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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:
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.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.