Category Archives: Philosophy

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:


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.


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.

“Beauty Terror”: Thoughts on ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach

“Beauty terror” is an evocative phrase. Troubling and mysterious, but I think that everyone will immediately have a good idea of what it means. We have probably all felt it.


The idea of beauty terror comes from Susie Orbach’s 2009 book, Bodies, which I have recently been reading and would highly recommend. Orbach is a practising psychoanalyst, and she knows what she is talking about. Her work draws on the real cases of her patients as well as feminist and cultural theory, but it is readable, sensible and kind of rocks.

So what is beauty terror? Is it a terror of beauty itself, beautiful people, or of not being beautiful? I think the last suggestion carries the most weight, but that they are all connected. According to Orbach, beauty terror is created by:

  • The 2000-5000 Photoshopped and enhanced images of bodies that we see every week
  • The ideal of beauty that these bodies show – a kind of beauty that is becoming ever more narrow, with less room for variation
  • The beauty industry which produces these images, and then offers products to ‘fix’ our faulty bodies and solve our insecurities
  • The insecurities that they created in the first place, you mean?
  • Yes, those ones. What a genius money-spinner.


“Our bodies are and have become a form of work.” Fun! (Orbach, p.16).

People defend beauty practices (or beauty work, as feminists rightly call it) by saying that we have always used makeup and transformed our bodies. Cleopatra’s eyeliner and the African tribes who stretch their necks with bangles are often given as justification. Orbach has an excellent response to this, which hinges on the fact that those kinds of beauty practices were done for very different reasons:

“What is new today, however, is the way in which bodily transformation is no longer linked to social ritual within the family but is part of the individual’s response to wanting to produce what is an acceptable body.” (p.98)

An elongated neck may be regarded as a feature of attractiveness, but that is strongly bound up with its role as a feature of belonging to that community. As for Cleopatra and pals, apparently kohl eyeliner helps stop you having to squint against the sun.

The bodily transformation we chase today is a feature of a different kind of belonging: the ideal body is presented as the only acceptable body, and anything less is less than human. A fat body is called a whale, a cow, a lump. An animal, an object, a failure. Never a person, just trying to get on with their life.

Photoshopped-dog-or-a-woman Yeah. Lolz.

So of course we keep going back to the beauty and diet products, and the advice of the beauty magazines, because we keep failing to become acceptable. And of course we fail: the ideal, acceptable human body is not a human body at all, but a digital image, a set of pixels that have been shifted, brightened and deleted by Photoshop whizzes into an eerie shiny symmetry. A symmetry which flesh can only achieve when sliced up and sewn back together. As Orbach says, “the body has become a series of individual images and a labour process in itself” (p.90).

And we sort of know this, we do. “We reject the idea of being under ‘assault’ by the beauty industry as offensive to our intelligence. We believe that we can be critical of the negative practices of this persuasive industry and simply enjoy fashion and beauty, and yet the constant exhortation to change gets under our skin” (Orbach, p.108-9).

Simple resistance is really too much to expect of anyone who has been surrounded by these images, adverts and beauty talk – fat talk, transformation talk, makeup talk – since, well, birth. It’s too much to expect that anyone could ignore the clamour and feel like their body is just a vehicle that they live in, and it doesn’t really matter how it looks. We no longer have that idea of the body made available to us. Instead, that vehicle needs pimpin’.

We can try though. Reading books like Bodies and talking about them is a pretty good start. Adding to our beauty talk some discussion of Photoshop, capitalist profit-making and the problems in the dream we are sold.

Making a noise. Being more than a picture.

word hug

Despairing of Beauty

Having spent much of my PhD pondering the relationship of philosophy to beauty, this article by Andy Martin is refreshing in its topical focus on human beauty – and ugly philosophers.


Socrates (

Martin suggests that the self-examination at the centre of the philosophical mindset is in opposition to the sense of one’s own beauty; when you start looking for flaws, of course you find them, as many a teenager has discovered in front of the mirror.

“I can’t help wondering if ugliness is not indispensable to philosophy. Sartre seems to be suggesting that thinking – serious, sustained questioning – arises out of, or perhaps with, a consciousness of one’s own ugliness. Philosophy, in other words, has an ironic relationship to beauty.”

Here there is also the implication that philosophy involves a drive to better oneself (and one’s thinking), so that there is no place for self-satisfaction. The idea that one can never be good enough is indeed familiar in the context of beauty and, as Martin points out, cosmetics companies make a lot of money from this urge to attain perfection.

However, the antagonistic relationship between philosophy and beauty which Martin sets up makes me wonder whether philosophy is, then, the best medium with which to analyse beauty. It seems to allow for only one interpretation of beauty: as an ineffable, impossible ideal that can never be made flesh.

This is a valid and convincing concept of beauty, but I am still searching for alternatives. Perhaps philosophy may be able to offer a better way for us to engage with the impossible beauty ideal – or would we be better off giving up all this self-examination? The less-examined life might just be worth living.



I am currently writing an article on beauty and alchemy, and in the meeting of these two subjects I keep encountering the idea of transformation. In particular, transformation of the self. Alchemy, which has been around as an art, a science and a philosophy since at least the second century B.C., was not just about turning base metals into gold. The serious alchemists, who were not just trying to get rich, were more concerned with transforming their own souls, and even the outside world, into a metaphorical ‘gold’ – i.e. beautiful perfection.

This desire for perfecting oneself is still very much around today, and amusingly enough the alchemical idea of transformation produces some serious gold – for the cosmetics companies.

It seems that the gold we’re seeking to make out of ordinary materials is now beauty, a process we can see on countless makeover programmes. But beauty represents a more general transformation: as Cinderella shows us, becoming beautiful entails a further transformation into prosperity, happiness and love. Happy ever after. This is precisely what most of the adverts that bombard us every day are trading on.


The difference in alchemy is that beauty is not the ultimate transformation. It is a subordinate metaphor, that represents the ultimate transformation of the soul. However, that is a life’s work – I mean, how much easier is it to find a ‘new you’ just by losing ten pounds and buying a new lipstick?

I think this is partly why alchemy has had a bit of a revival in the last few decades. Self-help books by Jay Ramsay (Alchemy: The Art of Transformation), self-help novels by Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist) and novels like Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding, Patrick Harpur’s Mercurius: The Marriage of Heaven and Earth and Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee – these all use alchemy as a framework for freeing the soul (or perhaps the mind, nowadays) from the pettiness and corruption of Western capitalist culture. Fiction recently has started to explore and advocate a return to the more serious work of self-transformation, involving a fuller understanding of human beauty – our desire for it and its effect on us. And although I’m not sure about combining sulphur and mercury in a hermetically sealed vessel, I still think these reworkings of alchemy have more to offer than lipstick.

Percentage of Beauty

In my research I usually try to distance myself from the philosophies of beauty that attempt to draw up lists of criteria or rankings that define what beauty is: for example, Plato in the Symposium sets up a metaphorical ladder of beauty, with physical beauty firmly ranked at the bottom and an abstract “beauty in itself” at the top; this split between physical and spiritual is echoed in St Augustine and Aquinas.

Beauty Graph – 1959 guidelines for judging the Miss Universe beauty pageant

Aristotle offered the criteria of “order, symmetry, and definiteness” as the way to measure beauty in his Metaphysics, and Kant (in the Critique of Judgement) presents all manner of restrictions on beauty – to judge something beautiful we must have no “interest” in it, i.e. not intend to use it for anything, or have any personal connection that causes us to care at all about its actual existence. Further, there are “free” and “dependent” beauties (the first are not governed by or linked to a specific concept, the second are), and so on, and on.

Of course there is value in searching for clarity and consistence when discussing beauty, but the preoccupation with lists, restrictions and rankings tells us very little about the actual experience of beauty, its effects, causes or its significance. That’s what art is for. However, I followed this link at The Beheld and found a new rating system relating to beauty that I really quite like.


A rating system that tells us how much a photo has been retouched? Yes please! And I wonder if there might be an opportunity for collaboration between the arts and the sciences here, enriching scientific statistics and technologies with broader forms of interpretation, that question the impulse towards ‘perfection’ and also the recoil from it.