The Truth about Beauty

How aesthetics inform our everyday judgments.

Voters do it. Job recruiters do it. Consumers most certainly do it. Conscious or unconscious, our cultural obsession with beauty influences almost every decision we make. From Kant to Elaine Scarry, philosophers have long debated the role of aesthetics in moral judgments. A new study analyzed by Tim Harford for Slate would seem to suggest that beauty might also make people more intelligent and successful  in life.

In affirmation of Harford’s thesis, sdsander points to the Nixon/Kennedy Presidential Race as

a perfect example of the beauty premium at work. As many of you know, this was the first presidential race to feature a televised debate. In the debate, about 2/3rds of polled radio viewers felt that Nixon had won the debate. Roughly the same proportion of polled television viewers felt that Kennedy had won.

According to goshdurnit, the playing field is evened out by the creative ways those not conventionally beautiful compensate for their unattractiveness. PaxTerminus considers beauty not a state of being but of becoming:

Beauty is a product. It takes time, it takes work, it takes sacrifice, it takes marketing and trend-making and finally it takes money.

No woman or guy wakes up beautiful in the morning. The beautiful is a result of smart life choices, smart shopping choices, smart diet choices, smart makeup choices, smart outfit and accessories choices and even smart chair-stylist choices.

So maybe it is the other way around: people are not smart, because they are beautiful – maybe simply smart people have better chance to look beautiful by given set of standards, if they choose to do so.

revrick hangs the success of beautiful people on “our innate desire for perfection…It has nothing to do with accomplishment or virtue. It simply is.” Delving deep into aesthetic theory, Mangar believes our attraction to beauty is rooted in an evolutionary imperative:

Beauty isn’t just some random factor, totally uncorrelated to anything else except the things it causes. It’s an INDEX of something. Perceptions of beauty serve a PURPOSE, because they tell us about things we can’t directly see. Fact is, what we call “beautiful” has (over evolutionary time) been highly correlated with mate value. I’m sorry, but in general female beauty peaks with fertility (if not fecundity). The effects of disease, parasites, age and other factors which are likely to lower your evolutionary fitness are considered unattractive. The wrong (or the right) hormones change your face in such a way that you become more (or less) attractive…

So anyway, when it comes to elections and such…you may never have come across any rational reason to think more attractive people are a better choice (even though those reasons do exist). However, you’ll still be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt…not because it’s rational, it’s just a part of human nature.

On a related front, Seth Stevenson weighs in on Dove’s much-hyped campaign to expand our definition of beauty by featuring “real” women in its advertising, analyzing the winning spot from an amateur competition.

Budapestia takes Stevenson to task for judging the ad on the model’s attractiveness: “Dove wasn’t trying to sell m****rbation material to men, they were trying to sell soap to women.” Giblina is even more blunt about the inappropriateness of the male gaze in this context.

a_majority_of_one gives the spot generally low marks for its “monotone” and “unappealing” visuals though finds its message “charming and on target”: “A sanctuary is where women can live out their underlying desires for personal spiritual fulfillment, while the ‘sold-out auditorium’ plays to a slightly shallower but no less sincere longing for stardom and popularity.”

While its motivations may be purely commercial, Dove’s body-affirmative message nevertheless holds “a powerful emotional appeal to many women,” acknowledgessprint. For foxtoast, the Dove ads are not exactly a public service announcement for feminists but a savvy marketing strategy:

Nobody is being conned into thinking Dove is an altruistic nonprofit, established to make girls feel good about themselves. We all know we’re being pitched a product, and being pitched it in a way that ad execs feel we’re most likely to respond favorably to. What people like about the Dove ads is that they’re being pitched the product by women to whom they can actually relate. Every depiction of women in mass media affects our collective culture, and the more common ad campaigns like this become, the less time and thought will be given over to the size-0 sunken in model who looks as if she exists on a steady diet of heroin and celery.

Ad Report Card and The Undercover Economist are the Fray hotspots for further musings on beauty. AC 4:09pm PDT

Monday, Mar. 12, 2007

Steven Landsburg isn’t calling the poor lazy. But he does say they have an awful lot of free time on their hands.

The Fray hasn’t made a Marxist of me yet, but it’s slowly convincing me that our economic system is gravely disordered. Landsburg notes that poor folks have more free time today than they did forty years ago, and suggests this compensates for rising income inequality in America. Respondents in the Everyday Economics Fray strongly disagree.

According to lloyd67, Landsburg has made an elementary economic mistake:

Elementary economics tells us that if something costs more, we buy less of it. Put differently, those whose opportunity cost of leisure–that is, whose reward for work–is highest, will consume less of it.

This is, to no one’s surprise, those who get paid the most and who, therefore, are rich. Mystery solved.

Also, Landsburg’s notion of redistribution is wrong. We redistribute income by giving more to the poor. Likewise, redistributing leisure would give more to those who have less of it, not forcing those who have more of it to work longer. That is, work laws on overtime and the like, that now affect salaried workers (poor in income but rich in leisure time), would be extended to all.

TonyAdragna represents for the disgruntled wage-earner:

As a member of this so called “leiure class” I’m here to tell that I’d rather work at least 40 hours a week.

See, we lesser paid folk earn hourly wages, and there exists a great incentive to employers limiting the number of hours that we get paid for: Less pay in our pockets means greater profits. You can get an hourly employee’s paid time down to 37.5 hours per week very easily: Schedule an eight hour work day, but exclude a .5 hour unpaid lunch break. You can get actual hours worked down to 36.25 by excluding a daily 15 minute break.

The company I work for is currently working our slow season, during which management has a problem letting us work even those limited hours – each member of my crew is only allowed to work four of the six days that our shift is scheduled, and wednesdays, thursdays & fridays are limited to six hour shifts. We’re lucky if we can get 30 hours per week.

What does the future hold for this “leisure class”? Let’s ask Wal-Mart’s “just-in-time” scheduled employees if they can see the future…

True to form, Sarvis cogently notes the policy connection between spare time and working conditions:

If you are curious as to why the blue collar workforce works less; look no further than WalMart, who holds their staff down to between 20 or 30 hours per week so as to keep them from polluting the full-benefits pool. Not to mention the rise in temporary workforce, which leads to reduced average hours. […]

If you want to redistribute leisure; go ahead. Just be warned that allowing WalMart’s staff to work a full 40 won’t be popular with Sam’s spawn.

TJA brings everyone’s grievances together most concisely:

A more competitive marketplace has put pressures on businesses to produce more for less cost. Result? They pressure their exempt, salaried employees to work more hours. The exempt office worker no longer works from 9 to 5 but from 8 to 6 or worse. This is great for the company because they pay them the same salary regardless. By that same token, they have LIMITED the hours worked by non-exempt workers in order to control costs. The result is that exempt workers who tend to make more money work more hours and non exempt workers who tend to make less money work less. Simple isn’t it?

Maybe not. Rabble-douser Dyske throws some cold water on the flames, arguing that people work more because they like their jobs:

Someone who does his job mindlessly cannot beat someone who works hard at it, but even the latter cannot beat someone who enjoys his job. In the end, those who enjoy what they do will beat those who do not. So, they are in the top income bracket. Since they enjoy their jobs, they don’t mind working long hours.

It’s not like mowing the lawn. They WANT TO work longer hours. When you work in an assembly line, your soul can only take so much. Over the course of our history, the labor market has become very accurate, and became increasingly easier to find jobs that we enjoy. Being able to find a job that you enjoy was very difficult 100 years ago. You just did what your father did, or whatever businesses that existed in your area. Opportunities weren’t so equal back then.

So, what this analysis of leisure shows is that the rich are enjoying what they do more than the poor are. It is wrong to assume that “job” means something all of us hate. Enjoyability of one’s job is a big part of the quality of life. I would say it’s more important than the amount of “leisure” we get. In this sense, the poor have it all-around worse.

I’m still a card-carrying liberal, but even I find that explanation a bit of a stretch. Weigh in with your own opinions on the Everday Economics Fray.  GA2:20am PT

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
to the critique of a whole epoch
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
who knew it was never enough but
hoped to improve a little by living.

–W.H. Auden

On February 8, 2007, Jesse Keller Smith passed away at the tender age of 22. To Fraywatch, Jesse was only known as the eldest son of Isonomist-, herself one of the Fray’s finest posters. The relapse of his leukemia was announced on January 17, the circumstances of his condition explained more fully on January 23, and his demise declared upon February 9.

I’m one of those to whom the mere dawning of a new day sometimes seems a tragedy of unbearable dimensions. I can’t even imagine the pain Isonomistmust feel in the face of such a palpable loss. We here at Fraywatch join the Fray in offering her our sincerest condolences.

A widely remarked feature of the internet is its extensive documentation of the trivial and the everyday. Even the bowel movements of a British minister can be frozen for posterity.

Too often, we treat this as a bad thing. In so doing, we allow ourselves to overlook the precious experiences expressed by compelling voices, which would have been completely overlooked in earlier ages.

Jesse chronicled his last days on a blog entitled “The Only Thing Worse Than Law School.” It’s a fascinating glimpse into a mind and life which has been prematurely silenced.

Up until early January I was a law student. Now, after bitching non-stop about how much it sucks to be a law student, I’ve rediscovered the one thing that sucks more. I’m in the hospital with a leukemia relapse and I’ll be here for 30 days, give or take. My best tool at this point is humor, because otherwise this is tragic. Hopefully some of the humor in my situation comes through.

I’d argue that it does. Jesse was a keen observer, and he provides a compelling and amusing narration of the strange roommates, daytime television, petty indignities, and visual hallucinations of his final hospital stay. Even a complete stranger, such as myself, can get a sense of the remarkable potential which has just been lost to this world.

It’s a marvel of the modern age that such words can, do, and shall continue to emerge from such unlikely situations. The outer boundaries of this magnificent gain are marked by the losses to which we’d otherwise be unaware.

Jesse was a student at Fordham law school. In his personal statement, he explained what he hoped to accomplish through the practice of law:

While working for the court, I watched a preliminary hearing for a man charged with raping his nine-year-old daughter.  I watched as the courtroom was emptied so the little girl could testify without being overwhelmed.  She walked into the courtroom wearing a pink dress and had her bright blond hair in pigtails.  She sat down in the witness seat and could barely reach up to the microphone.  After being asked about whether she understood the difference between the truth and a lie, the prosecutor asked her about what had happened the last night she had seen her father.  She described how she gave her pet hamster, Buttons, some food, changed into teddy bear pajamas and got into bed.  She then told the court how her father got into bed with her and the things he did to her.  The entire time she was speaking, her father, dressed in a prison jumpsuit, was grimacing and shaking his head at her.  From that point on I knew that for me, criminal law was about protecting those that can’t protect themselves.

Jesse’s family has established a fund in his name through the Development Office at Fordham Law School, dedicated to carrying on his intentions. The express purpose of the fund is “to help improve the treatment of children in the criminal justice system.” Readers interested in contributing may either contact Fordham directly and inquire about the “Jesse Keller Smith Fund,” or write to the Fray Editor at for further information.  GA2:20am PT