Make realistic the unrealistic ideal body image

Tuesday, 4 May, 2010

Humans have been enhancing our appearance since we worked out how to use tools. Archeological evidence suggests cosmetics date at least 6000 years and cosmetic surgery over 4000 years. In modern times, cosmetic surgery is one of the most common forms of human enhancement. It is also one of the most accepted, with cosmetic surgery being legal in almost all countries, even when going beyond ‘restoring normalcy’ and into unequivocal enhancement territory.

Enhancement of appearance is not limited to our physical bodies, but also extends into the digital representations of those bodies. Digital manipulations, known as ‘Photoshopping’ after the popular program used to alter photographs, are commonplace for most published images of human beings. But it’s much easier to manipulate a photograph than it is to manipulate a live human being so accordingly photoshopped images are generally much closer to any ideal of beauty (though both cosmetic surgery and photoshopping sometimes result in something that few would call beautiful). Photoshopped images therefore unattainable portrayals of the human body, which unfortunately causes self-esteem and body image issues, even body dismorphic disorders, in too many people.

In my opinion, the oft-toted solutions, such outlawing unrealistic portrayals or legislating that all retouched images carry a warning label, are missing the point. The images are being retouched for a reason: to look better. And though our standards of beauty are by no means unanimous, the vast majority of ideals of body image are mostly innate. We have evolved to look for potential mates by seeking traits like symmetry and signs of healthiness or status (though specific signs vary – a tanned, visibly-muscled man in one culture would imply low class, whereas in another he would personify physical fitness). As these are innate preferences, they can’t be completely changed by altering how bodies are portrayed. This is a problem that can only be solved by changing these innate ideals about body image.

Basically, the problem isn’t anything to do with how our images are changed for public display. The problem is the very real difference between what we want to look like, and what we actually do look like. This difference could be removed by changing our wants or our bodies, or both. But realistically, being able to competently engineer the human mind is a very formidable task. I predict that, long before any personality enhancements come along, we will be able to effectively and freely alter our appearance.

Therefore, best solution is to allow all humans to attain the ideal body. Or, more precisely, to be able to attain a body they feel is ideal. This isn’t really any different from what we already do. After all, some people already spend a lot of time shaving, working out, applying makeup or undergoing painful surgeries. Except future techniques would be much safer. Instead of burning ourselves with sunlight to cause the protective response to skin damage that we call a suntan, we could genetically alter our base level of melanin expression. Instead of cutting each hair, or pulling them out, or destroying hair cells with electricity or lasers, we could genetically alter the hormone responses of hair cells, so that any given patch of hair doesn’t develop into the thicker and darker terminal hairs in response to hormone levels, but those hairs remain fine, vellus hairs (like the hairs on your forehead or nose). In the extreme, we might even be able to have a completely prosthetic body, that can easily be maintained (or exchanged).

I suppose the question to ask is – is there anything wrong with being our own fairy-godmother and making ourselves beautiful for the ball? It’s not like beauty was ever an achievement anyway, as a majority of features considered beautiful depend on uncontrollable factors of development and age. And even in a society where everyone considers themselves beautiful, others will likely disagree, due to differences in our innate preferences and to the non-innate social influences on our standard of beauty. A girl could consider herself beautiful if she had the enormous limpid eyes and short slim body of an anime-like bishōjo, but others could (and would) disagree.

There cannot be a society where everyone is beautiful, unless everyone changed both their minds and their bodies in unison. But the achievable goal, of a society where everyone sees themselves as beautiful, would in every other way not be too different to today’s society. People would just be happy in their own body, because no ideal body image would be unrealistic.


  1. Another interesting point, is that beauty from an individual perspective is a singular pursuit, but from a species perspective is a zero sum game. beauty is an anthropic quality.

    In the species compared to other apes, the human has broader sexual dimorphism and enhanced secondary sex traits. most enhancements are meant to exaggerate these further in an effort to appear more beautiful relative to others. Jared Diamond third chimpanzee is a great source about this. http://www.amazon.com/Third-Chimpanzee-Evolution-Future-Animal/dp/0060984031

    the game of beauty is therefore relative to others and not absolute relative to a “perfect beauty”, one only needs to look at body shape and idealized form in art history or across cultures to identify different beauty types.

    An easy beauty strategy is to sit next to very fat and very old people on the beach thus making oneself appear relatively more appealing ;)

    • Beauty is somewhat relative, but I don’t think it’s mostly relative. Exaggerated sex characteristics can get you so far, but there comes a point when having bigger breasts than the next girl or larger muscles than the next guy starts to make you less attractive. I think it relates back to the idea that attractiveness is indicative of healthiness, and deviating too far from the norm makes one unattractive.

  2. Clearly beauty isn’t zero-sum. It’s much more pleasant to live in a place where everyone is attractive than in a place where everyone is unattractive (so long, of course, as this does not interfere with one’s social life)

  3. What is not covered in this article is the growing disparity between race class and to a lessor degree, gender… If (when) beauty and cosmetic or genetic enhancement becomes even more commonplace and mainstream, it will likely be a very expensive process, and will increase the gap in the classes – the wealthy become the “beautiful” – we’ve already seen that happen for thousands of years. Decoration, clothing, body art, housing access to spiritual leaders and healthcare have long been “earned” privileges of the wealthy and symbols of class; indicators of class stratification/ disparity

    Along with “pursuit of the idealogical beauty”, class gap has also, “always existed” and has been a major component of the human evolution landscape for thousands of years, so that’s not new, just a component bi-product of the genetically encoded survivalist, preservationist or dominant behavior of the “human animal”.

    But if we’re going to go that route (continue down that route), we had better prepare for major class revolutions and the inevitable overthrow of the wealthy/elite.

    Or, alternatively, if class equalization is forced on elite society (in the form of socialism/nationalism or fascism), we’d better prepare for the inevitable “shrugging”, detachment and withdrawal of the elite class which could leave society with significantly less wealth to distribute or less accessibility to resources:

    Feb 9, 2009 … “The problem with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” – Margaret Thatcher …

    Humans evolved, physically and mentally to deal with relative scarcity, in order to dominate and ultimately preserve the species or survive. The scarcity mentality is still largely at work in our culture even in the presence of relative wealth and abundance; all-be-it, the abundance is found disproportionally, not as a function of truly “free markets”, rather as a function of corrupt legislation, fraudulent political leaders who are allowed to become involved in allegedly free market issues.

    The danger in maintaining the “scarcity mentality” in the presence of abundance is that it tends to lead humans (or segments of human society) to devolve socially and psychologically, and ultimately destroy themselves and their environments, generally by exceeding carrying capacity of systems, both social and environmental.

    Is it possible the next and more appropriate phase of human evolution could be psychological/spiritual… (i.e.; towards compassion, enlightenment and awareness?) Would it be considered “evolution” if man were to arrive at a point where the human priority is sustainability; environmentally, socially and psychologically?

    Even in that scenario, it only takes a few fearful, self absorbed individuals with resources or majority granted “power” {a monopoly on power} to spoil a delicate balance…

    • I think beauty enhancements will eventually trickle down to the poorer people in society. And while beauty helps a little with earning potential (especially in some industries), it’s not as much of a help as intelligence or work ethic. I don’t think there’s much risk of the rich getting richer due to their use of beauty-enhancing products, so the disparity won’t grow any faster due to them.

      • No, no, I think what that person Stevens was trying to say was that beauty was going to become another symbol of class disparity, not that it would effect earning ratios. It is generally true that those who are rich recieve better health care, better living, better etc etc. Stevens was just pointing out that with the rise of demand for beauty-enhanced products the rich, as in all other areas, will recieve the best of the best. As a result, beauty will become a class symbol because the richest people will be the most beautiful people as a result of the better enhancers available to them.

  4. I completely disagree with the last three paragraphs. Especially the part about how in our current society, everyone views themselves as beautiful. The point made in your opening paragraphs is that no one sees themselves as beautiful. You seem to be contradicting–your evidence does not support, but in fact opposes, your conclusion. You might want to rewrite this.

    • It’s slightly unclear, I agree, but I meant that in a society where everyone sees themselves as beautiful, the rest of society would be the same. That is, everyone thinking of themselves as beautiful wouldn’t change much.

      I’ll edit it to be less ambiguous.

  5. Just because desire for beauty and perception of it is innate doesn’t mean it’s something to strive for in modern times. Competing for mates based on appearances actually made a difference to our genes as a species back in the days when the evolutionary selection process was still happening naturally.

    We were also naturally selected (for example) for dominant behavior and aggressive traits, eventually making us slave traders and war mongers as civilization “progressed” culturally. Ie, we’ve only recently learned how to suppress some of our innate desires for the betterment of our culture as a whole, and I truly hope that our innate desire to keep beauty on a pedestal will eventually be seen as outdated, uber-vanity.

    It was beneficial to detect good health according to appearances thousands of years ago, but in modern times it’s just a hugely commercial enterprise, full of peer pressure and ego, and is unfortunately now a way to look down on people who don’t spend as much time and energy on their vanity just to fit in or make an identity statement. Social position mattered more back in tribal days, too, for early cultural evolution and development of a vibrant, thriving civilization. Piercings and body paint alone is proof of how these tendencies last into modern times. But now our vanities are commercially abused in ways to keep us glued to trendy shows with above-average looking characters, selling us products their beauty products. We are pandered to for profit, and are still in a cultural stage of having unrealistic–and even often harmful–views of what’s supposedly a “healthy” appearance.

    • Just because desire for beauty and perception of it is innate doesn’t mean it’s something to strive for in modern times. Competing for mates based on appearances actually made a difference to our genes as a species back in the days when the evolutionary selection process was still happening naturally.

      It doesn’t mean it’s something to avoid either.

      Most people like to look good. That’s not going to change. As I pointed out in the post, we’ll work out how to change our bodies before we work out how to fully suppress our innate desires.

      • I just hope you’re wrong for the sake of “most people”. Most of us have learned to overcome other innate desires, like the desire to dominate others or make war. I see too much energy wasted on vanity for the sake of vanity. Like I said, it used to matter back in prehistoric days, when it was for the sake of survival, not just for the sake of vanity. I’ve seen it become a source of prejudice now, where so-called “beautiful people look down on and make fun of normal-looking people. Not to mention the racial connotations of feeling free to judge others based solely on appearance, just because it’s an “innate” tendency.

  6. I should add (sorry) a reminder about something that *should* already be obvious to everyone.

    The unfair pressure on women to have above-natural appearances still exists, despite our supposedly pro-woman culture. There’s still the male, caveman instinct of male dominance over women that we haven’t shaken yet. We’ve made progress, but we’re still largely male-dominated, or at least that’s still where the largest beauty product profits are.

    Our prejudices based on the appearance of people still run deep, I guess because we’re only willing (and able?) to self-reflect and progress as a culture a little bit at a time. But at least we’re still way ahead of a lot of other, more traditional cultures around the world. (But it’s interesting how female beauty is actually suppressed in some of those cultures. But they too do not self-reflect much in terms of how they’ve evolved as a species, and why they are the way they are.)

  7. Here’s an article giving an example of how the pressure to look “beautiful” leads to illness and distress, especially in women: http://www.physorg.com/news186747981.html

    I think it’s wrong to encourage people to behave so vainly, just because it’s an “innate” urge. Encourage people to spend time and energy on more meaningful improvements, instead subjectively “superior” surface-level appearances. Today’s pressure on kids to play the popularity/vanity contest is damaging enough.

    • I think it’s terrible that women will make themselves ill just to look better. But that was one of my points – new technologies will allow women to achieve the same outcomes without endangering their health. And I think that’s a good thing.

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