Monday, October 22, 2007

Beauty: Nature versus Nurture

I recently commented on the Scripturally Single blog regarding standards of beauty and want to write some on the subject here as well so that I don’t post an excessively long comment there. The author of the blog who has taken the pseudonym of Anakin Niceguy (I’ll use AN for short) has put forth the idea that what men find attractive is innate and has claimed that the basis for this is both scientific and scriptural. I find this idea problematic and more importantly I think it may create unnecessary controversy which I explained in a comment there.

I do want to make clear, however, exactly what I am NOT saying. I in no way believe that any man owes it to any woman (me included) to find her attractive (and vice versa). I also understand that men may feel insulted by church leaders who lecture them regarding these issues. I don’t think anyone should tell you who you should be attracted to. I have always said that people have a right to their preferences regarding who they are attracted to and I still believe that is true. I also think all believers should be open to what God has to say to them as an individual about their preferences, myself included (at some point I am going to write about how I have erred in this area myself ).

Back to the point: While I do agree that we know from research that men tend to be stimulated far more than women by what they see. It isn’t the fact that men are visually stimulated and that God made them that way that I would disagree with. It is the idea that what a man finds visually stimulating is biologically innate and God ordained rather than culturally defined that I disagree with. My contention is that generally speaking standards of beauty differ from culture to culture and over the course of time. So the subject of this blog entry as well as the next one will be to address this question: Are the current beauty ideals and standards biologically driven and God ordained or are they culturally determined?

I recommend you read what AN wrote on the subject both in the post I commented on and in the linked entries (1, 2 and 3) in his response to me to understand his perspective. I don’t disagree with some of what he has said, and I confess as well that I may not have quite understood all of what he said so I am open to having my mind changed in the presence of appropriate evidence. AN gives various reasons for holding the views he has about attractiveness and beauty including scripture and science so in this post I am going to discuss why I believe these reasons are weak, or at least that adequate “proof” has not been provided. First I will discuss some of the scriptures AN refers to.

AN refers to the Song of Solomon as proof that visual stimuli is important in attraction for many people and I believe that this is true. The Song of Solomon does express attraction based on how the beloved and the lover look, or as AN refers to it: their “body parts”. However, there are no specifics about what kinds of body parts are being found attractive or acceptable. For example the woman’s waist is referred to as “a mound of wheat encircled by lilies”….um, ok, that does not really tell me what body type is preferable though the term “mound” leads me to conjecture that her stomach wasn’t exactly flat and that, however it was, her lover liked it that way. The woman’s skin is also referred to as dark and lovely though it is clear that dark skin is not the cultural standard of beauty at the time as the passage refers to her being scorned because she is dark from working in the vineyard. So does scripture back up the idea that visual stimuli important? Yes, but it does not define what is beautiful in terms of appearance.

AN also argues that attractiveness is referred to in the Bible with certain persons being referred to as attractive or not and this is true. However the passages he refers to give no specifics about what makes a person attractive or not. Leah and Rachel are mentioned and the Bible does tell us that Leah was considered less attractive than her sister Rachel because she had “weak eyes” whatever that may mean. Interestingly Jacob’s marriage to both sisters produced no end of trouble for him and in the end it was Leah, the less attractive sister, who bore the child (Judah) whose descendants included King David and Jesus. What that means, I don’t know, but what I do know from this is that the Bible does not specify what features (blue, green or brown eyes?), shapes of body parts, or other physical features should be viewed as the ideal of beauty. If anyone knows of any please share that information.

I will address some of the science and research issues in my next entry.


Triton said...

Howdy, Learner. I saw your comment at Anakin's and thought I'd drop by.

One thing you might want to keep in mind is that there are several folks that comment anonymously at Anakin's blog, and sometimes it's easy to get them all confused. I know it frustrates the heck out of me; I mean, it's really not that hard to come up with a handle, you know? Anyway, my point is that Anakin may have been responding to another anonymous, not you, so don't be too quick to take his criticism to heart.

As for your contention that beauty is culturally determined, you are correct, but only to a certain extent. Some things are universally attractive; this has been demonstrated by showing simple drawings of female figures to rainforest tribes and asking the men which ones they like the best. As it turns out, they preferred wide hips and a narrow waist, just like the rest of us. And they certainly hadn't been affected by any American cutural norms. The finer points of what makes a woman attractive are cultural, but the broad strokes are universal.

I think it's important to remember, also, that some American ideas of "beauty" are determined by women and gay men. The fashion industry comes to mind; female models are usually too thin and androgynous because there aren't any straight men around to influence things. Hollywood is similarly flawed, though not to the same extent. I think a good case study would be to compare the average body types (and perhaps even facial features) of models, actresses, and porn stars. I think there would be some significant differences and some very interesting conclusions.

Finally, on a personal note, I hope you don't let this whole singleness/marriage thing get you down too much. Things are screwed up, but it's the fault of the older generations, not ours. So when you get frustrated, blame the Baby Boomers. It works for me. ;)

singlechristianman said...

Also dropping by from Anakin's site, and adding you to my 'blogroll.

singlechristianman said...

I think it is Atler's translation of Genesis which translates "weak" eyes as "delicate" -- so the effect is something like "Rachel was good looking, but Leah had nice eyes." Any man can tell you that they recognize the concept of "nice eyes." :)

The Learner said...

Howdy back at ya and thanks for your comment. As I mentioned yesterday I palnned to continue my thoughts on this today from a more scientific perspective (which I had already mostly written yesterday)and I refer to the very cross cultural waist to hip ratio study you referred to in your comment lol, and I agree with you to a point.

The point that women and gay men control much of the fashion industry is one I had not thought about till recently and I agree that is part of the problem for sure.

And, yeah, a pox upon those baby boomers who screwed this up for the rest of us! ;)

The Learner said...

Single Christian Guy,

Thanks for stopping by and for the alternate translation describing Leah's nice eyes :)

ame said...

My ex is addicted to porn and was sleeping with prostitutes. I don't know much, but I know that men get to choose a lot ... like what color hair, eyes, body shape, etc ... that would lend itself to the reality that what one finds attractive is personal.

Though women are much less stimulated by appearance than men, I was in a restaurant with a friend when she said, "See that man over there ... that's the kind of man I'm attracted to." Not only would I have NOT guessed this about her (knowing what her ex husband looks like), but he was not my "type" in appearance.

ame said...

oops ... I forgot to leave my link ... sorry ...

The Learner said...

Hi Ame,

Thanks for the comment. I'm sorry to hear that about your ex.

I too have been suprised to find out what some people's "types" are. I don't really think I have a "type" though I do kind of have a thing for bald men lol. :)

ame said...

I'm glad you're addressing these issues on your blog and with this group of men ... been following that thread of comments on Scripturally Single. You articulate well what women would like to say and what, I think, men need to hear. Their points are valid, but the way they present themselves is, to women, harsh and repelling. I think, in my opinion, these men, and many more, have been deeply hurt, and the harshness is a reflection of those wounds.

The balance is not only difficult to find, it is also difficult to articulate in a way that reaches the psyche of both men and women, and you have that ability.

GREAT JOB ... keep it up :)

The Learner said...


Thank you for your kind comment. I'm not sure how much I understand about the psyche of men but I am trying to listen to them and learn.