Monday, July 21, 2008

Beauty is in the eye of...

Talking about technology and world building prodded this thought: how did (or would) people judge beauty if there was no mass media (or access to mass media) dictating what's beautiful and what's not?

I'm sure most of you are familiar with the fact that actress Marilyn Monroe--once touted as a hallmark a female beauty--would be too fat for today's "standards." She was a size 12, I believe. Death knell for a Hollywood actress in 2008. Size 2? Better.

But it's better because we've been conditioned to believe so in the past thirty years--by the media.

I don't want to get in a discussion here of zoftig versus waif. I do want to get in a discussion of world building in which you have a vast collection of cultures and civilizations in a "galactic empire" that may include worlds (or pockets on worlds) of various level of technology and hence various levels of "shared" cultural icons. Like beauty.

I remember reading National Geographics as a child and marvelling at the natives in other countries who used tatoos or piercings as beautification. Obviously their issues of GQ or Cosmopolitan were different from mine. Which shows, of course, that we don't need a galactic empire to examine this issue of "what is beauty?"

How did villagers in 1325 Scotland or 1810 Sweden decide who was the most beautiful village lass without having an issue of People magazine's 100 Most Beautiful to compare them to?

I know there are studies done that define what humans innately find as "attractive" and why: large eyes (better to see predators and escape), full hips (childbearing), long legs (run from predators). These were attributes the insured the survival of the species. But when survival is no longer a crushing problem, these hallmarks can change.

But would they change if they weren't paraded across a mass medium? Would they change of their own accord simply because situations change?

Let's go from low tech 1325 Scotland (assuming you're still pondering that answer) to high tech other star system. Let's posit an active space-faring culture. Would smaller and lighter-weight beings be "more attractive" as they fit better in the confined spaces of starships? Longer fingers to reach more keypads? Or would extra padding and extra weight actually be more desirable in a zero-g environment (if your ships are structured so) because it helps with the bumps and lumps that happen in bouncing off bulkheads? Since weight is a factor of gravity, if your environment has no gravity, does anyone care what you weigh?

What if species are not human as we know it but humanoid? I love CJ Cherryh's felinoid Hani in her Chanur series and how ears are an element of beauty (being own by two felines myself, I can attest to the amount of time spent grooming ears to perfection). But love of ears (Ferengi, anyone?) can go beyond the physical--good hearing in a precarious environment such as a starship would certainly be a plus.

The how and why of the definition of beauty in cultures other than my own intrigues me.

I certainly know what readers would consider the most beautiful traits on an author: ten arms with which to type more novels, and ten heads with which to think up more plots and characters.


PS: If you're in the Orlando area this weekend, please come by see authors Dara Edmondson, Traci Hall, Catherine Kean and myself at our book signing:

July 26th--Waldenbooks, 1-3 PM, the Mall at Millenia, 4200 Conroy Road, Orlando FL

I'll have PRE RELEASE copies of SHADES OF DARK!


  1. Some aspects of beauty are relative. Without the global media standard, someone's beauty would be judged against the others in their community and so that standard would vary from community to community.

    I can't remember where I read it, but using the "Disney princess" example, where the princess is the "most fair of all," she'd really only be competing for that honorific with a small number of other women. A village might be about 150 people, about half of those would be male, a portion of those remaining would be very old or very young. I think it comes down to 10-15 eligible females whose looks would be judged against one another.

    I really doubt very many of them would look like Angelina Jolie.

  2. How amusing, though, if 149 of them did look like Angeline Jolie, on account of one rogue alpha male with exceptionally strong genes...

  3. I think I've read that even across cultures people with the most symmetrical features are usually seen as the most attractive. If that's the case I'm guessing it would be true across time and space. I think Even those NatGo pierced and beauty scared folks use symmetry for their body changes.

    The other thing that seems to universally play into beauty is looking healthy and oddly being rich enough to deliberately not be healthy. For example, only in a society where getting your next meal is not an issue for the vast majority of the population, where in fact not eating is a luxury, not a necessity, would the skeletally thin women of today's fashion scene be regarded as anything other than horrific.

  4. And in that village of the 10-15 eligible females, Lisa, would physical attributes be the only thing in play? And would secluded villages (or planetary outposts) suffer from a sameness/inbreeding issue that would lend credence to why we deem "exotic" attractive (ie: no longer of the same gene pool and less likely to inbreed problems)?

    Rowena, it sounds like your example not only had strong genes but an easy zipper in his jeans...

    Fitz, the symmetry thing is mentioned in the wiki article I linked to. I think again it's based on eye-positioning, which relates to the ability to detect predators. Could be wrong...

    Eons ago when I was in grad school, I dated a guy who was friends with a married couple who were both blind. They had no idea what the other looked like. I imagine they "fell in love" certainly not a first sight but perhaps first sound or scent?

    Just some thoughts... ~Linnea

  5. I'm thinking that people who are requarded as beautiful are the people who know how to make the rest of their society think they are beautiful and this has more to do with psycology than actual looks. It seems to me that if you have that skill, and you know how to work it, you can set the beauty trends for your society or at least get them bent to include you, almost without reguard to what you really look like.

    I think there are dozens of examples of people who became Hollywood icons based on charisma, not looks. It think it's more common with male actors, than female actors, but there are women who pull it off.

    But I might be wrong.


  6. Perhaps in a future world being fertile will be the thing of choice, able to bear children so we'll all shift back into being Botticelli women with large rumps and breasts (oh hey I live there now!! bring on the future, lol).

  7. >But when survival is no longer a crushing problem, these hallmarks can change.

    Makes me wonder if we're wired for certain instincts/genetic traits reasserting themselves in the event that survival does become a crushing problem again.

    My guess is the hallmarks might change as we evolve and develop different needs (can't remember where, but I once read that we may evolve to the point of having no body hair--anywhere--because it'd be useless with all the modern tech to keep us warm), but if something catastrophic threatens humanity's survival, they'd kick in again.

    So people with features like Marilyn Monroe or Angelina Jolie may not always be the definition of beauty, but would our DNA dictate that at least one or two of them occur in every generation, just in case?

  8. I didn't get my point across very well, but I think in the future beauty will be defined more by psychology than genetics for the vast majority of people.

    Maybe on your isolated outpost, or colony based on some sort of philosophical or biological experiment unusual and environmentally driven standard of beauty will pop up, but for most people beauty standards will be arbitrary and shifting and marketing driven,like, pop-music trends.

    If people ever to get the ability to shape their kids I can see this leading to waves of kids with what the "hot" new trend of the year. One year it would be quick sturdy brown-eyed, pink cheeked blonds, the next languid willowy dark skinned red-heads, etc the way we have waves of Britneys, Ashelys, and Emilys today. You would be able to look at someone and tell were, and when, they were born if you followed the fashion scene.