It has been a while since I read a book as good as this. A book that leaves you NEEDING to track down and talk to the author in order to continue the discussions within the books pages. I thoroughly enjoyed this scientific yet accessable analysis of our relationship with beauty and especially loved the way that the book demonstrated that our passion for the aesthetically pleasing is as much biological as environmental.

Survival of the Prettiest

The ad men did not start the fire, the fire started before we discovered how to even MAKE fire. I feel happy now!

The book written by Nancy Etcoff was first published in 1999 after what must have been years of meticulous research spanning science, popular culture,  art and religion.  Nancy weaves her research into a delightful series of  chapters that look at the nature of beauty – what is it and how do we recognise it; beauty as bait and stereotyping;  The cosmetics industry and it’s ‘cover me’ antics;  The size and shape of beauty and much, much more. 

We discover that even newborn babies prefer looking at beautiful faces (those that have higher degree of symmetry) than faces that are less ‘beautiful’.   We also discover that there is a tangible biological benefit to being able to spot beauty – symmetry is a good indication of health as symmetry can be altered by parasitic infection, disease and genetic disorders.  Hanging out with beautiful people can be good for your health as in days gone by when we didn’t have good healthcare it was the better looking that were the most likely to survive due to their stronger constitutions.

The piece on the cosmetics industry was also pretty insightful, especially as  we tend to assume that it is the ‘industry’ that forces us to put on our war paint in order to feel good.  It seems that it has much more to do with sex than it has to do with ‘other business’.  Accentuating our eyes makes them look wider, clearer and bigger which is attractive as we are hard-wired to love that big-eyed baby look. Applying lipstick brings the attention to our most public erogenous zone making it look flush and inviting.  Blusher for cheeks gives us an excited and sexually available look and even skin is a great sign of health and vitality.  Has that put you off your make-up…..

This book really stands out for me for its practicality and its respect for the human state. I felt uncomfortable when reading Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” as it tended to emphasise the negative and dirty elements of the beauty trade while underpaying our human need and love of beautification.  Survival of the Prettiest shows clearly our biological origins of our beauty desires but then contextualize this to modern life.  For example, it is clear that we would not all pass the ‘is this face beautiful’ test and many babies would quickly divert their gaze to someone more pleasing but we are surrounded by examples of not so beautiful people (i.e: 99% of us) parenting perfectly happy children after forming loving and fulfilling relationships while holding down powerful jobs.  Nancy succeeds in showing us that aesthetic attraction and beauty are not trivial but neither are they the be-all and end-all.  Humans are smart and we are able to evaluate the whole package quite successfully which is why it is not just the beautiful people who are making  babies.

There is much more to this book than just talk about cosmetics and babies preferences (as the 50 pages of reference material show) so once again I urge you to read it. It has certainly given me much food for thought as well as a little comfort that I am not just some vain and brainwashed zombie for wanting to shave my legs, comb my hair and apply a bit of make-up every now and then. 

Thank you Nancy – you are a champion!