Category Archives: Evolution

Can You Fake Beauty – just with Body Language?

amy cuddy

(www.blog.ted.com)

An intriguing proposition, no? I have just watched this TED talk by Amy Cuddy, called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”, after my excellent friend Elli Harris sent me a link to the Top Ten TED Talks Women Should See (they should). Cuddy isn’t actually talking about beauty but power, and how your body language can make you not just look more powerful, but actually feel more powerful – and as a result, be more powerful. But I kept wondering about the body language of beauty, and whether the same principle might apply.

Cuddy, who is a social scientist, says that humans and animals the world over express power and dominance in the same way: by making themselves big. When we feel powerful we stretch out, take up more space. And when we feel powerless, lacking in confidence, we close up, wrap our arms around our bodies and make ourselves small. Even blind people, who have never learned this by seeing others do it, use the same body language.

I think there is a body language of beauty, and it’s related to that of power. Think of a peacock strutting, and compare with a Victoria’s Secret model. In fact, think of modelling generally: surely the poses and style of walking that models learn are the non-verbal display of beauty? All the people taking duckface selfies are using this language too.

That suggests that you can learn this body language. Cuddy shows that you can learn the body language of power, and by holding a “power pose” for just two minutes (e.g. Wonder Woman hands on hips), your power hormone testosterone levels rise, and stress hormone cortisol levels drop. This means that you actually feel more confident, and are likely to perform better in whatever you are doing. Pretty cool, right?

So maybe we can all learn some non-verbal signs of beauty and, as Cuddy says, “Fake it till you make it” or better still, “Fake it till you become it”. Have you ever known someone who was not, in your eyes, particularly good-looking but carried themselves as if they were, and had admirers all over them? I’ve sought out a few famous examples of this, although I recognise that it’s a subjective view. I certainly don’t mean to be passing judgement on people’s looks here, just observing the body language of famous people who are widely considered to be ‘not conventionally good-looking’.

SARAH-JESSICA-PARKER-VOGUE1

The inimitable SJP (www.theimproper.com)

Jagger

Jagger (www.timesunion.com)

david-bowie-1972-wearing-the-so-called-rabbit-costume

Bowie, of course (www.metro.co.uk)

miss-piggy

Point made. (www.landlordrocknyc.wordpress.com)

I also think that the body language of beauty is one of the ways we learn how to be feminine, but this is where my theory encounters a problem: Cuddy says that women in general use less powerful body language than men, tending to make themselves smaller. If you think about how little girls are taught to keep themselves neat and tidy, legs crossed and arms in, this makes sense. When Cuddy showed images of powerless poses in her talk, I recognised all my usual positions.

So is the body language of beauty one of power or feminine submission? I think it’s both, coexisting in a delicate balance. For instance:

scarlett1

Scarlett doing powerful (www.newsbiscuit.com)

scarlett-johansson

And the opposite – but still beautiful (www.hdwallpaperscool.com)

In the second image, Ms Johansson is clearly making herself smaller, but her facial expression is pretty confident. And that’s just it: beauty’s body language is about the performance of desirability, which for feminine beauty often means a position of weakness performed with confidence. Because submission is feminine, and confidence is sexy, right?

I suspect that it would be an entire social sciences research project to get to the bottom of this (anyone fancy a collaboration?), but I’m convinced that beauty is in body language as well as body shape. What do you think – does that mean we can learn to feel (and be seen as) beautiful, and is that a good thing?

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Nice beard, Darwin, but I’m not selecting you

It has come to my attention that this blog is not the first result to come up when you Google ‘beautiful in theory’. While this displeases me, I can accept losing out to a TED talk, and a good one at that, by Denis Dutton:

Dutton

However, the fact that his talk is on evolutionary theories of beauty is annoying, because this is a subject I go out of my way to avoid.

But if Google insists, I will face it.

I’m not sure why Darwinian theories of beauty wind me up so much. It’s not that I want to cling to some mysterious essence of Beauty that would be destroyed by the admission that beauty is just about big boobs being sexy because they signal fertility. Sure, fine, I can get behind that. It just seems a very partial theory, that doesn’t account for the huge variety of things we find beautiful, the ways in which we experience that beauty, and the social conditioning that influences both of those.

Yes, I am a member of the social conditioning school of thought. I am not denying our DNA, but it is difficult to justify a genetically hardwired preference for detailed ideals of human beauty, which fluctuate over time and place and often include features that clearly do not promote our survival. For instance, pale Victorian beauty or 21st-century tanned beauty: paleness is associated with illness even within the Victorian ideal (you know, sexy tuberculosis), and a tan does not necessarily indicate health. It could indicate a propensity for skin cancer. Both have been linked to status – the privilege of not doing manual labour out in the sun; the money to go on holiday to Tenerife. Both inconclusive, neither related to human evolution (I sincerely hope). It is not, however, difficult to trace the social influences behind such changing ideals of beauty. The intrinsic racism of both white-centred ideals has nothing to do with natural selection.

But Denis Dutton has comebacks for these points. His talk makes clear the role of status in sexual choices, and interestingly this is how he explains the beauty of art from a Darwinian standpoint. That is, a work of art is a “fitness signal” demonstrating the artist’s skill. And skill equals sexiness.

rpi_x_lxb098ee24f6

rinkworks.com

Does that include skill with makeup? And do all our gamut of beauty ideals come down to a combination of status and fertility signals? To an extent I could say yes, the importance of both those factors is clear. This evolution argument offers a reasonable explanation for the origins of beauty’s foundations, and perhaps also the origins of the social conditioning that drives our understanding of beauty today. But the interesting discussion is about that social conditioning, not the cavemen who may have unwittingly started it all.

On a simple level, it works quite well. Prof Dutton entices us in with the pithy statement, “Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance.” Beauty arouses and sustains our interest in something that is beneficial to us in a more sophisticated version of beneficial food tasting good. So, when we see a strong, clear-skinned, sexually developed person with good teeth and regular features, we have evolved to find them beautiful because that causes us to pursue them. The infatuation such beauty creates makes us chase after the person with the best, healthiest genes to combine with our own. OK, fine. But boring. And where does that leave Botticelli’s Venus, the fascination and disgust with cosmetic surgery, and the racism surrounding the first Indian-American Miss America?

The reason I shy away from evolutionary theories of beauty is that they seem to reduce some of the best things in life to a single, dull motive. Have sex, stay alive. And when it comes to human beauty, evolution seems inadequate to explain the complexities of the ideas and problems, art and argument, of the last thousand or so years. If all of that was about having sex and staying alive, what’s the point of it all? This blog would be out of business.

Evolution? So yesterday.