How Do You Know If You're Beautiful?

In his new book, James Hamblin looks at how we treat our bodies, internally and externally. 

In the seventeenth century André Félibien chronicled the arts and served as court historian to Louis XIV. Among his many musings he penned detailed descriptions of ideal beauty, with Venus as his perfect totem. Among the prescriptions he wrote that a woman’s hips must be wider than her shoulders and should “go down rounding.”


The beholder is not the only bearer of beauty standards. It is a cultural phenomenon, open to constant interpretation and redefinition. Plumpness was a vaunted feature of the Victorian era; it displayed health and wealth. Given the phenomenon of “butt augmentation,” in some circles it still is. (Looking at you, Brazil.)

Of course, beauty has many negative connotations. Foot binding and high heels wreak havoc on feminine self-esteem (and their spines). The modeling industry inadvertently though unapologetically causes numerous eating disorders when demanding women exhibit the curvature of twelve-year-old boys.

What about unique architecture like, say, dimples? The zygomaticus is the muscle responsible for turning our frowns upside down. Certain people have shortened zygomaticus muscles, some with forked ends, resulting in dimples. People with them often hate it; those without want them. Humans excel at bodily insecurities.

In his new book, If Our Bodies Could Talk, James Hamblin investigates the nuances and neuroses surrounding beauty. A doctor and senior editor at The Atlantic, he covers a range of topics many encounter but few seek answers to, including:

  • What causes red eyes in photos?
  • Does caffeine make me live longer?
  • Does alcohol really kill brain cells?
  • When is ejaculation premature?
  • Is life long enough?
  • He even covers misophonia, an auditory ailment which I’ve suffered from my entire life but didn’t know was a ‘thing’ until four years ago. (The sound of people chewing makes me want to incite violence.) It’s just one of the innumerable aspects of our complex relationship to the environment (and ourselves) Hamblin dissects.

    Speaking of dissection, back to dimples. For nearly a hundred years crafty marketers unsuccessfully pimped dimple machines and techniques. A decade ago a Beverly Hills surgeon decided that for $4,000 he’d bypass nature and suture the cheek’s buccinator muscle to create the illusion of a dimple. Since Beverly Hills cannot exist without illusions, Gal Aharonov’s twenty-minute procedure caught on. Wildly.

    Interestingly, Aharanov rarely performs the surgery today. He estimates his success rate to be roughly 90 percent. The 10 percent that turned out asymmetric weighed on his conscience. While it’s no longer his ‘thing,’ he still receives between twenty and thirty calls a day from women that believe their zygomaticuses are simply too long.

    Beauty is not only contextual, it’s constructed. Hamblin writes about a Polish businessman with the exceptional name of Maksymilian Faktorowicz who had the remarkable foresight that no one would remember his name when he opened a ‘beautification establishment’ in Los Angeles in 1909. His expertise resided in judging ‘abnormalities’ in women’s (and some men’s) faces.

    Max Factor was born alongside his machine, the ‘beauty micrometer,’ which looks like a Medieval torture device, screws implanted along the scalp, cheeks, and forehead. He’d strap eager customers in, portend invisible flaws only his magical machine could reveal (with him being the machine’s translator), then sell them makeup—a term he coined. Speaking of made up, Hamblin writes:

    A device that tells people what’s wrong with them is predicated on an understanding of what is right. Max Factor’s approach is a textbook example of the sales tactic that is still so successful in selling body-improving products: convince people that there is a deficit in some concrete way, and then sell the antidote. 

    Sadly this time-tested technique is reliable. There is speculation as to what creates beauty, such as symmetry, which apparently denotes good breeding potential. Such biological mechanisms work beyond the range of conscious apprehension. The ‘Sweaty T Shirt Study’ is another: humans sniff out partners based on immune system deficiencies in hopes of creating healthier offspring. Such unconscious processes underlie our sexual proclivities, and therefore definitions of beauty.

    Such arguments are difficult for a species that celebrates its free will—a concept we invented, defined, then declared ownership of. At root we’re still animals. If we think sniffing butts is a strange ritual we can only wonder what dogs think of our own.

    This does not mean we have to be animals all the time, however. Nowhere is this more apparent in our definitions of beauty and, more importantly, the lengths we go in letting others know what beauty is not. For example, last night I was discussing a mutual friend with my wife. She mentioned that our friend has dated men who told her at the outset of intimacy, “You’re not usually my type.” Perhaps the men truly believed this aphrodisiacal prose was certain to inspire unbounded lust when it only perpetuates the false notion of a pre-existing beauty standard few actually attain.

    For fourteen years I’ve moved bodies in yoga and fitness classes. Self-improvement, dopamine release, health—another topic Hamblin is particularly insightful on—there are numerous and varied reasons people exercise their bodies and minds. And there is a correlation between inner and outer beauty. When someone feels good their confidence spreads outwards. The need to cut open their cheeks (or shoot toxins into them) does not exist. Their genetic makeup trumps any cosmetic one.

    Hamblin likens each human to a looking-glass self. How we understand ourselves is entwined with the perception of others. Surrounded by mirrors constantly, we’re also mirrors ourselves. He concludes:

    We can’t always choose our mirrors, but we can choose the kind of mirrors we will be—a kind mirror, or a malevolent mirror, or anything in between.

    Choose well. You never know what mirror will stare back.

    --

    Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.