Post Magazine: The "Looks Issue"

David von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006; 11:00 AM

Beauty may not really rest in the eye of the beholder, after all.

David von Drehle , whose essay about America's obsession with physical appearance appeared in Washington Post Magazine 's "Looks Issue," will be online fielding questions and comments today.

Read the article:

Looking Good

David von Drehle is a staff writer for the Post's Style section.


David von Drehle: Good morning and thanks for dropping in on our conversation about beauty. My essay in the Sunday magazine tried to suggest some ways of thinking about the subject--and whether Americans today are more obsessed than ever. It was one of four pieces related in various ways to the topic, and if you haven't read the others I recommend giving them a look.

Now to your questions.


Washington, D.C.: In your article you state that symmetry is the main component of beauty and indicates that the symmetrical person is more fertile than the unsymmetrical. Do you think that as people age and become less fertile that is one of the reasons that people are perceived to be less attractive? Are the middle aged boomers who are undergoing procedures that make them look decades younger actually doing false advertising -- trying to continue to look fertile even though they are not? What about breast implants -- are they false advertsing for fertility as well?

David von Drehle: I did write about the growing body of science that looks at physical attractiveness as something real and quantifiable--rather than as an arbitrary creation of one society or another. Is it all correct and complete? Time will tell.

But yes, cosmetic surgery, including (but not limited to) breast implants are very definitely an effort to resculpt nature and/or hold back time. It's not something that appeals to me, but for some people it is not unlike dressing nicely or, I don't know, brushing their teeth. They see it more as a matter of maintenance and presentation than as deception.


Bowie, Md: I'm glad you brought the issue of age vs. beauty at the end of your article. It reminded me of a story I had read earlier this year about the increasing percentage of anorexia, not among teens but among women in their 40s and 50s. Can you comment please?

David von Drehle: I didn't see that article. Very sad if true. It seems to me that many Americans are going to extremes when it comes to the question of weight -- we have problems of obesity and self-starvation when what we ought to desire is moderation. So says Aristotle.

Which brings me to this interesting observation ...


Laurel, Md: Reading news stories about the health side of beauty, I keep coming across two assertions that I have a hard time reconciling:

1. Age "X" is the "new 2/3 of X" (e.g. 60 is the 'new 40')

2. Americans are grossly overweight and unhealthy for it

How can these both be true?

I can only imagine that we've split into two dichotomous nations of people who engage in healthy habits and those who don't. Are we really a nation of people who choose to die at 70 and 90?

David von Drehle: People in my kids' generation are going to be facing a very interesting set of philosophical questions as they try to figure out how to live their longer, healthier lives in graceful stages. I'm afraid their parents, we Boomers, are making a hash of it, trying Peter Pan like to avoid forever the consequences of growing up.

To me, few people are more attractive than the folks aging gracefully.


The Golden Ratio: I must admit I am a little confused. Does the ratio work the same for faces like Cameron Diaz and Ashley Judd? Cameron is a little more "offbeat" in her appearance while I see Judd as more of a "classic" beauty.

David von Drehle: I am pretty confused too, on account of not being much at math. But as Stephen Marquardt, one of the researchers I quote in my article, reminds me the core issue here is one of relationships--the distance from Point A to Point B on a face compared to the distance from Point B to Point C and so on. So faces can be quite different and still adhere to these relationships (as long as the distances remain proportional).

Dr. Marquardt also points out--and I should have put this in the piece--ALL human faces are built on these relationships, so that the gap between an average face and a stunner is quite small.


Washington DC: Great article - I wish it was longer. In your focus on symmetry, you neglected to mention more obvious fact: We like people who look physically fit. That varies somewhat culturally, as your discussion of body fat touched on, but clearly serious soccer players tend to be much more attractive than the average person. (Note that soccer is probably more similar to the physical challenges that our ancestors faced when hunting than other sports.)

David von Drehle: You must be a soccer player. Happy hunting, my friend!


Bethesda, Md: Although I agree that there are quantitative factors that can add up to a beautiful face (such as symmetrical features), I still believe that, in many respects beauty is subjective. The fact that you unabashedly and unequivocally characterized Roseanne Barr and Claire Danes as unattractive and attractive, respectively supports my opinion. Many individuals would disagree with your assessment of either celebrity . . . some people find a more full-figured woman, such as Roseanne, appealing. Meanwhile, others would posit that the primary reason Claire Dane is considered attractive is simply because she maintains the "checklist" features that we have determined are "beautiful" in our society -- namely pale skin and a thin body.

David von Drehle: Actually, I didn't say that. Dr. Marquardt said that. But you are onto something that is clearly relevant here. There is Beauty, which is a mysterious but powerful quality about which philosophers have been musing for thousands of years ... and there is something else called Desire. And Desire seems to be quite personal.


Boston, Mass: There were a few mentions of how these mindsets affect males, but it seemed to be mostly sidelined (or only in the context of their reactions to females' looks). Can you say any more about the way this youth and beauty craze directly influences men?

David von Drehle: There is a growing body of science looking at something called the Adonis Syndrome or Adonis Effect ... that's the vibe anyway ... that examines body-image in young men. What thin is to young women, bulging muscles now are to young men. Some of the same worries about anorexia in girls now are reflected in concern about steroid abuse in boys.


Austin, Tex:

Rarely does an article annoy me so thoroughly that I seek out an opportunity to tell the author so. Your beauty article was nothing more than a rehash of the science and psuedo-science of beauty that has entered the national dialogue many times in the past decade or so-- and usually in a much more engaging manner. (For example, The Discovery Channel did a series on just this subject about six or seven years ago back when its content was new, hosted by John Cleese and Elizabeth Hurley, which was cheeky and fun as well as informative) But my greatest grievance is that your article proved to be an apology for the damning affects of the fashion/beauty/advertising industry and indeed American consumerist culture in general. Your straight-faced description of a "democratized" and "tolerant" beauty standard can elicit nothing but astonished guffaws from the women and minority segments of your readership. Sure, you list Naomi Campbell and Halle Berry, but certainly you are not blind to the evident fact that these are black women with distinctly Caucasian features. To deny the inherent racism of the American beauty standard is to display either deplorable ignorance or calculated disingenuousness. Actually, I'm not sure any exploration of America's relationship with beauty can be written by a man, particularly a white one, unless he is fully committed to empathizing with the experience of those who exist outside his privilege, which clearly you are not. You, not being a woman, apparently are unable to relate to what it is like to have -the majority of your worth in society- defined by your appearance. Perhaps you would not be so dismissive of the beauty industry's deleterious effects if you were. Indeed, the best part of your article was when you touched upon the ephemeral nature of beauty and in particular America's disturbing obsession with youth. Perhaps you were only able to make such conclusions because you-while white, while a man, while otherwise probably somewhat conforming (although of course we all necessarily fall short) to the beauty standards of our society- are at least susceptible to the betrayal of your body and face in age. If only you were able to view the images posited on us by the beauty/fashion industry with an eye critical not only of where you personally fall short. I recommend a crash course in feminist theory and African American studies 101. Very disappointing for a subject so filled with important implications about our society and race, gender, capitalism.

David von Drehle: Sorry you didn't like it. Thanks for expressing your views.


Washington, D.C.: Good morning, Mr. Drehle!

I was thrilled that this particular issue included the differences in the way black women see themselves. Thank you for going there. I recall a panel of black men on 20/20 a few years ago, who were asked to compare an overweight Oprah to the skinny one who lugged around several pounds of fat. They all unanimously preferred the overweight one. The reasons they gave were pretty illuminating. In addition to saying she "had it going on," they associated her size with words like "comfort," "happiness" and "love"--all traits they associated with their mothers or other women who were important in their lives. Over the last two years, I lost 20 pounds and am in my early 40's. Although my husband and many men think I am at my finest at this stage in my life, I couldn't help but note a tone of fear in my husband's voice that I might lose my round behind.

Do you find that men's perceptions of beauty are associated with what they are comfortable with?

David von Drehle: The article you mention, by Carla Broyles, was really terrific. If Kim checks in on us maybe she can link to it.


Capitol Hill, Washington, DC: Mr. von Drehle: I really enjoyed your article. I was interested as I was male model in Europe in my early 20's and saw from the inside of an industry how the idea of beauty can be skewed so differently. For all of the beautiful young women I worked with and knew, I have never met an unhappier group in my life. The whims of editors really determined who would be working or not and they changed from one season to the next. I am now 40 and doing print work here in DC on the side, and I have to say confidence trumps youth and beauty any day! Thanks!

David von Drehle: Thanks for writing. I have had sisters and friends involved to minor degrees in the modeling business--just enough to know that it is not something I would want for my daughters. I'm sure there have been some women and men who have had good experiences, but I think the relentless attention to surfaces and the predatory approach to youth is generally demoralizing.


Boston, Mass: A host of authors have probed beauty as a cultural construct, including Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, whom you mentioned. I was curious to find out what you would add to the conversation, so I read your piece. I must say I was disappointed. I was intrigued by the doctor who studies the science of beauty and wanted to learn more. Where has he published? Was it in a prestigous peer-reviewed journal? What do other scientists and doctors think of his methods and findings? You use his research as proof that humans are hard-wired to recognize beauty without convincing us of the science. That is dangerous, considering the implications of your story, particularly for women.

David von Drehle: Well, as you know, Marquardt was only one of the researchers I wrote about. I also discussed a very current study out of Harvard by Graznya Jasienska in the new Evolution and Human Behavior. But Dr. Marquardt's research has been presented a scholarly conferences and is widely cited in academic literature, as a quick Internet search will show.

But at any rate, I fail to see anything "dangerous" about it. Unless you are a person who somehow confuses surface appearances with inner worth.


Northwest DC again: This obese and anorexic issue -- From what I've seen, the obesity problem is more a lower income problem. Anorxia and bulemia are problems of the upper income/extremely rich level of the populace. The Duchess of Windsor said 'You can never be too rich or too thin' but I'm wondering why is extreme thinness a problem? I'd give my eye teeth to lose a few pounds and get back the hipbones and ribs I had 25 years ago!

David von Drehle: Don't give your eye-teeth. Very few people, especially women who have borne children, are intended by nature to have the exact same shape they had as youths.

I do talk a bit in the piece about the use of physical appearance to signal class differences. When poor people worked outside, rich people powdered their faces ghastly white. When the poor moved inside to labor in dark factories and live in dank tenements, all of a suddent rich people were sporting suntans.

In this way, the Duchess of Windsor and the other "social X-rays" have used extreme thinness to signal that they have no worries about where their next meal is coming from. I point out that a person could only utter that quote who had never experienced a famine.


Washington, DC: I haven't had a chance to read your magazine article, but I did see an article in today's Style section about a popular Colombian TV soap opera about a teenage girl who wants breast implants so she can be popular and successful.

It reminded me that, however crazy I think Americans are about plastic surgery, it's 100 times worse in Brazil, Colombia, and some other countrires.

David von Drehle: So I've heard!


Washington DC: congrats for pulling the curtain and expozing the wizard of oz. the cosmetic industry pretends to market beauty when what they really market is the fear of aging and, oh by the way, if you hadn't noticed, fear is a tremendous motivator to get the earner or rich to part with cash. in a capitalist society, (and i wouldn't live in any other kind) is a reversal of this trend even possible?

David von Drehle: Is this trend reversable? I don't know. My gut tells me that it isn't good for society, in the long run, to have the older folks constantly horning in on the occupations of the young. Our job is to get the next generation started and then sit back and gripe about how much better things were in our day. And then die and leave them a house full of junk to argue over.

If the old folks keep struggling to be young--competing for their jobs and their mates and their tennis court reservations--who knows what might happen. Some day they might Rise Up.


Laurel Springs, NC: Great essay, David: Q: What about the old and wealthy geezers who wind up with "measurably" beautiful wives? Or the Nerds with good career prospects, who also wind up with the measurably beautiful wives/women? I was no Adonis, but when I once had an executive suite with all the trimmings and 416 employees under my supervision I was amazed at how many, many women came on to me, several of whom knew me before my promotion and paid no attention to me.

David von Drehle: Yes, yes. 'Tis true. The research crowd often theorizes that women are wired to find the Good Provider more attractive than even the most symmetrical stud. But will that change as more and more women reach the corner offices themselves?


Washington, DC: You said in your article that facial symmetry is one of the main components of beauty. Assuming that most people's facial bone structures don't change as they get older, why aren't more older people considered attractive? Is this another demonstration of our society's aversion to being old?

David von Drehle: My prediction is that in another few years the Boomers will suddenly decide that they are beautiful codgers, and then they will inflict their accustomed barrage of self-obsessed media images of beautiful old folks on us. That will be a relief in the sense that they will have come full circle, blessing every phase of life from childhood to old age.


the way forward: I was wondering how you factor in 'inner peace' and

'wisdom' into the equation? You only have to look at

people like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh to see

beauty that is not young, On that note, how do we

encourage a balance of seeking the beauty in the wisdom

of age?

David von Drehle: I can't do any better than that -- thanks.


Washington, DC: I like the article -- but I'm a little confused. I think my main reaction was -- so what now?

Should we just accept that our obsessions with the Angelina Jolie's of the world is here to stay? Did you even have a point in that way or were you just presenting the ideas? Kind of like well here's this thing, interesting eh?

David von Drehle: Well, I try to have a point, sure, but don't always feel a need to pound it with a sledgehammer.

Yes, humans will likely always be moved powerfully by physical beauty. We have been through all of recorded history and we show no sign of changing.

But no, that ought not to be our only conception of value or even of the variety of beauty itself.


Golden Ratios and Pregnancy: In women, does advanced pregnancy exhibit any signs of the Golden Ratio, or, as I suspect, does it obliterate existing Golden Ratios, in part signaling that there is no "womb for rent" to would-be inseminators?

Some women claim to feel more beautiful than ever while pregnant; at six months along I feel more like the only ratio to which I can currently relate is 3.1415927!!

David von Drehle: I haven't seen any data on pregnancy. I can report that my wife was gorgeous every day of her pregnancies, just like always!


Curious: Interesting article. Question: How does one explain the varying reactions to attractiveness among same-gender interactions (ie. attractive subordinate female employee is treated badly by older female boss but may be promoted by older male boss). I find this to be true among females but have watched attractive males get promoted by male bosses. Any research on attrativeness and the alpha-female interactions? Thanks.

David von Drehle: Great question. I don't know the answer. Anyone?


Bethesda, Md: You missed a good parenthetical when you brought up Naomi Wolf's book

"Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women."

The back cover of the hardback edition was graced with a FULL PAGE photo of Ms. Wolf's strikingly beautiful face.

David von Drehle: You know, this is very true. No one who read Naomi's book could miss the fact that Naomi was a looker. (IS a looker...)

I would have made that point if it hadn't already been made by a number of writers reviewing "The Beauty Myth." I have a strict limit to the number of recycled points in any article and I had already far exceeded it.


Central Florida: This hypothesis of hard-wiring for the Golden Mean seems to be in conflict with another hard-wiring hypothesis, expressed by Nigel Spivey, that humans prefer exaggerated representations of the human body in response to peak shift stimuli. The only place that the two hypotheses seem to intersect is in the Late Greek nude, which is highly stylized to fit the Golden Mean. In other words, according to peak shift hypothesis, hard-wiring and cultural bias produce wildly different models of perfection rather than uniform ones.

David von Drehle: I'll take your word for it. I haven't read Nigel Spivey.


New York, NY: It's very interesting that you wrote about the Nefertiti fragment. I was also stunned by it and remember it to this day. I find myself drawn to the Met at least once a year and I seek out those lips every time.

One thing I am finding as I age is that, although my inner and outer life become more rich and complex with every year and I strive to become wise, I am unsure whether these characteristics will reflected in my face and this worries me. We've always heard about the "face you deserve" and I guess this is the beauty myth I cling to. Somehow I thought that if I struggled to master the most difficult areas of human knowledge and to love those around me with a steadfast and loyal devotion and to lead an upright ethical life, I would be rewarded with a noble visage as I aged.

I don't see this happening yet. I see a growing look of fatigue and weariness and worry and I guess I wonder if I will get the face I deserve. (Or perhaps I am wondering if I am wrong about the face I deserve.)

So that's another beauty myth: The ideal of inner beauty: That someone's character would reflect in his or her face. My question is: Do you think there's any truth in that? Do our faces mirror our souls over time?

If so, do you have any recommendations to polish my character, to refine my soul in order to get the look I desire?

Women in my family age slowly and I'm told I look much younger than I am but I know it's only a matter of time before I start to look my age, as they say. This wouldn't bother me if I could attain the physical nobility and grace I've always assumed goes with leading a good life. My quest for knowledge and goodness and love hasn't paid off yet in my face and alas, perhaps it never will.

Sometimes, though, I look at my hands and their aging pleases me. If my face does not go the way I'm hoping, my hands might have to be the consolation prize.

David von Drehle: What a lovely contribution. I can't top that, so let's leave it there. Thanks for reading, for chatting, and for being your beautiful selves!


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