There's a wonderful "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip where Calvin wakes up in the middle of the night and calls loudly for his mother. Calvin's mother, wearing an old nightgown and a tired expression, comes in and asks what's going on. Calvin says he's been wondering how ugly creatures like octopuses and centipedes reproduce, since they can't possibly find each other attractive. Calvin's mother becomes understandably annoyed and storms out demanding that he go back to sleep. At this Calvin turns to Hobbes and says, "Actually, I wonder how people reproduce."
I've always been fascinated by how some very fundamental things about the human condition can seem so bizarre when analyzed dispassionately (for instance, from the point of view of a six-year-old child). And of all the strange things about the human condition, I find our preoccupation with physical beauty one of the strangest. Not, of course, from a biological point of view but rather in the light of our own moral ideals.
There's an article in the latest issue of National Geographic on the subject of physical beauty. Among the conclusions that studies reveal: Attractive people make more money, receive more attention in school, get lighter court sentences and are generally perceived as friendlier; babies look longer at faces that adults consider more attractive; blond was the hair dye of choice for the women of ancient Greece; and three years after television was introduced in Fiji, 15 percent of girls had started trying vomiting to lose weight.
When I was little I often heard adults say that physical beauty was an empty thing and that books should not be judged by their covers. I wholeheartedly agreed. Goodness that involved moral merit, intelligence and perseverance were productive, but beauty seemed like a perfectly worthless quality. I remember being very puzzled when I browsed through the encyclopedia and came across an article on Phryne, a Greek courtesan from the 4th century B.C. who earned such wealth through her beauty that she offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes on the condition that they should be inscribed, "Destroyed by Alexander, Restored by Phryne the Courtesan." I couldn't understand how she got to share space in the encyclopedia with scientists and world leaders just because she had been pretty.
Time passed and I began to realize that people are strongly biologically conditioned to respond more favorably to the pretty. But surely, I thought to myself, as rational creatures we can recognize when our biological inclinations are unjust and keep them in check. So I was extremely surprised when I discovered that Plato, the most celebrated philosopher in the Western tradition and a champion of virtue and reason, believed that an appreciation for physical beauty was the first step in the ascent towards the contemplation of the abstract "form of the good."
How could that be? What did the abstract, immutable beauty of, say, geometry, have to do with the concrete, transitory comeliness of a face, or even of a sunset? Clearly for a whole lot of people the appreciation of concrete beauty is not the beginning of a route to moral or intellectual perfection but the exact opposite.
Besides, how about the children whose parents neglect them so they can lavish their affection on a prettier sibling? The girls whom no one asks to the prom? The Elephant Man indentured to the owner of a freak show? The bulimic Fijian women? The Marilyn Monroes sucked into a spiritually empty world that leads to suffering and death? The spoiled favorites who end up incapable of contentment? All those corrupted and destroyed by their own charms? Could that be the route to the contemplation of the "form of the good?"
Many people believe that the standards of physical beauty are cultural constructs. I wish they were, but I doubt it. Research indicates surprising regularities in what various cultures consider an attractive face or a well-formed figure. Many of these standards seem to have a biological basis (for instance, the waist-to-hip ratio that men consider most attractive in women is the one that is most likely to ensure the successful delivery of a baby). And why did the women of ancient Greece become so enchanted by the blonde hair of the barbarian captives? Why are "Baywatch" and Titanic so vastly popular in Iran? But even if the standard of beauty were to be in some sense universal or biologically coded, that would not make it good. We are creatures of reason who should be more concerned with justice and happiness than with mere reproductive success.