Beauty is a short-lived tyranny. Socrates


Beauty is the promise of happiness. Stendhal


Beautiful woman, beautiful trouble. Jamaican proverb


Who is the smartest woman that ever lived? Surely the one who invented make-up. For cosmetics irrevocably shifted the balance in the war between the sexes in favour of females. By artificially emphasizing all those attributes of nubile young girls in their reproductive prime that disable the male brain – smooth skin, glowing eyes, lustrous eyelashes, ripe lips, shining nails, silken hair - cosmetics transformed women’s slight natural advantage in physical attractiveness into an unassailable weapon of subjection. And modern tools like face lifts, hair extensions, and breast implants have only reinforced this female power. How many men who would not walk across the street to talk to a woman in her natural state become virtually willing to sell their souls for one night with the same female decked out in glittering synthetic glory!


“Beauty is proof against spears” wrote the Greek poet Hesiod. For few men can resist it, real or perceived. Which is why even in a poor country like Jamaica expensive lipsticks, face powders and body lotions never lack for buyers. It is no accident that woman-subjugating societies such as Taliban Afghanistan ban not only cosmetics but revealing clothes, high heels and anything that accentuates the female face or form. Keep them unadorned and covered up, the reasoning seems to be, and they cannot bewitch us – we hope.


But in democracies like Jamaica female ascendancy is almost complete and unchallenged. Men have much shorter life spans than women, commit suicide over four times as often, and make up over 90% of murder victims and prisoners. The most degrading and dangerous jobs like sewer cleaning, garbage collecting, and infantry soldiering are strictly male preserves. And while men earn most of the money, it is nearly all spent by and on women. There are at least 10 women’s clothing stores for every men’s and woman make an estimated 80% of buying decisions for their mates. “Every woman” wrote Schopenhaur “believes in her heart that it is the man’s job to make money and hers to spend it, if not when he is alive at any rate when he is dead”. Yet despite all this statistical evidence to the contrary, women have been able to convince many men that it is males who are in the superior situation. Such is the power of beauty, god-given or woman-made.


Beauty has always been the most sought after of commodities, and the most famous war in history was fought over Helen of Troy, whose matchless face famously “launched a thousand ships”. But no era has ever been so obsessed by appearances as our video age. For the dominant shaper of attitudes in today’s world is television, and it focuses almost entirely on the physically attractive. Incessantly bombarded by images of perfect looking people enhanced by lighting, make up and plastic surgery, we come to imagine that this is what most people look like.


Of course the average person is average looking, a fact we used to accept quite readily. But with television distorting our frame of reference, what researchers call the “contrast-effect” comes into play. So we all start expecting to have good looking mates like the ones we see on the screen, and become unhappy with our ordinary looking real life partners.


The contrast-effect has measurable real life consequences. While US teachers for instance generally have low divorce rates, male high school teachers and university professors have very high ones. Sociologists say this is because they are in constant contact with young woman in their reproductive prime, and so often become dissatisfied with their older and less sexually desirable mates.


European researchers have even shown mathematically the detrimental effect of what they call the “Vogue” factor on overall mating satisfaction. Early 1960s studies showed that when people use varied criteria for choosing a mate, everyone tends to end up reasonably content. But the globalization of television, films and magazines has changed this. For they now overwhelmingly show only good looking people of a particular type, in effect standardizing ideals of beauty worldwide. (These largely Caucasian standards have an even greater effect on non-Caucasian societies, as when black women chemically bleach their skin and Asian women surgically enlarge their eyes.)


But when everyone seeks a mate with the same type of good looks, it becomes more and more difficult to make more people happy. Since the same few people top everyone’s list of physical desirability, only a tiny minority comes close to being matched with their primary choices. So nearly everyone ends up unhappy with the partners they get.


Yet the lucky beautiful few seem to fare even worse. For according to a recent American study, exceptionally attractive people tend to form partnerships that are less stable and satisfying than plainer folk. The beautiful are treated as special from childhood, which frequently creates arrogance and insecurity. And good looks are often considered an alternative to education.


As a result beautiful people score poorly on the five main factors US therapists consider when counseling couples. These are neuroticism, including anger and anxiety; extroversion; openness to new experiences; agreeableness; and conscientiousness, or sticking by agreements you have made. Attractive persons often see no reason to try to change until their looks start to fade. And being on top of the mating chain means beautiful people are often so terrified of making the wrong decision that they end up with nothing. Or as my aunt used to say, they pick pick till they pick sh--.


All in all it seems that while human beings will do almost anything to attain and win beauty, it does nothing but make both seekers and possessors unhappy. Which makes no sense at all. But then everything about beauty is a paradox. There is nothing at once so potent and ephemeral. "What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness” wrote Tolstoy.


And it really is totally illogical to value so highly something which tells you nothing about a person’s character or personality, and in a sense is not even really part of them. For beauty must inevitably vanish, and has no past tense. But that does not stop many intelligent men from acting like blathering fools over empty headed pretty faces and squandering fortunes on them.


Oh what fools we mortals be!

(Sources: Psychology Today, August 2001. Sunday Times, August 26, 2001)

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