Beauty. Everyone wants it, but few people have it. Aaron Spelling once said, "I can't define beauty, but I know it when it walks in the room." When people speak of beauty, it is less about the object of desire than the experience of encountering it. Author Nancy Etcoff attempts to put our fascination in perspective with "Survival of the Prettiest" (Doubleday), a new book that deconstructs our desire to be beautiful. A faculty member at Harvard Medical School and a practicing psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, we caught up with the author at her Cambridge home.
You say that no one can withstand appearances. How true.
"We have eyes, and a brain and a nervous system, and we cannot help being drawn to some faces more than others . . . we can't help our initial response."
You give a shocking time frame in terms of the rapidity of that response.
"150 milliseconds. The blink of an eye. It's close to subliminal. You can show a face for a split second, and people will make a snap judgment about it. It's so unfair, but it is the very first thing that strikes a person. . . . When you first glance at a person, something goes off in the brain, the heart and the mind."
Why do people desire physical beauty?
"Beauty is a basic pleasure. It's something we love to look at and cultivate in ourselves as a part of our own sense of well-being. There's something about beauty that makes us feel good."
You say we're living in an age of "ugly allure." What do you mean by that?
"I think for the past 10 or 20 years, there's been a backlash against beauty. It's been too accessible. A more gritty and realistic beauty has come to the fore in various arts, and so that's what I call the ugly beauty. . . . There's an attempt to shun traditional ideals. For so many centuries, beauty has been described in the same way, and people are wanting to explore the boundaries."
What about the trend toward plain Jane fashion models?
"I just came from fashion shows in New York where I had the opportunity to look at these supermodels close up. They are exquisite in person. They truly are genetic freaks--extremely unusual-looking women. There wasn't a single person on the runway that looked like anyone I'd see walking down the street. Even the women that might seem plain, they have this unbelievably beautiful skin."
And flawless skin is the most universally desired human feature.
"That's been true throughout the centuries, across cultures, for men and for women. There's an obsession, particularly with the skin of the face, which is why there's a huge industry to cover up any flaws. Skin is a very clear indicator of our health and our age. It's the most transparent window we have into that."
Where society rewards the beautiful, it penalizes the ugly.
"There's always an advantage for beauty. It's not always tremendous, but there's a very clear disadvantage for being ugly--in hiring practices and mating and dating."
Is there a downside to being beautiful?
"There's a stereotype that what is beautiful is good--good at everything from piloting an airplane to drawing a picture to having sex. The downside is that people also expect them to be more vain, less faithful in a relationship, more likely to get a divorce. There are all kinds of negative stereotypes."