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The Beauty Quandary
We know it; We don't talk about it.
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic dives straight into something many would like to overlook: Beauty. The problem is we might like to overlook it but we look at it all the time. And we judge it. We’ll have the difficult conversation about what ‘looking good’ means and then attempt to unpack so much more of the implications and deep-rooted attraction we have to good looks. Hang on for an interesting ride as we look into a mirror of the quandary of beauty.
A few weeks ago, there was a post on LinkedIn that caught my attention. It made a claim that good-looking women got more Venture Capital (VC) funding because ‘jerk’ men were expressing misogynist bias. The post concluded by saying they were ‘bored’ with the entire conversation.
Yet what is fascinating about the entire topic is that, when you step back, there’s nothing boring about the multiple idiosyncrasies and complexities of what good looks are, what they represent, how much impact they have, and how we work really hard to improve our own looks.
For example, the post in question attempts to make Venture Capital sound like a bunch of misogynist frat boys only ogling at pretty girls. But when you dig a bit deeper you also find attractive men make up a disproportionate volume of VC funding as well. (so maybe VC is just bisexual?)
This really shouldn’t be at all surprising because, in Biology and Psychology 101, we learn about trait and type selection. The only thing edgy about this is focusing on it as if this only affected women and making it sound like it's not natural. When we look at the systems perspective, we can see how all life on this planet selects for sexual fitness and that is manifested in our looks. (by and large)
That's an uncomfortable fact as it forces us to accept that nature doesn't care about equality and equity. In fact, survival of the fittest is the opposite of both. Humans have inherited selection bias buried deep within our psyche. Looks, personality, and intelligence are highly dependent on genetics, and we inherit so much more than we think. We weren’t randomly placed in a body or born in a location.
Who we are isn’t random and our genes can be affected by trauma, starvation, war, and the successes or failures of our ancestors. Then further impacted by our own lived experiences. When the Bible talks about the sins of the father being on the 4th and 5th generations it’s talking about how decisions that deviate from success (Torah) have long-term ramifications down the line. We see this with something as simple as prison which has a dramatic effect on the incarcerated person’s children. We are literally the manifestations of mate selection, education, health, and life decisions of every person in our genetic line. This includes intelligence, personality, and looks.
We are literally the manifestations of mate selection, education, health, and life decisions of every person in our genetic line.
Not to go too far afield down generational genetics since that’s fascinating in its own right, let’s pull back and focus on attractiveness or ‘good looks’ as just one instantiation on the impact of success.
I had a conversation with a female friend, and I was told that, when she dressed up for a girl’s night or to go out with her boyfriend, all she wanted to do was ‘look good’ and that there was zero intent for sexual suggestiveness. So, I asked her what ‘Looking Good’ meant and how to qualify ‘goodness.’
The conversation quickly went off the rails because there’s an unspoken definition we don’t like to accept:
Looking Good: Adjective - The presence in a group from which you present as one of the select and few most eligible or most desirable.
This is my working definition because you won’t find one penned anywhere but let’s break it down. What does looking good really mean?
As a guy, it means that when I walk into a group my physical stature (size, fitness, proportions, posture), my dress (stylish, appropriate, well-kept, intentional), and my poise (confidence, agreeableness, humor) blend together to where I catch the eyes of the most eligible women AND the acceptance as equal of the most eligible men. Simply put, I’m a catch for almost all women and competition for almost all men.
The same is true for women. It’s not that you would, but that you could. It’s turning heads and catching eyes. And nothing has to happen except that you know you’ve done so.
Now here’s an interesting twist: We also like to show off our partners as well. A man wants other men to desire his partner and a woman wants other women to desire hers. (The similar is also true of homosexual relationships as well) Looking good and having your partner look good elevates both statuses.
I’ll take this one step even further. Looking good and having your partner look good says “Not only am I at the top of my hierarchy, but my partner is also at the top of theirs.” Double impact and increased ‘goodness’ as we advertise our ability to succeed.
How it’s done:
While I’ve just scratched the surface on what the overall implications are, let’s dig in to show how this really manifests in how we dress, prim, and prep ourselves to look good.
Women will put on makeup in a specific manner to highlight looks that make them appear healthier, younger, and taller.
Men wear outfits and stand in ways that accent or augment a body type. In fact, dress outfits for men are based on military uniforms both augmenting the figure and harkening to martial prowess. Even if it isn’t a uniform there are still the 'Dad Bod' shirts that try to hide their gut.
Women’s clothing is designed to augment hips and breasts to display the overt feminine characteristics more clearly.
Oh, and lest you think men don't wear makeup... They do and have for most of history for the same reasons as women.
There’s another entire essay worth of insights into how humans communicate ‘looking good’ but for this essay, the clothing and makeup/styling are enough to make the point. We spend a lot of money, time, and talent to present ourselves. In the professional world, we call this Dressing for Success and yes, there is a marked difference in styles between men and women which highlight different things (another essay for another time)
We do this because it signals, deep into our evolutionary past, both a current competency and a genetic viability both past and future. It’s nature’s middle finger to equality and yet, it’s not random at all. We are literally the manifestations of mate selection, education, health, and life decisions of every person in our genetic line.
It also demonstrates health, viability, wealth, and status among our contemporaries and, in doing so, strives to achieve improved social and economic outcomes. While it doesn’t work all of the time, it works enough of the time that it’s coded deep into our brains well below our moral qualms about the implications.
Now, before you go running off with accusations of eugenics or plans for a master race; accepting the biological reality that our genetics and ‘looking good’ in general bestow social and sexual benefits doesn’t mean that there’s superiority per se. At least, that’s not where I want this to go.
Fundamentally, having an honest conversation about the topic helps us name and identify something we are probably doing with limited conscious consideration. However, I do think the sensitivity on the topic is largely due to the fact that we kind of do know, deep down, why we both strive to make ourselves look good and also constantly worry that we are doing this.
So yes, pretty women get more funding for Start-ups but that’s to be expected because it signals a biological success of historical precedence. Also, labeling the Venture Capitalists as 'jerks' ignores that these same men also give more funding to petty men and likely for the same underlying reasons.
Making this seem out of the ordinary is no way to actually solve the problem because it's so much deeper and more rooted than we'd care to admit. Being 'bored' with the conversation, as the author of the LinkedIn post closed with, ignores some actually fascinating insights into humanity that we should talk about.
While it does challenge the equality that we might hope would happen, deep down even Alison Taylor (the post author) knows that looks DO matter as she carefully curates her profile picture and her online persona to project certain characteristics and attends work and social events with intentional attention to her presentation.
We need to name it, acknowledge it, explore it, and then determine what we want to do about it. It’s a similar problem that we explored in Eliminating Bias in AI/ML in how we might apply solutions but only when we understand the complexity. It’s also aligned very closely with Stereotyping Properly because everything we explored here today is all about applying stereotypes to ourselves and others. Only when we look at the larger system can break the quandary and find what appear to be counterintuitive insights, but in reality, are just the holistic perspective.
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