The Nature of Beauty

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Finding a way to define true beauty has been confounding us for centuries. Is beauty a uniquely personal and emotional response? The shape of a face, the style of a garment or the colour of a piece of jewellery might resonate deeply and profoundly with one person. Another individual might find the same images unpalatable, bland, or even offensive.

At a subconscious level – seemingly inexplicably – we all react differently to what is considered lovely in one person’s eyes or average in another’s.

If we can’t agree on the process of defining beauty, then it’s impossible to decide what equates as being universally beautiful. We have an even more complicated conundrum when we then look at how different cultures respond to the idea of beauty!

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Finding a way to define true beauty has been confounding us for centuries. Is beauty a uniquely personal and emotional response? The shape of a face, the style of a garment or the colour of a piece of jewellery might resonate deeply and profoundly with one person. Another individual might find the same images unpalatable, bland, or even offensive.

At a subconscious level – seemingly inexplicably – we all react differently to what is considered lovely in one person’s eyes or average in another’s.

If we can’t agree on the process of defining beauty, then it’s impossible to decide what equates as being universally beautiful. We have an even more complicated conundrum when we then look at how different cultures respond to the idea of beauty!

How is that we have such differing interpretations of beauty – or what we could also label ‘aesthetics’ – from culture to culture and throughout time?

What actually are ‘aesthetics’? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes aesthetics as: “A branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.”

Some ancient Greek philosophers were early advocates of aesthetics when they were the first to vouchsafe that beauty is determined by such orderly processes as observing symmetry, balance, form, and scale.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) defined beauty as “a sense of harmonious or aesthetically pleasing proportionality.” Plato (427-347 B.C.) considered beauty “an absolute manifest in order, symmetry, and proportion.”

These discussions were taken from an objective stance, i.e., classifying the quantifiable and measurable properties of the person, animal, artifact, or architecture. The practice of analysing (objectifying) features led to the development of a beauty concept called The Golden Ratio.

Euclid of Alexandria

The golden ratio is a universal standard thought to represent perfect beauty. Greek mathematician, Euclid of Alexandria (325-265 B.C.) revealed it as a mathematical analogy that determines divine proportions.

Those exact proportions were later known as Phi φ (1.618) acknowledging Phidias, a 5th century B.C. mathematician of ancient Greece.

For thousands of years and up till present times, the golden ratio was thought to hold the secret formula of perfection, applicable to art, astronomy, architecture, nature, and, of course, human beauty.

Mona Lisa

When Leonardo Da Vinci created The Mona Lisa in 1503, her face was recognised to epitomise the golden ratio (of roughly 1.6), which means a beautiful person’s face is about 1 ½ times longer than it is wide (and divided into sections which equate to facial symmetry).

The closer facial proportions are to the golden ratio, the more a face will be perceived as attractive, regardless of race, culture, or era.

But how can this be the case when we consider cultures that use body modification practices which deviate so extremely from the golden ratio?

Many cultures utilise what’s known as subjective beauty, where unique enhancements and manipulations of the body are made for a specific purpose, to trigger a certain brain response. When members of these ethnicities undergo cosmetic and structural alterations to body form such as tattooing, scarification, lip enlargement, neck embellishment, skull flattening, breast augmentation, and piercings, we understand that most cultures have different perceptions of what is beautiful.

Different people with different life experiences in different cultures acquire different standards of beauty, as captured by Shakespeare in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, written between 1588 and 1597:

“Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues.”

And thus, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

This well-known expression didn’t appear in English until the 19th century, when Irish romance novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford published Molly Bawn, (1878), in which she coined the idiom as we generally see it today.

But why is beauty only in the eye of the beholder?

Well, it’s all to do with sex.

Whenever we find something beautiful, an area of the brain located behind our eyes lights up. This area is known for pleasure, value, and judgment, and when our DNA demands that we procreate for the continuation of our species, our brains are genetically geared to respond to stimuli such as what we find attractive.

Human nature’s distinctive preference for certain physical characteristics reflects our reasoning for choosing one mate over another. In order to do this successfully, women and men utilise mate selection strategies, not necessarily consciously, to guide their reproductive efforts.

Therefore, different cultures adopt unique beauty practices, either to initiate mating, to ward off competition for mating, or as an indication of social status or rite of passage – all equally as attractive and important for the continuation of the race.

Within this context, we can look at huge variances in the ideals of beauty and see that the responding physical modifications are interpreted very differently from one culture to the next.

Some of those ideals are depicted by the Ethiopean Mursi tribe, who utilise lip plates as a form of body modification which determines attractiveness and social or economic importance. The transformation comes about as increasingly larger discs (usually made from clay or wood) are inserted into a pierced hole in either the upper or lower lip, or both, thereby stretching it. The custom is still maintained today by a few groups in Africa and Amazonia.

In South Sudan, men and boys of the Dinka tribe submit to facial scarification, where parallel lines are etched across the forehead in a rugged display of courage and adolescent transition to manhood. Women also receive scars which signify physical attraction, fertility, and good health. These symbolic marks give identity and status to the tribe and beauty to its women.

Skull binding or head flattening was popular from the Middle East to South America, and began as early as 7,000 B.C. It was a method of shaping the skull to grow longer (shades of the golden ratio?) rather than wider and was most commonly accomplished by applying pressure via boards or tight cloths to a baby’s forehead. The pressure of the cover over time caused the child’s forehead to elongate, creating a nearly smooth silhouette from the tip of the nose to the crown of the head. Shaped skulls were – and still are in some countries – a symbol of beauty and social standing.

Ear stretching

Ear stretching is popular for both males and females in South America and Africa and is a practice that continues today from the Masai tribes in Kenya to the Huaorani tribe in the Amazon Basin. Ears are pierced then weighted to eventually stretch out the earlobes until they are almost shoulder length. This is done as a sign of beauty and tribal affiliation. Stretched ears are still a common sight in Western civilisation in a more moderate ‘gage’ form.

Over centuries, breast shape has often been altered either by compression (e.g., in the Caucasus, in 16th –17thcentury Spain) or distention (e.g., among the Payaguá of Paraguay). Silicone gel implants to enlarge the breasts came into use in the United States and other societies in the second half of the 20th century. Removal of all or part of the breast was known among the legendary Amazons, female warriors of classical folklore.

Foot binding was banned in the 1940s, however, from the Tang dynasty (A.D 618–907) until the 20th century, many Chinese women had their feet tightly bound in early childhood, forming the famous ‘golden lily’ feet, much reduced in size and deformed to match an aesthetic ideal. The excruciating process of binding included breaking all of the toes and bending them backwards against the sole of the foot, and then binding them in place with a tight fabric wrapping.

The Apatani tribe lives in the Ziro valley in the state of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s northeast. Apatani women were considered the most beautiful among the Arunachal tribes; so beautiful, in fact, that they had to make themselves look as unattractive as possible to deter invaders from other tribes. Hence, Apatani women wore large wooden plugs in their noses, a tradition not carried forward by the younger members of the 26,000 people-strong tribe today.

Thai woman with brass coils

Women of the Kayan tribe in Burma, and women in Northern Thailand are known for the exquisite and incredible brass coils they wear around their necks. They are often called the ‘long necks’ or the ‘giraffe women’ by outsiders and can wear up to 25 coils, which many never take off. As the weight of the coils press down, the clavicle is lowered, and with each additional neck ring it falls further, compressing the rib cage as well. The shoulders finally fall away to give the appearance of an elongated neck. The more rings a woman wears, the more elegant and beautiful she is considered.

Henna body art

While Henna has become popular in many parts of the world, it originated in India, and is a form of temporary body art. Indian women wear Henna on their wedding day, and during certain religious festivals as a form of decoration and beauty. Henna also indicates a higher social standing for Indian women.

Among the Inuit, some nations tattooed female faces and parts of the body to symbolize a girl transitioning into a woman, coinciding with the start of her first menstrual cycle. A tattoo represented a woman’s beauty, strength, and maturity, and was an important practice because some Inuit believed that a woman could not transition into the spirit world without tattoos on her skin.

Modern day Western tattooing has no less association to the concept of external beauty. Facial cosmetic tattoos (or micropigmentation) became popular in the late ‘80s to permanently enhance natural beauty and increase physical appeal. Eyelids, eyebrows, and lips can be transformed, and scars, birth marks, vitiligo and alopecia camouflaged. In a medical sense, nipple-areola reconstruction after breast reduction or breast cancer surgery can also revolutionise a person’s perceived attractiveness.

Eclectic in style, these beauty practices all point in one direction: Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. It seems that love rules beauty regardless of our individual perception of what beauty looks like. Appreciating beauty is not learned but is rather a biological adaptation, a part of universal human nature.

Understanding beauty becomes even clearer in philosopher Denis Dutton’s book, The Art Instinct where he maintains that beauty is a core part of human nature with evolutionary origins.

Denis Dutton (1944-2010) utters these final words in his 2010 Ted talk ‘The Darwinian Theory of Beauty’ which was translated into 34 languages:

“Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No, it’s deep in our minds. It’s a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.”

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