an experiment to look at what’s happening at a biological level. They set up in a skateboard park in Brisbane to observe 96 male skateboarders, with an average age of 22. They asked the boarders to choose one easy trick (one they could do well on most attempts) and one difficult trick (one they were still learning and they could do well approximately 50% of the time). They did each trick 10 times whilst being filmed by a male researcher. Following a break, they were then asked to make ten more attempts of both tricks again. Some of the skateboarders did them for the male researcher, while the others did them in front of an attractive 18-year-old female (who had been rated as attractive using widely recognized scientific criteria).
The skateboarders took far greater risks on the difficult trick when the girl was watching and testosterone levels were significantly higher among the guys who skateboarded in front of the attractive girl than the ones who skateboarded in front of the male researcher. This experiment shows that young men will risk physical injury to impress an attractive young female.
The critique of Beard – scorning her for not matching up to idealised standards of female beauty – is the flipside of the same impulse. It’s where the idea of the beautiful young princess and ugly old ‘witch’ which permeates fairy tales has come from; arguably a primitive and unhealthy attitude to attraction.
The reality is that Mary Beard may look pleasant to some people and unattractive to others. The serious concern is that her appearance apparently disqualified her from doing her job even though she was fronting a serious documentary about Roman culture, not presenting a game show. It shows how our survival-driven approval of youth and beauty has a nasty flipside: disrespect towards those who are seen to embody unattractiveness, disfigurement or age. However, as the backlash against the critiques faced by Beard, the public support that ensued also demonstrates that some people are able to override these impulses. After all, a lot of us pride ourselves on ‘not judging a book by its cover’.
What did you think when you saw the photo on this blog? Little girl or little boy? It’s a girl called Sky Brown who’s one of the youngest professional skateboarders in the world. You may not have, but we do tend to quickly judge and often incorrectly based on societal expectations and primitive responses.
I like my book cover (I didn’t design it) – but what about the contents? Find out for yourself –
Defining You is on offer in the USA and Canada for $3.99 from 19th November to 3rd December with all major eBook retailers.
In the UK it’s available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Also available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.