Self-Perception and Beauty

I’ve seen this story on my Facebook news feed for the last day or two, but I just watched it. It was fantastic.

I can’t really describe it without spoiling it, so I won’t try. But I like what it says about beauty. I think our conversations on the topic are often pinned between two extremes: either the pursuit of a very particular and artificial kind of beauty or a rebellion against thinking that beauty should even matter at all, especially for women.

One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is voices. No one seems to think that it’s shallow or superficial to recognize beauty in a human voice, and yet it’s just as much a product of random genetics and superficial body structure as visual beauty. Why is that? I think partially it’s because we know that a beautiful voice is a combination of what you’re lucky enough to be born with, but also of training and effort you take to improving it. We also recognize intuitively that there are wide variety of voices that are all beautiful in their own ways.

But there’s something even deeper. When you see a video or a photo of someone and try to assess whether or not they are beautiful, you’re only seeing a tiny fraction of what I think makes up visual beauty. You’re not seeing motion (not in real 3d, with depth and context), and you’re not seeing live interaction. When you hear a song, however, you’re actually getting a lot of the experience of audio beauty. So our concept of audio beauty is actually pretty robust, but our concept of visual beauty is weirdly warped.

The emphasis on photos and videos as the standard of beauty means that we’re asking men and especially women to conform to a standard that absolutely doesn’t exist. I mean, this is before we even get to the topic of weight and body-image: trying to live “up” to the beauty of a photo or video means trying to be a beautiful picture instead of a beautiful person. It’s impossible, wasteful, and tragic.

3 thoughts on “Self-Perception and Beauty”

  1. A couple of thoughts on this video and your post. The first is that I know someone who worked for Dove’s print marketing campaign a number of years ago, when Dove began the whole “natural beauty” thing. Sadly, his job was in graphic arts–he had to smooth out skin, erase blemishes, thin the thighs at bit. Not so natural, and not AS natural as Dove would like us to believe.

    Second is that I read about a study a few years back that showed that people actually think they are MORE attractive than they really are. The experimenters took photographs of test subjects and then had a professional alter them ever so slightly to do what my friend did: smooth out skin, erase blemishes, etc. The differences were subtle: we’re not talking nose jobs and liposuction. But the vast majority of the time, subjects, when presented with both photos (the touched and untouched), chose the touched-up ones as being their actual images. I’ve thought about that study a lot since reading it, and I wonder if it says something about the nature of hope and optimism or about our need for outside validation or simply our tendency to think critical thoughts about ourselves but to still also see the good in ourselves, physically or otherwise.

    I like your point about trying to be a beautiful picture instead of a beautiful person. Life in action is always more attractive than life inert.

  2. Yeah, I think it’s probably because of the well-deserved bad press on past transgressions that Dove launched this campaign.

    As far as the study, I’m not sure it’s that cut-and-dry. Perception is a really, really tricky thing to measure. I think having them describe themselves to a sketch artist may have triggered a more objective assessment than picking a photo out that they knew someone else would see. In that case, you have to wonder if the competing urge to look good in front of an audience drowned out self-perception.

    I certainly wouldn’t write it off based on my theory, but I think it’s an open question–based on the two approaches–what our self-perception actually is. The answer probably includes the fact that it changes significantly based on context.

  3. I’d also like to add that photos are tricky in general. We often really don’t “look like ourselves” in a photo. Pick out 20 candid photos of yourself and you’ll notice a wide range in how you look in a photograph. It doesn’t take much (odd lighting, certain angles etc) to make you look worse than you really look in real life OR better than you “really” look. I think most of us are at least somewhat aware of the trickiness of photography and are very used to the idea that a photograph is not precise. We are used to – almost conditioned – to look for the more flattering photos because if photos aren’t 100 percent accurate anyway, why pick an unusually ugly one to represent ourselves? Of course, sometimes we’re aware we’re choosing a photo that is almost “too” flattering to be accurate (say for our profile pics, haha), but other times, we’re not necessarily cognizant of every aspect of the photo that is different than our actual appearance… we just know we look our best in a certain photo and, at least for self-preservation (haha), have to throw out the worst photos as inaccurate (as they often are – just like the best photos). So, yeah, giving test subjects photos might not be a great strategy. I hope this made sense… I’ve never actually articulated this phenomenon… it’s just something that has always been in the back of my head (especially as someone who is not photogenic. I am very used to photos being inaccurate or unrealistically unflattering. And we all know those photogenic folks who no matter how many days it has been since they’ve had a shower, they take a great picture!).

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