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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.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.