Ever examined photos of your ancestors, with their lined faces and weary eyes, and assumed they were quite elderly? Then you discovered the pictures were taken when they were just in their forties? Not so long ago, there weren’t many good ways to mask the effects of aging; people could look washed-up after four decades of hard-fought life.
Even 20 years ago, really looking younger meant making an appointment with a cosmetic surgeon for a date in the OR. Times have changed. In this special section, we have stories on the arrival of the facelift via needles — botulinum toxin injections to tame wrinkle lines, fillers to plump up sunken areas and chemicals to help you achieve bright, youthful skin. Can’t get rid of that tummy-pouch?
Rest a spell under a pain-free laser, and it will soon be gone.
It’s a good time to be getting older.
But is our preoccupation with looking good a healthy one? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with things that matter more in the long run? How sad it is to read that Eleanor Roosevelt, arguably one of the nation’s most heroic women, said she had just one regret. “I wish I’d been prettier.”
If her lifetime of achievement didn’t overcome a preoccupation with appearance, what hope do the rest of us have?
Turns out our pursuit of beauty may not have so much to do with a shallow immaturity as it does with our most basic instincts. In her fascinating book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, Nancy Etcoff writes, “Our extreme sensitivity to beauty is hard-wired, that is, governed by circuits in the brain shaped by natural selection. We love to look at smooth skin, thick shiny hair, curved waists, and symmetrical bodies because, in the course of evolution, the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success. We are their descendants.”
So in spite of the fact that most of us aren’t actively seeking to reproduce at any given time, we are still incredibly preoccupied with pursuing beauty. After all, we’ve been doing it most of our lives. By three months of age, reports Etcoff, infants gaze longer at attractive faces than at unattractive faces. Throughout childhood, we become increasingly sensitized to appearance. In his book, Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined, Gordon Patzer cites research that shows teachers expect cute kids to perform better, and devote more attention to helping them do exactly that. Similarly, looking good can be an advantage in the workplace. Even Aristotle claimed, “Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of reference.”
It’s hard for us to escape our preoccupation with appearances. Maybe it helps to recognize the primal basis of our pursuit of beauty — that it’s something to be understood, appreciated and managed for the biological impulse that it is.