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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    • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.