There is a school of thought that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Namely, that physical attractiveness is subjective and a product of cultural norms and personal taste. This is technically true insofar as people do have different tastes and everybody is attractive to somebody. There are even freaks out there that are particularly attracted to things generally considered unattractive. But there are limits to this, of course, as a lot of folks in our corner of the sphere are quick to point out. Certain attributes, facial symmetry is typically used as an example, transcend cultures. There are arguments for curves and for slender, but there is a level of fatness that is generally not considered desirable. And while there are people that have abnormal attractions, they remain exceptions and some physical features are naturally going to be more attractive to more people.

I fall more in the second camp than the first when it comes to pictures and immediate impressions. I also believe that inner beauty (subjective, typically) affects outer in that when you love someone, you view them as being more physically attractive than others you might have rated higher from a photograph. Further, some people take universality of beauty too far, I think. They make it less a general truth and more an pavlovian sort of thing. I just don’t think it’s that exact.

One of the things I find interesting is how our tastes develop within the general hierarchy. For instance, by real-world standards Taylor Swift is a really attractive young lady. So is Kristen Stewart. Yet when I look at pictures of them or see them on TV, there is simply no doubt that I think Stewart is remarkably the more attractive of the two. Others would swear that Swift is. In the land of Hollywood, where nearly everyone is quite attractive, we almost have to take our cues from relatively subjective or even arbitrary criteria. I don’t know why I find Stewart to be the more attractive of the two. But I think it has repercussions in real-life attraction amongst people in my station. Stewart has a more steely demeanor. Not cold, exactly, but sort of determined and tough. I married someone with a similar demeanor. I don’t think that’s entirely a coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that among all of the really attractive women on the TV show Las Vegas, the one that garnered the most of my attention was Sam Marquez (Vanessa Marcil). Same sort of steeliness in comparison to the flightier Delinda (Molly Sims) or sweet Mary (Nikki Cox). Of course, also notable is the fact that Marcil, Clancy, and Stewart have dark hair.

Some of it probably relates to the projection of personality. Easier to do when it comes to Las Vegas, where they are all playing characters with personalities, though I also think that Marcil and Sims were chosen precisely because they looked the part. I’ve never seen Kristen Stewart in a movie and I’ve only seen one Taylor Swift video, so it’s less a factor there. It’s more about the way that they smile for the camera and in Stewart’s case a slightly prominent chin and narrow features that I think I associate with a sort of inner toughness.

Why I would be attracted to a steeliness of expression I have no idea. It’s not like I like cold people. When I met Clancy, she was in a very comfortable element and surrounded by friends. She was smiling a good portion of the weekend. I was attracted to that… but I also don’t think that it’s a coincidence that it lines up with what seem to be particular biases. I have two “types” that I’ve historically been attracted to and Clancy (and Julianne, for that matter) falls into one. Conventional in appearance, conservative in demeanor, and relatively strong-willed or exuding a quiet strength. All of this has to do with personality more than appearance, but again, I think when we are looking at people we are looking for cues on personality matching.

All of this brings me to the inspiration of my post, which is Phi’s post on the comparative virtues of Meghan Fox and January Jones. As Phi and the commenters there note, regardless of who she actually is, Fox exudes a certain kind of sexiness that makes her the sex symbol that Jones is not. It’s that projection that makes her as attractive that she is to a lot of men. That projection is largely an object of not just personal preference but cultural preference. The same cultural preference that inexplicably made Angelina Jolie somehow considered attractive. The tastemakers, as far as such things go, have decided what is attractive and we take our cues from society.

Not because we’re mindless drones of corporate-enforced tastes, as some folks who swear in some aboriginal or African culture droopy breasts are considered hot and thus it’s all subjective. Rather, because people like Jones and Fox are both attractive by any normal criteria and thus choosing between them (and the thousands of Hollywood actresses that are similarly attractive) is susceptible to relatively insignificant criteria. Likewise, in real life when I would see two women at a bar or church or wherever else, if they’re comparatively equal, it comes down to relatively silly criteria such steely-demeanor or wearing glasses or something else that either indicates (a) this person’s personality could be compatible with my own (or more attractive to me) or (b) if I got together with her it would be more impressive to my friends.

Category: Coffeehouse

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11 Responses to The Subjective Nature of Beauty

  1. Peter says:

    Of course my primary standard of women’s beauty is not subjective at all.

  2. Maria says:

    Peter, I almost hate to tell you this, but I’ve gone over to “the dark side.”

  3. Peter says:

    Peter, I almost hate to tell you this, but I’ve gone over to “the dark side.”

    Oh, no. The Hideous Pedophilic Bald Eagle strikes again 🙁

  4. DaveinHackensack says:

    Just skimmed this post, but I was compelled to tag along to the most recent Twilight movie. A bright spot was one of Stewart’s co-stars, Ashley Greene.

  5. Maria says:

    I think Taylor Swift is kind of strange-looking, personally. Her nose looks like a lion-person’s nose.

    I don’t know how else to describe it. On some cartoon or TV show I once saw, there were these people who had noses like lions and looked like lions, but not in a good way, and she reminds me of them. I can’t remember the name of the show though.

  6. DaveinHackensack says:

    To me, Taylor Swift’s face looks a little more Miss Piggy-like. I admire the girl’s talent, ambition, and moxie though. She was a precociously successful songwriter as a teen in Nashville, and could have had a long, quietly successful career doing that. But she grabbed the mic herself and became a huge success as a singer.

  7. David Alexander says:

    FWIW, I don’t think either female is attractive, but like Peter, I have non-mainstream tastes. FWIW, based on the photo above, Taylor Swift is better looking, but that’s based on what appears to be a lot of prep work for a red carpet appearance in front of media.

  8. Mike Hunt says:

    I think Taylor Swift is kind of strange-looking, personally. Her nose looks like a lion-person’s nose.
    To me, Taylor Swift’s face looks a little more Miss Piggy-like.

    See, to me should looks like an elf from Dungeons & Dragons.

    Stewart has a more steely demeanor. Not cold, exactly, but sort of determined and tough. I married someone with a similar demeanor.

    Are you a masochist?

  9. Peter says:

    Based on those pictures, I’d say that Kristen Stewart will maintain her beauty longer and better than Taylor Swift as they get older.

  10. trumwill says:

    As someone with a pudgy nose, I think I take offense at some of these comments. Okay, not really. I think that Swift’s flaws (such as they are) are amplified by the expectations of perfections in popular entertainment. That’s one of the reasons I think that comparing celebrities can be so instructive. It’s such a good look at the subjective side of things. That’s my take, anyway.

  11. trumwill says:

    Are you a masochist?

    Nah. I just have an appreciation for strong and capable women. If they are cold and distant towards me, it causes problems. Dough-eyed, gooey-hearted girls have their appeal to, though I’ve found that they tend to bring out the worst in me.

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