What is Beautiful?

Let’s face it. Some people are beautiful; some, not so much. Why? What is it that makes some of us more attractive? Is it social conditioning or something fundamental about what attracts us to each other?

I remember having this debate with a classmate during a very complicated physics lecture back at M.I.T.. He claimed that it is a matter of social conditioning. I claimed that there is an innate aesthetic sense that each of us carries around inside.

To bolster my argument, I tried to create a hypothetical situation that would eliminate social conditioning from the equation:

 “Suppose a boy is born on a desert island”, I started. “His mother dies giving birth to him and his father dies of old age when he is just barely smart enough to survive on his own; let’s say, five years of age. Fifteen years later he has matured into a young man of twenty, 6’3” tall and 210 lbs of muscle. One day, he is exploring the other side of the island and notices two females walking on the beach. They are the first and only females he has ever seen. They too, were shipwrecked on the island and have been there alone for ten years. They are both eighteen. One is 5’5” and weighs 110 lbs. She is proportioned and fit with high cheekbones, a proud nose and full lips.  Her breasts are small and round; firm little melons, and symmetrical. She has a small waist, a firm tummy and a pronounced curve to her hips. The other young woman is 5’2”, 205 lbs, thin lips, a small mouth and no jaw line, with much larger, slightly sagging breasts, a big belly and straight hips. Her rear end looks like a cello.”

“Which one will he choose to mate with?”

I add the further condition that he must choose based on appearance alone. Personality, intelligence, etc. doesn’t enter into it.

My college friend contends that our island survivor is equally likely to choose the more overweight woman because society has not conditioned him to be attracted to the more svelte type with her slim but curvy figure, high cheekbones, full lips and firm tummy. I counter by whispering firmly: “Only if he has poor taste!”

Which one of us is right?

He points out that since the larger one is larger, she may appear healthier than the slimmer one and cites many examples from the history of art that depict plump women as being the ideal of health and beauty.  He has a point there. Look at the paintings of Reubens and others. Furthermore, later in life, when I was in Brazil, we were doing breast reductions on women who were perfect C-cups because the aesthetic there was for women to have small, very firm breasts that didn’t sag at all; the point being that aesthetic norms vary all over the world and depend on the particular society as much as a fundamental, thus supporting his argument.

Ok, he’s winning the debate so far. I’m going to lose if I don’t come up with something that I can claim the slimmer woman has that can be attributed to something fundamentally beautiful.

“The slimmer, curvier one has more attractive breasts. Surely something that sags looks tired and used”, I whispered, “even to someone who has never seen them before.”

“The big ones look like they have more milk in them.”

“I bet my girl has lots of golden rectangles hidden in her face.”

“My girl’s entire body looks like a golden rectangle!”

“My girl has a smaller body. So her body features are going to be closer in size than the corresponding pairs in your girl. Therefore my girl is going to be more symmetrical than your girl. Since symmetry depicts balance, it is a fundamental characteristic of beauty. Since greater symmetry implies more beauty, I win.”

“Are you aware of the studies that have attempted to marry symmetry with beauty where the photos of 25 people are shown to a test subject, some with symmetrical faces and some with decidedly asymmetrical faces and that test subject is asked to select the most beautiful faces?”

I look down, dejected: “I thought you hadn’t seen those studies.”

“Then you know that, invariably, the test subjects pick the asymmetrical faces. They never choose the ones that are manufactured to be perfectly symmetrical because they look like milquetoast. Your girl is an emaciated piece of milquetoast!”

This is getting personal.


“Tomorrow”, I tell him, “meet me in the Student Center at noon. Bring with you a picture of the most beautiful woman you can find tonight in any magazine.”

“Why? What will that prove?”

“Humor me.”


At noon the next day, I was already there when he walked in the door. We saw each other from a distance but did not say a word.  The air was heavy. The waitresses stopped serving coffee, the silverware-on-china clinking came to an abrupt halt and the room went dead silent save for a small crying baby whose mother whisked him out the side exit door. We walked to the opposite ends of a long rectangular table in the middle of the room and slid our pictures toward the center of the table where they met. Here are the pictures we brought:


Me:    Him:


He chose the blond, smiling, 1978 Miss America pageant winner, figuring that he could make the argument that she must be prettier because she won the beauty contest. Certainly, she is pleasant in appearance in a Cheers-era Shelley Long kind of way.  I chose a sultry, smokey, and sexy Italian actress.





He is a better debater than me. He is smarter than me. He is better at physics than me. He is richer than me. (He now makes several hundred million dollars a year on Wall Street as a hedge fund manager and eats at Elaines every day for lunch. I make a few lousy hundred thousand a year, staying up all night, eating dinner out of hospital vending machines.)

There is an explanation for all this. In his business, perhaps more important than being right is always having a sound reason for everything you do with lots and lots of other peoples’ money.  I, on the other hand, can rely almost exclusively on my intuition; in this case, my innate aesthetic sense.


As for who brought the prettiest picture, I’ll leave that for you to decide.


4 Responses so far.

  1. max says:


    thanks for information.

  2. Tony says:


    thanks for information!!