Why do we value beautiful women? Recently there was a high profile hoax online where someone pretended to be a 19 year old woman stricken with leukemia. A few pictures of her were posted of a rather attractive young lady. The result was a massive outpouring of emotional support and not a few gifts mailed to her.
In discussions after the hoax was revealed, someone pointed out that the response would not have been as great if the victim had been portrayed as a 50 year old man. If the purpose of the hoax was to attract attention and sympathy, then a 19 year old beautiful woman was nearly perfect. Somehow it seems as if the untimely death of that woman is more tragic than any other.
Indeed, this is true. But why? Why do we seem to value beautiful young women above all others?
I think this runs deep; indeed I think it is instinctive. But before I talk about that, let's discuss the ethics of it.
I can't accept on an ethical basis that any person's value should be rated based on their age, sex or physical attributes. As soon as any criterion is introduced which permits us to decide that some people are more valuable than others, then the door is opened to unspeakable evil. I see no ethical benefit whatever from such ranking. Therefore I must categorize it as a "bad" thing.
But our instincts aren't based on ethics. They're based on utility. We value beautiful young women because they are the most important members of a tribe of hunter/gatherers.
The long-term survival of a tribe depends on the production of healthy children, and this is gated by the number of healthy fertile women. The younger a woman is, the more future time she will usually have to create babies. The healthier she is, the more likely she is to get pregnant and the more likely it is that her children will survive and prosper. So from a strictly utilitarian point of view, a young healthy woman is the most valuable member of the tribe, in the sense that her loss will damage the future prospects of the tribe more than loss of anyone else. Loss of a young healthy woman is implicitly the loss of several children.
Interestingly, the least valuable member of a tribe is a young man. A significant number of young men can be lost without substantially damaging the ability of the tribe to create and raise children. (If too many are lost it can leave the tribe with inadequate supplies of food, or inadequate ability to defend itself. But a few can be lost without really hurting the tribe.)
Older men are actually more valuable to the tribe than young men (on a utilitarian basis) because of their accumulated knowledge and experience.
There's an interesting lesson to be learned from our close relatives the baboons. The most dangerous predator for them is a leopard, and when one attacks the troop, everyone flees except the bachelors. The young adult males will collect and fight the leopard, working as a group. This gives the rest of the troop a chance to escape, and sometimes results in the death of the leopard. From the point of view of a prey animal, death of a predator is the ideal outcome, and of all the primates the baboons are naturally best equipped to fight. Sometimes this results in the death of one of the bachelors, but this doesn't severely harm the troop. Only older males breed, and of course one old male can keep ten females pregnant. And males do not contribute to raising the young. So baboons can easily sustain 80% casualties among young males without substantial harm to the troop as a whole.
We humans do the same thing. It's no accident that soldiers are young men. It's equally no accident that people recoil from the idea of young women being front-line soldiers. When you ask someone why this is wrong, they usually won't be able to answer -- but they'll be certain nonetheless. They just know it. (It's instinctive.)
So that explains why young women are valued. Why beautiful young women?
Let's examine beauty from a cold impassioned point of view. What makes someone seem to be beautiful? It has to be acknowledge that some of this is cultural, and it is indeed true that the idea of beauty varies somewhat from culture to culture. But not as much as you might think; when I look at a picture of a fashion model from India or Japan or Nigeria or Indonesia, I recognize that these are very attractive young ladies, though they don't necessarily resemble me-and-mine. It's not because of pollution by Western culture and values, either; historical pictures of beautiful women show many of the same characteristics.
Studies have found that all men find a full-body picture of a woman to be most attractive when the ratio of waist to hips is a certain proportion. If the waist is larger or smaller, the woman is judged less attractive.
I think it goes without saying that a man finds a woman's breasts attractive. Tastes vary, of course.
Clear skin and symmetrical bone structure are also commonly accepted aspects of beauty. Being athletic and being able to move gracefully is always attractive.
All of these things strongly suggest that the woman is healthy. Ultimately, health is beauty in a situation where disease is rampant. And women have the same values in this regard as do men.
Now it's been pointed out, quite validly, that a woman's standard of beauty in a woman is different than a man's standard of beauty in a woman, as indicated by the serious contrast between fashion models and pinup models. But a lot of things are still common between them, as described above.
Our modern disease-free state (in the industrialized world) is a historical aberration. Through most of history the majority of humans died of infectious diseases. Normal life expectancy for humans absent modern technology is on the order of 35 years (though even then some people can live far longer). In primitive societies a substantial number of people will be chronically ill with one or more parasites, and there are many infectious diseases which can cripple or kill. These are non-trivial issues.
And many of them happen to children, and when they do it's common for them to leave scars. Being lame or having a poor complexion, or developing unevenly (leading to asymmetric bone structure) all can indicate side effects of chronic infection during development -- which might mean that the person is still infected, and could mean that their reproductive systems were damaged.
Being too thin, when others in the tribe are not, usually indicates chronic infection with parasites. But it also indicates in a woman that pregnancy could be a serious problem for her (especially if her hips are particularly narrow). Being too fat often indicates diabetes, and it too can result in a particularly difficult childbirth. Being ungraceful -- stumbling, being clumsy -- might indicate neurological problems. Any of these could be results of disease or of genetics, and it doesn't matter which. Ultimately, they make it less likely that the woman will be a good baby factory.
I'm not saying that a fat woman, or a woman whose face is scarred, or a woman who is lame, cannot produce healthy babies. What I'm saying is that a thousand of them will produce fewer healthy babies than a thousand beautiful women will.
And from a strict utilitarian (i.e. evolutionary) point of view, that is what makes a person, especially a woman, most important: ability to create healthy offspring.
We value a beautiful young woman over other young women because she's most likely to create healthy babies. We value all young women over anyone else for the same reason. Instinctively we do rank people and we value them in proportion to their importance in creating or raising children.
And, as I mentioned, none of this has anything to do with ethics -- and in fact runs counter to what I think is ethically correct. But it isn't going to go away.
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