[Paleopsych] Daniel Akst: Looks Do Matter

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Daniel Akst: Looks Do Matter
Wilson Quarterly, 2005 Summer

First, the summary from the "Magazine and Journal Reader" feature of the daily 
bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.7.29

    A glance at the summer issue of The Wilson Quarterly: All about looks

    Going by the numbers, looks matter in America. Dieting has become a
    $40-billion industry, and last year Americans spent $8.4-billion on
    9.2 million cosmetic surgeries. Forget shallowness, though, writes
    Daniel Akst, a novelist, because there's a good reason why Americans
    should care more about appearances.

    One reason, says Mr. Akst, is the increasing importance of looks to
    the opposite sex. In one 50-year study, researchers found that the
    value given to appearances has risen "dramatically" -- for both sexes.
    On a scale of 1 to 3, the importance of looks rose from 1.5 to 2.11
    for men, and from 0.94 to 1.67 among women.

    Beauty also confers status, argues Mr. Akst. Evidence suggests, he
    says, that men are better regarded based on how attractive their
    partners are. And because a correlation exists between status and
    longevity, "status matters." According to a 2001 study, he says,
    Academy Award-winning actors outlive nonwinners by about four years.
    In a report on the study, researchers said such findings "suggest that
    success confers a survival advantage."

    Beauty may also lead to greater career success. One study, says Mr.
    Akst, showed that better-looking people earn 5 to 10 percent more
    money. Another found that attractive college instructors received
    higher student ratings, he says.

    "The more important appearances become," though, "the worse most of us
    seem to look," he writes. It's not just that two-thirds of Americans
    are overweight, he says. There is a "broader-based national flight
    from presentability" under way that has manifested itself in the
    casual way people dress. Last year, for instance, sales of apparel
    like warm-up suits netted $39-billion, almost double what was spent on
    dress suits.

    --Jason M. Breslow


    Everyone knows looks shouldn't matter. Beauty, after all, is only skin
    deep, and no right-thinking person would admit to taking much account
    of how someone looks outside the realm of courtship, that romantic
    free-trade zone traditionally exempted from the usual tariffs of
    rationality. Even in that tender kingdom, where love at first sight is
    still readily indulged, it would be impolitic, if not immature, to
    admit giving too much weight to a factor as shallow as looks. Yet
    perhaps it's time to say what we all secretly know, which is that
    looks do matter, maybe even more than most of us think.

    We infer a great deal from people's looks--not just when it comes to
    mating (where looks matter profoundly), but in almost every other
    aspect of life as well, including careers and social status. It may
    not be true that blondes have more fun, but it's highly likely that
    attractive people do, and they start early. Mothers pay more attention
    to good-looking babies, for example, but, by the same token, babies
    pay more attention to prettier adults who wander into their field of
    vision. Attractive people are paid more on the job, marry more
    desirable spouses, and are likelier to get help from others when in
    evident need. Nor is this all sheer, baseless prejudice. Human beings
    appear to be hard-wired to respond to how people and objects look, an
    adaptation without which the species might not have made it this far.
    The unpleasant truth is that, far from being only skin deep, our looks
    reflect all kinds of truths about difference and desire--truths we
    are, in all likelihood, biologically programmed to detect.

    Sensitivity to the signals of human appearances would naturally lead
    to successful reproductive decisions, and several factors suggest that
    this sensitivity may be bred in the bone. Beauty may even be
    addictive. Researchers at London's University College have found that
    human beauty stimulates a section of the brain called the ventral
    striatum, the same region activated in drug and gambling addicts when
    they're about to indulge their habit. Photos of faces rated
    unattractive had no effect on the volunteers to whom they were shown,
    but the ventral striatum did show activity if the picture was of an
    attractive person, especially one looking straight at the viewer. And
    the responses occurred even when the viewer and the subject of the
    photo were of the same sex. Good-looking people just do something to
    us, whether we like it or not.

    People's looks speak to us, sometimes in a whisper and sometimes in a
    shout, of health, reproductive fitness, agreeableness, social
    standing, and intelligence. Although looks in mating still matter much
    more to men than to women, the importance of appearance appears to be
    rising on both sides of the gender divide. In a fascinating
    cross-generational study of mating preferences, every 10 years
    different groups of men and women were asked to rank 18
    characteristics they might want enhanced in a mate. The importance of
    good looks rose "dramatically" for both men and women from 1939 to
    1989, the period of the study, according to David M. Buss, an
    evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas. On a scale of 1
    to 3, the importance men gave to good looks rose from 1.50 to 2.11.
    But for women, the importance of good looks in men rose from 0.94 to
    1.67. In other words, women in 1989 considered a man's looks even more
    important than men considered women's looks 50 years earlier. Since
    the 1930s, Buss writes, "physical appearance has gone up in importance
    for men and women about equally, corresponding with the rise in
    television, fashion magazines, advertising, and other media depictions
    of attractive models."

    In all likelihood this trend will continue, driven by social and
    technological changes that are unlikely to be reversed anytime
    soon--changes such as the new ubiquity of media images, the growing
    financial independence of women, and the worldwide weakening of the
    institution of marriage. For better or worse, we live now in an age of
    appearances. It looks like looks are here to stay.


    The paradox, in such an age, is that the more important appearances
    become, the worse most of us seem to look--and not just by comparison
    with the godlike images alternately taunting and bewitching us from
    every billboard and TV screen. While popular culture is obsessed with
    fashion and style, and our prevailing psychological infirmity is said
    to be narcissism, fully two-thirds of American adults have abandoned
    conventional ideas of attractiveness by becoming overweight. Nearly
    half of this group is downright obese. Given their obsession with
    dieting--a $40 billion-plus industry in the United States--it's not
    news to these people that they're sending an unhelpful message with
    their inflated bodies, but it's worth noting here nonetheless.

    Social scientists have established what most of us already know in
    this regard, which is that heavy people are perceived less favorably
    in a variety of ways. Across cultures--even in places such as Fiji,
    where fat is the norm--people express a preference for others who are
    neither too slim nor too heavy. In studies by University of Texas
    psychologist Devendra Singh, people guessed that the heaviest figures
    in photos were eight to 10 years older than the slimmer ones, even
    though the faces were identical. (As the nation's bill for hair dye
    and facelifts attests, looking older is rarely desirable, unless you
    happen to be an underage drinker.)

    America's weight problem is one dimension of what seems to be a
    broader-based national flight from presentability, a flight that
    manifests itself unmistakably in the relentless casualness of our
    attire. Contrary to the desperate contentions of some men's clothiers,
    for example, the suit really is dying. Walk around midtown Manhattan,
     and these garments are striking by their absence. Consumer spending
    reflects this. In 2004, according to NPD Group, a marketing
    information firm, sales of "active sportswear," a category that
    includes such apparel as warm-up suits, were $39 billion, nearly
    double what was spent on business suits and other tailored clothing.
    The irony is that the more athletic gear we wear, from plum-colored
    velour track suits to high-tech sneakers, the less athletic we become.

    The overall change in our attire did not happen overnight. America's
    clothes, like America itself, have been getting more casual for
    decades, in a trend that predates even Nehru jackets and the "full
    Cleveland" look of a pastel leisure suit with white shoes and belt,
    but the phenomenon reaches something like an apotheosis in the vogue
    for low-riding pajama bottoms and flip-flops outside the home. Visit
    any shopping mall in summer--or many deep-Sunbelt malls year
    round--and you'll find people of all sizes, ages, and weights clomping
    through the climate-controlled spaces in tank tops, T-shirts, and
    running shorts. Tops--and nowadays often bottoms--emblazoned with the
    names of companies, schools, and places make many of these shoppers
    into walking billboards. Bulbous athletic shoes, typically immaculate
    on adults who go everywhere by car, are the functional equivalent of
    SUVs for the feet. Anne Hollander, an observant student of clothing
    whose books include Sex and Suits (1994), has complained that we've
    settled on "a sandbox aesthetic" of sloppy comfort; the new
    classics--sweats, sneakers, and jeans--persist year after year,
    transcending fashion altogether.

    We've come to this pass despite our seeming obsession with how we
    look. Consider these 2004 numbers from the American Society of Plastic
    Surgeons: 9.2 million cosmetic surgeries (up 24 percent from 2000) at
    a cost of $8.4 billion, and that doesn't count 7.5 million "minimally
    invasive" procedures, such as skin peels and Botox injections
    (collectively up 36 percent). Cosmetic dentistry is also booming, as
    is weight-loss surgery. Although most of this spending is by women,
    men are focusing more and more on their appearance as well, which is
    obvious if you look at the evolution of men's magazines over the
    years. Further reflecting our concern with both looks and rapid
    self-transformation is a somewhat grisly new genre of reality TV: the
    extreme makeover show, which plays on the audience's presumed desire
    to somehow look a whole lot better fast.

    But appearances in this case are deceiving. The evidence suggests that
    a great many of us do not care nearly enough about how we look, and
    that even those who care very much indeed still end up looking
    terrible. In understanding why, it's worth remembering that people
    look the way they do for two basic reasons--on purpose and by
    accident--and both can be as revealing as a neon tube top.

    Let's start with the purposeful. Extremes in casual clothing have
    several important functions. A big one nowadays is camouflage.
    Tent-like T-shirts and sweatsuits cover a lot of sins, and the change
    in our bodies over time is borne out by the sizes stores find
    themselves selling. In 1985, for example, the top-selling women's size
    was eight. Today, when, as a result of size inflation,  an eight (and
    every other size) is larger than it used to be, NPD Group reports that
    the top-selling women's size is 14. Camouflage may also account for
    the popularity of black, which is widely perceived as slimming as well
    as cool.

    That brings us to another motive for dressing down--way down--which is
    status. Dressing to manifest disregard for society--think of the
    loose, baggy hipsters in American high schools--broadcasts
    self-determination by flaunting the needlessness of having to impress
    anybody else. We all like to pretend we're immune to "what people
    think," but reaching for status on this basis is itself a particularly
    perverse--and egregious--form of status seeking. For grownups, it's
    also a way of pretending to be young, or at least youthful, since
    people know instinctively that looking young often means looking good.
    Among the truly young, dressing down is a way to avoid any
    embarrassing lapses in self-defining rebelliousness. And for the young
    and fit, sexy casual clothing can honestly signal a desire for
    short-term rather than long-term relationships. Indeed, researchers
    have shown that men respond more readily to sexy clothing when seeking
    a short-term relationship, perhaps because more modest attire is a
    more effective signal of sexual fidelity, a top priority for men in
    the marriage market, regardless of nation or tribe.

    Purposeful slovenliness can have its reasons, then, but what about
    carelessness? One possible justification is that, for many people,
    paying attention to their own looks is just too expensive. Clothes are
    cheap, thanks to imports, but looking good can be costly for humans,
    just as it is for other species. A signal such as beauty, after all,
    is valuable in reproductive terms only if it has credibility, and it's
    been suggested that such signals are credible indicators of fitness
    precisely because in evolutionary terms they're so expensive. The
    peacock's gaudy tail, for example, attracts mates in part because it
    signals that the strutting bird is robust enough not only to sustain
    his fancy plumage but to fend off the predators it also attracts.
    Modern humans who want to strut their evolutionary stuff have to worry
    about their tails too: They have to work them off. Since most of us
    are no longer paid to perform physical labor, getting exercise
    requires valuable time and energy, to say nothing of a costly gym
    membership. And then there is the opportunity cost--the pleasure lost
    by forgoing fried chicken and Devil Dogs. Eating junk food, especially
    fast food, is probably also cheaper, in terms of time, than preparing
    a low-calorie vegetarian feast at home.

    These costs apparently strike many Americans as too high, which may be
    why we as a culture have engaged in a kind of aesthetic outsourcing,
    transferring the job of looking good--of providing the desired supply
    of physical beauty--to the specialists known as "celebrities," who can
    afford to devote much more time and energy to the task. Offloading the
    chore of looking great onto a small, gifted corps of professionals
    saves the rest of us a lot of trouble and expense, even if it has
    opened a yawning aesthetic gulf between the average person (who is
    fat) and the average model or movie star (who is lean and toned within
    an inch of his or her life).

    Although the popularity of Botox and other such innovations suggests
    that many people do want to look better, it seems fair to conclude
    that they are not willing to pay any significant price to do so, since
    the great majority do not in fact have cosmetic surgery, exercise
    regularly, or maintain anything like their ideal body weight. Like so
    much in our society, physical attractiveness is produced by those with
    the greatest comparative advantage, and consumed vicariously by the
    rest of us--purchased, in a sense, ready made.

    Whether our appearance is purposeful or accidental, the outcome is the
    same, which is that a great many of us look awful most of the time,
    and as a consequence of actions or inactions that are at least
    substantially the result of free will.


    Men dressed liked boys? Flip-flops at the office? Health care workers
    who never get near an operating room but nevertheless dress in
    shapeless green scrubs? These sartorial statements are not just
    casual. They're also of a piece with the general disrepute into which
    looking good seems to have fallen. On its face, so to speak, beauty
    presents some serious ideological problems in the modern world. If
    beauty were a brand, any focus group that we convened would describe
    it as shallow and fleeting or perhaps as a kind of eye candy that is
    at once delicious and bad for you. As a society, we consume an awful
    lot of it, and we feel darn guilty about it.

    Why should this be so? For one thing, beauty strikes most of us as a
    natural endowment, and as a people we dislike endowments. We tax
    inheritances, after all, on the premise that they are unearned by
    their recipients and might produce something like a hereditary
    aristocracy, not unlike the one produced by the competition to mate
    with beauty. Money plays a role in that competition; there's no
    denying that looks and income are traditionally awfully comfortable
    with each other, and today affluent Americans are the ones least
    likely to be overweight. By almost any standard, then, looks are a
    seemingly unfair way of distinguishing oneself, discriminating as they
    do on the basis of age and generally running afoul of what the late
    political scientist Aaron Wildavsky called "the rise of radical
    egalitarianism," which was at the very least suspicious of distinction
    and advantage, especially a distinction as capricious and as powerful
    as appearance.

    Appearance can be a source of inequality, and achieving some kind of
    egalitarianism in this arena is a long-standing and probably laudable
    American concern. The Puritans eschewed fancy garb, after all, and
    Thoreau warned us to beware of enterprises that require new clothes.
    Nowadays, at a time of increased income inequality, our clothes
    paradoxically confer less distinction than ever. Gender distinctions
    in clothing, for instance, have been blurred in favor of much greater
    sartorial androgyny, to the extent that nobody would any longer ask
    who wears the pants in any particular household (because the correct
    answer would be, "everybody"). The same goes for age distinctions
    (short pants long ago lost their role as uniform of the young), class
    distinctions (the rich wear jeans too), and even distinctions between
    occasions such as school and play, work and leisure, or public and
    private. Who among us hasn't noticed sneakers, for example, at a
    wedding, in a courtroom, or at a concert, where you spot them
    sometimes even on the stage?

    The problem is that, if anything, looks matter even more than we
    think, not just because we're all hopelessly superficial, but because
    looks have always told us a great deal of what we want to know. Looks
    matter for good reason, in other words, and delegating favorable
    appearances to an affluent elite for reasons of cost or convenience is
    a mistake, both for the individuals who make it and for the rest of us
    as well. The slovenliness of our attire is one of the things that
    impoverish the public sphere, and the stunning rise in our weight (in
    just 25 years) is one of the things that impoverish our health.
    Besides, it's not as if we're evolving anytime soon into a species
    that's immune to appearances. Looks seem to matter to all cultures,
    not just our image-besotted one, suggesting that efforts to stamp out
    looksism (which have yet to result in hiring quotas on behalf of the
    homely) are bucking millions of years of evolutionary development.

    The degree of cross-cultural consistency in this whole area is
    surprising. Contrary to the notion that beauty is in the eye of the
    beholder, or at the very least in the eye of the culture, studies
    across nations and tribal societies have found that people almost
    everywhere have similar ideas about what's attractive, especially as
    regards the face (tastes in bodies seem to vary a bit more, perhaps
    allowing for differing local evolutionary ecologies). Men everywhere,
    even those few still beyond the reach of Hollywood and Madison Avenue,
    are more concerned about women's looks than women are about men's, and
    their general preference for women who look young and healthy is
    probably the result of evolutionary adaptation.

    The evidence for this comes from the field of evolutionary psychology.
    Whatever one's view of this burgeoning branch of science, one thing it
    has produced (besides controversy) is an avalanche of disconcerting
    research about how we look. Psychologists Michael R. Cunningham, of
    the University of Louisville, and Stephen R. Shamblen cite evidence
    that babies as young as two or three months old look longer at more
    attractive faces. New mothers of less attractive offspring, meanwhile,
    have been found to pay more attention to other people (say, hospital
    room visitors) than do new mothers of better-looking babies. This may
    have some basis in biological necessity, if you bear in mind that the
    evolutionary environment, free as it was of antibiotics and
    pediatricians, might have made it worthwhile indeed for mothers to
    invest themselves most in the offspring likeliest to survive and

    The environment today, of course, is very different, but it may only
    amplify the seeming ruthlessness of the feelings and judgments we
    make. "In one study," reports David M. Buss, the evolutionary
    psychologist who reported on the multi-generational study of mating
    preferences, "after groups of men looked at photographs of either
    highly attractive women or women of average attractiveness, they were
    asked to evaluate their commitment to their current romantic partner.
    Disturbingly, the men who had viewed pictures of attractive women
    thereafter judged their actual partners to be less attractive than did
    the men who had viewed analogous pictures of women who were average in
    attractiveness. Perhaps more important, the men who had viewed
    attractive women thereafter rated themselves as less committed, less
    satisfied, less serious, and less close to their actual partners." In
    another study, men who viewed attractive nude centerfolds promptly
    rated themselves as less attracted to their own partners.

    Even if a man doesn't personally care much what a woman looks like, he
    knows that others do. Research suggests that being with an attractive
    woman raises a man's status significantly, while dating a physically
    unattractive woman moderately lowers a man's status. (The effect for
    women is quite different; dating an attractive man raises a woman's
    status only somewhat, while dating an unattractive man lowers her
    status only nominally.) And status matters. In the well-known "White-
    hall studies" of British civil servants after World War II, for
    example, occupational grade was strongly correlated with longevity:
    The higher the bureaucrat's ranking, the longer the life. And it turns
    out that Academy Award-winning actors and actresses outlive other
    movie performers by about four years, at least according to a study
    published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2001. "The results,"
    write authors Donald A. Redelmeier and Sheldon M. Singh, "suggest that
    success confers a survival advantage." So if an attractive mate raises
    a man's status, is it really such a wonder that men covet trophy

    In fact, people's idea of what's attractive is influenced by the body
    types that are associated with status in a given time and place (which
    suggests that culture plays at least some role in ideas of
    attractiveness). As any museumgoer can tell you, the big variation in
    male preferences across time and place is in plumpness, and Buss
    contends that this is a status issue: In places where food is
    plentiful, such as the United States, high-status people distinguish
    themselves by being thin.

    There are reasons besides sex and status to worry about how we look.
    For example, economists Daniel S. Hamermesh, of the University of
    Texas, and Jeff E. Biddle, of Michigan State University, have produced
    a study suggesting that better-looking people make more money.
    "Holding constant demographic and labor-market characteristics," they
    wrote in a well-known 1993 paper, "plain people earn less than people
    of average looks, who earn less than the good-looking. The penalty for
    plainness is five to 10 percent, slightly larger than the premium for
    beauty." A 1998 study of attorneys (by the same duo) found that some
    lawyers also benefit by looking better. Yet another study found that
    better-looking college instructors--especially men--receive higher
    ratings from their students.

    Hamermesh and some Chinese researchers also looked into whether
    primping pays, based on a survey of Shanghai residents. They found
    that beauty raises women's earnings (and, to a lesser extent, men's),
    but that spending on clothing and cosmetics helps only a little.
    Several studies have even found associations between appearance
    preferences and economic cycles. Psychologists Terry F. Pettijohn II,
    of Ohio State University, and Abraham Tesser, of the University of
    Georgia, for example, obtained a list of the Hollywood actresses with
    top box-office appeal in each year from 1932 to 1995. The researchers
    scanned the actresses' photos into a computer, did various
    measurements, and determined that, lo and behold, the ones who were
    the most popular during social and economic good times had more
    "neoteny"--more childlike features, including bigger eyes, smaller
    chins, and rounder cheeks. During economic downturns, stronger and
    more rectangular female faces--in other words, faces that were more
    mature--were preferred.

    It's not clear whether this is the case for political candidates as
    well, but looks matter in this arena too. In a study that appeared
    recently in Science, psychologist Alexander Todorov and colleagues at
    Princeton University showed photographs of political candidates
    to more than 800 students, who were asked to say who had won and why
    based solely on looks. The students chose correctly an amazing 69
    percent of the time, consistently picking candidates they judged to
    look the most competent, meaning those who looked more mature. The
    losers were more likely to have babyfaces, meaning some combination of
    a round face, big eyes, small nose, high forehead and small chin.
    Those candidates apparently have a hard time winning elections.


    To scientists, a convenient marker for physical attractiveness in
    people is symmetry, as measured by taking calipers to body parts as
    wrists, elbows, and feet to see how closely the pairs match. The
    findings of this research can be startling. As summarized by biologist
    Randy Thornhill and psychologist Steven W. Gangestad, both of the
    University of New Mexico, "In both sexes, relatively low asymmetry
    seems to be associated with increased genetic, physical, and mental
    health, including cognitive skill and IQ. Also, symmetric men appear
    to be more muscular and vigorous, have a lower basal metabolic rate,
    and may be larger in body size than asymmetric men. . . . Symmetry is
    a major component of developmental health and overall condition and
    appears to be heritable." The researchers add that more symmetrical
    men have handsomer faces, more sex partners, and their first sexual
    experience at an earlier age, and they get to sex more quickly with a
    new romantic partner. "Moreover," they tell us, "men's symmetry
    predicts a relatively high frequency of their sexual partners'
    copulatory orgasms."

    Those orgasms are sperm retaining, suggesting that symmetric men may
    have a greater chance of getting a woman pregnant. It doesn't hurt
    that the handsomest men may have the best sperm, at least according to
    a study at Spain's University of Valencia, which found that men with
    the healthiest, fastest sperm were those whose faces were rated most
    attractive by women. There's evidence that women care more about men's
    looks for short-term relationships than for marriage, and that as
    women get closer to the most fertile point of the menstrual cycle,
    their preference for "symmetrical" men grows stronger, according to
    Thornhill and Gangestad. Ovulating women prefer more rugged,
    masculinized faces, whereas the rest of the time they prefer less
    masculinized or even slightly feminized male faces. Perhaps
    predictably, more-symmetrical men are likelier to be unfaithful and
    tend to invest less in a relationship.

    Asymmetric people may have some idea that they're behind the eight
    ball here. William Brown and his then-colleagues at Dalhousie
    University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, looked at 50 people in
    heterosexual relationships, measuring such features as hands, ears,
    and feet, and then asked about jealousy. The researchers found a
    strong correlation between asymmetry and romantic jealousy, suggesting
    that asymmetrical lovers may suspect they're somehow less desirable.
    Brown's explanation: "If jealousy is a strategy to retain your mate,
    then the individual more likely to be philandered on is more likely to
    be jealous."

    In general, how we look communicates something about how healthy we
    are, how fertile, and probably how useful in the evolutionary
    environment. This may be why, across a range of cultures, women prefer
    tall, broad-shouldered men who seem like good reproductive specimens,
    in addition to offering the possibility of physical protection. Men,
    meanwhile, like pretty women who appear young. Women's looks seem to
    vary depending on where they happen to be in the monthly fertility
    cycle. The University of Liverpool biologist John Manning measured
    women's ears and fingers and had the timing of their ovulation
    confirmed by pelvic exams. He found a 30 percent decline in
    asymmetries in the 24 hours before ovulation--perhaps more perceptible
    to our sexual antennae than to the conscious mind. In general,
    symmetrical women have more sex partners, suggesting that greater
    symmetry makes women more attractive to men.

    To evolutionary biologists, it makes sense that men should care more
    about the way women look than vice versa, because youth and fitness
    matter so much more in female fertility. And while male preferences do
    vary with time and place there's also some remarkable underlying
    consistency. Devendra Singh, for instance, found that the waist-to-hip
    ratio was the most important factor in women's attractiveness to men
    in 18 cultures he studied. Regardless of whether lean or voluptuous
    women happen to be in fashion, the favored shape involves a waist/hip
    ratio of about 0.7. "Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe represented two
    very different images of beauty to filmgoers in the 1950s," writes
    Nancy Etcoff, who is a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
    "Yet the 36-24-34 Marilyn and the 31.5-22-31 Audrey both had versions
    of the hourglass shape and waist-to-hip ratios of 0.7." Even Twiggy,
    in her 92-pound heyday, had a waist/hip ratio of 0.73.


    Is it cause for despair that looks are so important? The bloom of
    youth is fleeting, after all, and the bad news that our appearance
    will inevitably broadcast about us cannot be kept under wraps forever.
    Besides, who could live up to the impossible standards propagated by
    our powerful aesthetic-industrial complex? It's possible that the
    images of models and actresses and even TV newscasters, most of them
    preternaturally youthful and all selected for physical fitness, have
    driven most Americans to quit the game, insisting that they still care
    about how they look even as they retire from the playing field to
    console themselves with knife and fork.

    If the pressure of all these images has caused us to opt out of caring
    about how we look, that's a shame, because we're slaves of neither
    genes nor fashion in this matter. By losing weight and exercising,
    simply by making ourselves healthier, we can change the underlying
    data our looks report. The advantages are almost too obvious to
    mention, including lower medical costs, greater confidence, and a
    better quality of life in virtually every way.

    There's no need to look like Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lopez, and no
    reason for women to pursue Olive Oyl thinness (a body type men do not
    especially prefer). Researchers, in fact, have found that people of
    both sexes tend to prefer averageness in members of the opposite sex:
    The greater the number of faces poured (by computer) into a composite,
    the higher it's scored in attractiveness by viewers. That's in part
    because "bad" features tend to be averaged out. But the implication is
    clear: You don't need to look like a movie star to benefit from a
    favorable appearance, unless, of course, you're planning a career in

    To a bizarre extent, looking good in America has become the province
    of an appearance aristocracy--an elect we revere for their seemingly
    unattainable endowment of good looks. Physical attractiveness has
    become too much associated with affluence and privilege for a country
    as democratically inclined as ours. We can be proud at least that
    these lucky lookers no longer have to be white or even young. Etcoff
    notes that, in tracking cosmetic surgery since the 1950s, the American
    Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reports a change
    in styles toward wider, fuller-tipped noses and narrower eyelids,
    while makeup styles have tended toward fuller lips and less pale skin
    shades. She attributes these changes to the recalibration of beauty
    norms as the result of the presence of more Asian, African, and
    Hispanic features in society.

    But what's needed is a much more radical democratization of physical
    beauty, a democratization we can achieve not by changing the
    definition of beauty but by changing ourselves. Looking nice is
    something we need to take back from the elites and make once again a
    broadly shared, everyday attribute, as it once was when people were
    much less likely to be fat and much more likely to dress decently in
    public. Good looks are not just an endowment, and the un-American
    attitude that looks are immune to self-improvement only breeds the
    kind of fatalism that is blessedly out of character in America.

    As a first step, maybe we can stop pretending that our appearance
    doesn't--or shouldn't--matter. A little more looksism, if it gets
    people to shape up, would probably save some lives, to say nothing of
    some marriages. Let's face it. To a greater extent than most of us are
    comfortable with, looks tell us something, and right now what they say
    about our health, our discipline, and our mutual regard isn't pretty.

    Daniel Akst is a writer in New York's Hudson Valley. He writes a
    monthly business column for The New York Times and is the author of
    several novels, including The Webster Chronicle (2001) and St. Burl's
    Obituary (1996).


    Older men no good in bed
    I agree with Daniel Akst that the new American wardrobe of jeans,
    sneakers, and big t-shirts is unbeautiful. (I wouldn't be caught dead
    in any of these garments.) This wardrobe has certainly played a large
    role in the decline of general attractiveness. Many women friends of
    mine, when they gain weight, reach for big sweatshirts and T shirts
    which make them look fatter than tailored clothing would.
    That being said, I take issue with the following statement Akst makes:
    "To evolutionary biologists, it makes sense that men should care more
    about the way women look than vice versa, because youth and fitness
    matter so much more in female fertility."
    After centuries of silence on the issue, we are beginning to discover
    that youth and fitness do matter a great deal for male fertility.
    Erectile dysfunction is a common problem for middle-aged men,
    something that has always been kept secret in our previously
    male-authored world. Just look at the profits of the company that
    produces Cialis or Viagra to confirm this. Age takes its toll on a
    man's ability to have a child just as it does on a woman's. My friend
    who is 38 would like to get pregnant, but her husband who is 50 is
    incapable of performing the deed properly. Artificial insemination may
    be their only recourse. I think evolutionary biologists should collect
    oral interviews with women and look anew at what seems to me--from an
    attractive woman's point of view--a glaring misconception. Youth and
    fitness do matter for male fertility!
    Posted by: Manmo 07/29/2005

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