Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty

Ever wonder why babies are cute, why gentlemen prefer blondes, or why the human ballsack is the size that it is? Hmmm, ok maybe not that last one, but the answers are pretty interesting.

The subject of beauty is far from only skin deep, and it strikes me how very perfect the book’s title is. Beauty isn’t just incidental, and the source of frivolous fun or petty envy. It’s deeply tied into our instincts as living things, something we share with even the flowers, and goes back virtually as far as we do. This book leaves no stone unturned, and encompasses science, sociology, and of course biology in a way that’s truly fun to read. Not only that, but Nancy Etcoff’s own personal touch is extremely compelling, and this alone makes the book worth a read. This combined with the huge amount of learning inside is likely to leave you with a whole new perspective on a subject you once held strong and long-lived opinions about.

What’s interesting here is the particular way that this information offers up new meaning to the subject of beauty. To understand how beauty has transformed us biologically and culturally into the creatures that we are, it becomes both more important and yet less important all at once. Without beauty, we simple would not be, but who we have become also gives us the power to appreciate it in the most enlightening way possible. This isn’t a book so much about sitting in front of the mirror, putting on makeup and poking at your belly as it is about humanity itself. It strikes me as extremely valuable, and it can and should be read by people of all genders and ages. This book is awesome, and as it meets both my demands of educational and entertaining, I can’t recommend it enough.

Rather just see the movie? Well, there isn’t one exactly, but you might want to check out The Human Face.

Other recommended reads:  The History of Beauty, Sex in History.

Mirror, Mirror, Off The Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at it For a Year

Omg I can’t believe I read this so long ago but still haven’t written a word in review. Well, since my blog has been a big stagnant lately it’s worth a shot trying to remember this one.

I first heard about this book when the author was interviewed on The Daily Show. This is a sociologist who challenged herself to not look in a mirror – or any reflecting surfaces – for an entire year. A year which just so happened to include her wedding day. Now while this may come across as a nice fluffy little self-esteem booster book, the author is well-educated enough to take this subject deeper, and we’re not left without a good dose of accessibly written psychology and sociology. I can’t remember all of the points she made, but the most fascinating one to me was exploring how mirrors almost serve as a form of companionship when we’re alone. We know it’s only the illusion of another person sitting there, we’re not beta fish, but we get a small amount of satisfaction that there is either way. Mirrors also have a way of affirming our existence. It sounds silly, obviously we know we exist, but it was interesting to note how Kjerstin started to feel after some time, almost doubting that because she couldn’t see herself, she wasn’t really there. She could only see other people.

The biggest message I got out of this book though was not that she suddenly started feeling physically beautiful – she was forced to focus more on her emotions, deep within herself, and her loved ones around her, those outside of herself, as opposed to the body in between. She learned to trust those around her more because she relied on them to make sure that she didn’t, say, have a booger hanging out of her nose, and she learned to pay more attention to her emotional self-esteem rather than her appearance. She didn’t feel beautiful because she knew she looked beautiful – she felt beautiful because she felt loved by those around her, and that’s what really mattered. Her appearance still caused her anxiety, especially as she had no idea what she looked like, but she gradually learned not to care. It simply wasn’t important. I think that’s a very valuable thing to take away here. Some people are ugly. Yep. While it’s nice to want to make ugly people, or yourself, feel physically beautiful, I felt the most important thing here was to learn that it just plain doesn’t matter. It’s such a tiny part of life. What matters is your mind, and your soul, and your relationships. Looks are a thing, but they’re not anywhere near being the most important thing. We have so much more to get our validation and happiness from. And while learning these important lessons it was nice to hear about these soul-searching thoughts and every day experiences from a very educated, sympathetic, real-life person. This wasn’t philosophy, it was real. We get to read all of her insecurities, all her learning experiences, and how all her relationships evolve. It was enlightening and it was fun. This was a great book, but it was great in a way that I didn’t expect. I feel that it could easily prove to be an important book for a whole lot of us, women, men, or anybody else.

Why I Only Read Men’s Magazines

When I was a kid, trips to the library with my dad were routine. When I didn’t go with him he would always come home with a big stack of magazine back issues, some for him, some for me. His picks for himself were Men’s Health, Esquire, and the odd GQ. His picks for me were Cosmo, or Elle. With a side by side comparison easily available, it was clear to me which pile was superior. Though by then my opinion was already pretty firmly established.

My school library in junior high and high school always had a selection of Seventeen available. It was the only thing they had that wasn’t about cars or computers, two things I didn’t particularly care about, and when you’re trying to work on your algebra and write papers in French, there isn’t always time for good literature. So I always grabbed the Seventeens, and always walked out of the library a little more pissed off than I was when I walked in.

It’s not that they were completely without value. I enjoyed the article about the chick who played Topanga back in 1998, I guess. But even to my 15 year old mind, there were already some problems that started to really stand out. Every Traumarama had to do with something happening in front of the contributor’s crush. Obviously you don’t want the boy you like in junior high to see you with, say, a period stain on your pants or something, but the message I got from this being the only person you could be embarrassed in front of was that pleasing boys was incredibly important. It didn’t matter if you looked stupid in front of your teachers. It was all about the boys. This was at a time when I was being told what to wear by my friends based on what the boys would like, and I was told that I shouldn’t have turned down a date from a really nice guy I just wasn’t attracted to because it would have made me popular. I do regret not saying yes, but that’s because he seemed like a great guy. The admiration of others had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Then there were the hair and makeup tutorials. Sure, I wanted to learn about those things, and I still do! But apparently I can’t do this or that hairstyle unless I have some Bumble and Bumble heat protectant spray or a Conair flat iron. Well, I was a kid and I worked at McDonald’s, so nevermind then. Feeling pretty must just not have been in the cards for a broke-ass like me. Then there was the article I saw about scooter safety. Remember those? They were huge. But the thing is, teenage girls didn’t ride them. Young boys did. I had one, but I didn’t ride it very far. My crush would have laughed at me (sarcasm). It immediately struck me that the people writing this magazine knew absolutely nothing about their audience, besides the fact that they were incredibly insecure, and this was an easy and profitable thing to exploit. That had to be how they got away with all the advertising not so subtly hidden in every article they had. But it doesn’t take a genius to know that. They even published an article called “The Pretty Disease,” and I was relieved to read all the angry letters to the editor a month later from girls intelligent enough to know that when it comes to diseases, looks are not exactly something you should be focusing on.

I don’t remember quite when I noticed that it wasn’t just Seventeen treating women and girls this way, that it was all women’s magazines. It was a gradual thing. But it got pretty damn repetitive to see that Cosmo seemed to be exclusively about sex tips to drive your man wild and the big story on Women’s World was always how someone lost 100 pounds, with a cupcake recipe coming in second. Every. Single. Issue. I had to mention out loud at one point “Is this really all women care about? Really?” to be met with fervent agreement from an older woman standing in front of me. So I’m glad I’m not the only one who notices something is wrong here. I’m not saying that there’s no value in wanting to feel attractive. But why must this be to the utter abandonment of all else? Why must we only feel attractive when we’re allowing someone else to profit? It makes us feel bad, and it gives us absolutely no credit.

It was for this reason that I never even touched the women’s magazines my dad brought home for me. I grabbed Men’s Health, full of cool articles about the body, even when it’s not being used for sex. I grabbed Esquire, for the thought-provoking pieces on people who influence culture in our society, no matter how good-looking they may or may not be. There were book reviews, cocktail recipes, and pieces on science and advancing your career, things you just never see in a women’s magazine, as if  “chicks just don’t care about that stuff.” And sure, I occasionally picked up a GQ because the men were hot, but at least it wasn’t telling me that I needed to buy an overpriced lipstick to appeal to them.

The men’s magazines of course have their fair share of information on how to appeal to women. But at least they’re well-rounded. The articles never seem to rob men of their dignity, and there’s plenty in there about building up a strong sense of self. How to be classy, how to be a decent person, how to take care of your body, and how to be a success in your career. How to dress well just for the sake of dressing well and not becoming a person of walmart. Instead of getting the impression of the target market as being vapid, insecure man/woman-chasers, I get the impression that these are some classy motherfuckers. These are people I actually want to have a conversation with. These are people I want to get to know, not just fuck. Remember that what you surround yourself with has a pretty strong influence on who you are. Which would you rather be?