November 29, 2021

DO | Beauty is in the Eye of Darwin

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Like most suburbanites, college has introduced me to a world of inordinately good-looking people. No offense to the suburbs, but there’s honestly a different level of attractiveness here. It seems like I can’t step outside my dorm without being witness to some of God’s chosen favorites. 

Handsome individuals, of all varieties, seem to flaunt their favorable genetics for the world to see. Even accounting for the whole mask thing, the frequency with which I find myself admiring an attractive Cornellian has me all the more certain that I’m going to die alone. I’m 80% joking about that last part.

As a quick aside, I’ve personally found that an overwhelming majority of people seem more attractive with a mask on than without. Obviously, a masked face by itself isn’t more attractive, but the face that my brain fills in under the mask is usually much prettier than the face they actually have. Seeing people without a mask on for the first time is usually a de-pedestaling moment and sometimes a slight ego boost.

Mask-fishers aside, though, I’m sure I’m not alone in admiring  the good-looking people that seem to abound both at Cornell and on social media. One quick look at any Greek life recruitment website or TikTok For You page will make it clear that when it comes to popularity, appearance is king (and queen). Whole careers can be born out of little more than an attractive face, a fit body and a handful of corny, low-effort TikTok trends. I’m going to keep to myself, laboring away at orgo mechanisms, while Bella Poarch scores 55 million likes on TikTok by literally just bobbing her head. To the social media overlords I plead: Why have you forsaken us?

In all seriousness, it’s not the social media overlord that’s responsible for the seemingly unfair advantages that pretty people receive; it’s just a matter of evolutionary biology. For most animals, the primary goal of life is to ensure the continued survival of their species through successive progeny. This means, surviving long enough to have babies and being able to raise those babies to have more babies. 

As a result, two traits are at the center of mate selection: perceived physical health and fertility, collectively known as “fitness.” The former is represented the same way regardless of biological sex through facial symmetry, low body fat, muscle tone, etc., while the latter is exhibited in unique ways for each biological sex. In the case of Bella Poarch, her relatively symmetrical, youthful face and feminine-looking makeup indicate that she is able to carry offspring, thus making her attractive. That may be strange to say about someone’s face, but these are the root causes for why physical attractiveness is so widely admired. 

Most, if not all, of our modern beauty standards can be explained through this lens of reproductive advantage. Tall men present an obvious benefit in gathering food and fending off predators, hourglass figures convey both slimness and effective birthing hips and porcelain-clear skin is a sign of youth and lack of various underlying health conditions. 

With this biology in mind, we can begin to see where issues may arise. As a species that’s more or less mitigated the challenges of survival on Earth – at least in the developed world – humans have no real reason to place such high value on biological fitness. Modern medicine, climatized homes and easy access to food and water have allowed the population to grow to the point where reproduction is no longer our primary focus as a species. Despite this advancement, our standards of beauty are still based on the assessments of fitness that used to be paramount to our species’ survival.

Consequently, we find ourselves drawn to physically beautiful people without any real, explainable reason. Our attraction to these people is mostly a remnant of an evolutionary past, and yet is pervasive in just about every aspect of human interaction today. Unlike other traits such as intelligence and empathy, physical attractiveness is largely unearned and practically unimportant. Praising people for their looks is simply a recognition of their arbitrarily fortunate genetics (or makeup artists, plastic surgeons, photo editors, etc.). 

I will acknowledge that just about everyone can make real progress to becoming more attractive. Proper exercise, nutrition, sleep and hygiene go a long way in improving one’s physical beauty. In that regard, I think beauty standards have their place as markers of physical wellness. I’m also not trying to claim that we should put an end to modern beauty standards, or even try to; advantages that beautiful people receive are mostly subconscious and aren’t something we can just turn on and off.

I will challenge the readers, though, to think critically about how they view people’s appearances. Prettiness is a dangerous combination of lottery and seduction that shouldn’t be treated as a marker of intelligence, sociability or moral character. Our standards become even more dangerous when we worship the upper extreme of beauty. I like a pretty smile and sharp jawline as much as the next person, but you won’t find me surprised when attractive celebrity #259 turns out to be a deplorable human being. 

So, the next time you’re about to make a move on that nice-looking classmate, ask yourself: Do I really like them for who they are, or am I just unnecessarily worried about the future of the human species? Either way, it hopefully won’t be your genetics that gets you rejected. 

Noah Do is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at  [email protected]  Noah’s Arc runs every other Monday this semester.