Sunday, February 15, 2015

Round Robin: Is Beauty Necessary?

To love beauty is to see light.

YouTube is a fabulous resource, it really is. I stumbled on this old episode of Politically Incorrect and the issue at hand was that someone had set up an "egg bank" for infertile couples. Not all that controversial, you'd think, except that all the donor eggs were from actresses and models; the "bank" was trying to increase the odds that the resulting child would be good looking.

The entire panel agreed that it was a shallow concept and then went on to argue about the morality of doing so. But, if I may play devil's advocate here, why is wanting a good looking child shallow? Beauty is important. Studies have shown that good-looking people are paid more, are more likely to be liked and trusted, and are treated better in general. What parent wouldn't want to give their child an advantage like that if they could?

(I wouldn't watch the whole thing, it degenerates into a big 
argument about god and science, which doesn't get anywhere)

We are an intensely visual species, (the oldest art objects in the world are 75,000 year old etched snail shells) and we spend a lot of effort on making our surroundings and our selves attractive. We plant gardens, we paint walls, we tile our floors in patterns with pretty stones and bits of colored glass. We have based entire economies on gold, which is just a shiny metal with no practical purpose until electronics were invented. An appreciation of the aesthetic and a desire to decorate seem to be an innate characteristics of the species.

And beauty may not just be something we like (like sugar), but something we actually need. Studies have shown that people who live in unpleasant environments (crowding, high amounts of graffiti, urban decay, lack of plant life, etc.) have higher incidences of depression and anxiety. Office workers who have access to a window, report more job satisfaction than those who don't. Even mental patients react to the attractiveness of their surroundings. (The Effect of the Physical Environment on Mental Wellbeing)

Like all human impulses, there have been efforts to control it. Sumptuary laws have existed in multiple cultures. Many religions preach modesty and plainness in dress. But even those who consider "plainness" a virtue, (like the Amish and the Shakers) spend a lot of time on the visual. So much so that the "plain" boxes, buildings and quilts are considered works of art in their spare and severe perfection. 

The odd thing about beauty is that we simultaneously crave it and mistrust it. We tell our children "Don't judge a book by its cover", and that "real beauty comes from within", and then we invest in braces, lasik and acne medications.  We praise those with the visual sensitivity to decorate a house or compose a stunning floral arrangement and then denigrate them for choosing such a "shallow" specialty. 

Maybe it's because we know that beauty affects the way we think. Attractiveness has what is called a Halo Effect, where the person who is lucky enough to have a pretty face is also thought to be friendlier, smarter, and more trustworthy than those not as genetically blessed. Unfair, but true.

I have no answers. I think beauty is a need, not as critical as air, but still up there on my list of priorities. Perhaps the best we can do is try to be aware of the tendency to assign goodness to beauty, and to pay more attention to the contents than the label.

To read what other people are saying on this topic, check out their blogs.

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