A few years ago I had the privilege to fly to Paris for the release of the French edition of one of my books. Like all tourists, I thought I would go see the Louvre, France’s iconic museum where some of the greatest works of art are kept. I have only a vague recollection of the paintings and artwork I saw, and none at all of the Mona Lisa. Like many tourists before me, I was surprised by how small the painting was about two feet by one and a half foot and there were so many people around it, and the security distance, that it was hard to see. The Mona Lisa is often called one of the most beautiful portraits in the world, but it did not appeal to me that much.
So what is beautiful? Are there any criteria by which we can say something is beautiful or not? We have all heard the phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but obviously it matters. Market studies have shown that taller people and better looking people get higher salaries and more social benefits than the less attractive. If you open up any matrimonial ad in Indian papers there are, among other social categories, descriptions of height, skin colour and other attributes that pass the social template for beauty. The Indian cosmetic industry was estimated to be worth about Rs 55,000 crore in 2013, and is now supposed to have at least doubled.
The huge amount of economic value that we put on beauty would not have surprised our ancestors. Whether it is the beautiful sculptures and paintings that survive from ancient India, or Homer’s great play, the Illiad, in which his description of the Trojan War is basically built around the beauty of Helen. Beauty has always been valued, and measured. Even Shakespeare remarked in his play, The Merchant of Venice, “Look on beauty, And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight; Which therein works a miracle in nature, Making them lightest that wear most of it.” Cosmetic products were immensely fashionable in Europe at that time, although some preparations led laced with sulphur were used despite the huge health hazards often death that would result. Maybe the most expensive for the rich was flour in France. Used as a way to dust the hair of aristocrats, it caused bread riots as prices rose because of hoarding, and only stopped after the French Revolution, when the aristocrats were executed.
Biologists have some clues as to why we may value beauty, and how that affects our judgement. Symmetry is the most important indicator of beauty. A symmetrical face is considered beautiful. In fact symmetry is considered beautiful in nature as well. Stags that have symmetrical antlers, birds that have symmetrical designs, scorpion flies that have symmetrical wings, are all more successful at finding mates. Similarly humans who have more symmetrical faces tend to be considered more attractive, across cultures and civilisations. The trick, or the biological clue, behind this preference is the huge costs of symmetry. All living beings are perpetually in contact with germs and disease throughout our life. A healthy body will be able to fight off such disease and not be affected, a weaker body will be affected and that will affect the proportionality, or symmetry, of the body. In other words a symmetrical face and body signal that the immune system of the person is in very good working order. In the worst case scenario, an unbalanced face shows that the body is weaker.
Symmetry is also based on heterozygosity. Every human or animal contains two copies of a gene, one inherited from the male and one from the female. A mutation may occur in one set of genes or both. Heterozygosity is when one copy of a gene has a mutation and the other does not. Homozygosity is when bother copies of the same gene have the same mutation. A person with greater heterozygosity will have more ability to resist disease, whether external or as a genetic abnormality, and will have greater ability to survive mishap. One way that we display greater or lesser heterozygosity is in the natural evenness of teeth. This may be why one of the most common forms of cosmetic intervention is in straightening teeth through braces and other means. An even set of teeth signal the greater health of an individual. Of course in this day and age, when we are able to get our teeth “fixed” what you may basically be seeing is a lie a small way into tricking you into believing, subconsciously, that the beautiful smile you are seeing reveals a healthy body. And in which case beauty may not lie in the eye of the beholder, but in the bank account of the dentist. Sunday Guardian
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