Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nancy Etcoff--Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (1999)

Etcoff uses evidence from evolutionary biology to analyze and define the idea of beauty.  Contrary to more common understandings of beauty, which typically see it as a culturally constructed concept, bound to time and place, Etcoff claims that “there is a core reality to beauty that exists buried within the cultural constructs and the myths” (233).  Etcoff says that her work posits an “argument for beauty as a biological adaptation….beauty is a universal part ofhuman experience, and…it provokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes” (24).  Tracing her project back to classical thinkers who similarly tried to quantify beauty, Etcoff examines various elements which seem to underlie all human concepts of beauty, such as symmetry, highlighted gender-specific physiological differences (such as female breasts and male square jaws), and certain markers of youth and nobility, such are large, round eyes.
Etcoff’s work is strongest when she is delineating these specific characteristics and showing how they have evolutionarily functioned to signal health and fecundity.  However, I question quite a bit of her argument, as she often makes sweeping statements with citations functioning more as a confirmation bias than providing credible source material.  For example, Etcoff says that “Men want to be more promiscuous than women, and often desire more variety in partners” (52), though she provides no source for this statement.  Or, after pointing out that men, unlike women, have no physical markers of fertility, she concludes that “This difference is the sole basis for the erotic visual preference for women in their teens and twenties,” and cites a 1986 article on “Age and infertility” as her sole source for such a statement.
Not only are many of her statements backed up by single studies from the 1980s, but I also question the credibility of many of the people she cites.  In addition to quoting such questionable cultural critics such as Fran Lebowitz, Camille Paglia, and Susan Sontag, she also attributes unquestioned authority to “experts” whose credibility I question.  For example, she quotes “psychiatrist Robert Stoller [who] has described ‘most men of most cultures’ as ‘whole race of erotic minifetishists’” (71).  A bit of internet research revealed that Robert Stoller, while indeed a psychiatrist, wrote quite a bit about how most sexual behavior concealed hostility and had emotional wounds as their basis.  Or, citing “feminist Karen Lehrman”’s claim that “‘allowing beautiful women their beauty may turn out to be one of the most difficult aspects of personal liberation’” (243), Etcoff fails to note that Lehrman’s work has primarily been about the failings of feminism to allow for individuality and self-expression, especially through the use of cosmetics.
Etcoff also uses the concepts of beauty, attractiveness, and sex-appeal interchangeably, conflating what I think are very different concepts.  While I do appreciate the differentiation of feminine and masculine traits and their possible evolutionary functions of adaptation, this work would have been much more useful had she been much clearer about the differences in these three concepts.  In my own work on theorizing ugliness, I did find it important to note that, with a few exceptions on the reproductive advantages of more symmetrical genitalia, Etcoff’s focus was primarily on facial structure.  While descriptions of ugly women are as often about bodies as they are about faces; it’s possible that ugliness is a more bodily characteristic than beauty, which is perhaps primarily located on the face?  Etcoff does very infrequently mention ugliness (or even homeliness, which is even less defined), though she does locate a historical meaning for it. Quoting sixteenth century author Baldassare Castiglione, Etcoff explains that the Renaissance’s idea of ugliness saw it as a reflection of a damned soul: “Ugliness was a sign of the bad, mad, or dangerous.  Deformities, ugliness, and disease were seen as stigmas branded onto the body by a wrathful God” (41).  Ironically, the equation of physical ugliness with a corrupted soul does go along with the idea I’m working with that ugliness was often a marker in southern fiction of sexuality, when sexuality was a form of moral corruption.

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