Friday, May 20, 2011


Dr Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics who has recently courted controversy by publishing findings based on a survey of white, Asian, black and native American men and women who were asked to rate each other’s attractiveness based on photographs. Black women scored lowest and Asian women scored highest. Kanazawa already has a dubious reputation and as you can probably imagine his findings have been poorly received.

I was trained to see the human body as a shape surrounded by negative space. In drawing the body one can see it as nothing but an abstract form, without any context what so ever. In this way, any human body can have a beauty that is described by form or posture or the interplay with light that is the basis for all visual communication.

I was also taught the history of art and this illustrates clearly just how many ideas of beauty human beings have developed (thousands). The ideal body form expressed as beauty seems to have started in Greece, but the Greeks also developed realism in sculpture and some of the most beautiful Greek statues are of old, bent people suffering the hardships of life. In order to appreciate this kind of beauty though, I suspect one needs a specific perspective that comes most often with age; empathy. Teenagers it is said have difficulty with empathy, and as often as not cannot recognize beauty in old, or disfigured people.

The emphasis on youth in modern western culture seems to mean that a lot of adults also tend toward a similar lack of empathy, and any one showing the signs of age or having a less than perfect body form are considered less beautiful. When I was young, like so many people in the western world do, I thought fat people were ugly. As I grew older however I started to see them as beautiful. When I studied the history of art I learned that Europeans in the past, much as Africans do today often regarded fat people as beautiful. Eventually there came a day when I found I no longer shared the common perception of beauty and the difference had been brought about by the context of my own life and experiences.

I can't see how a single body form, whether it is described by its shape, or ethnic identity or gender can be classified as more beautiful than any other. Certainly there can be a commonly held agreement that a certain person is beautiful, but to then say that all people who share a similiar identity are beautiful seems to me to be utterly missing the point of what beauty is. Beauty isn't defined by the law of averages, its defined by perception.

Kanazawa's experiment seems to aiming for a conclusion that misses this entirely. He sees a trend as a shared perspective which I don't think it is. Two different people can look at a photograph of a person and agree the person is beautiful, but their reasons for agreement can be wholly different and I think it is the reasoning which is important, not the agreement. By Kanazawa's experiment you could also find that one colour is more beautiful than others, beacuse more people voted for it.


Anonymous said...

Research of self-reported, biased assessments of "beauty", which is a subjective metric, only has relevance in a subject/participant. That is, it doesn't extend/apply in reliable and consistent ways to populations as a whole.
And anything published in "Psychology Today" is trash anyhow. Not an academic research journal by any measure.

moif said...

Yes... and thats more or less what I wrote, except I don't have any opinion with regards to "Psychology Today".