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 Beauty - a history of self abuse?

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nordmann
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PostSubject: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Wed 11 Jan 2012, 17:37

The female of the species, for reasons we are told have everything to do with the evolutionary urge to ensure our survival as a species, is the sex most preoccupied with looking good and attracting mates on that basis. And this, we are also told, is the underlying reason behind the avalanche of magazines, parlours and pharmaceutical companies which cater for this obsession today, and indeed the many other industries which have profited from and facilitated this primeval urge over the millennia. It may all appear cynical and contrived, but it is simply proof that evolution is ensuring we are at least attracted to each other enough to produce copies of ourselves.

But how does this urge explain 19th century Chinese infants whose feet were bound so tight that they grew to resemble hooves and caused millions a lifetime of chronic pain, lameness, back injury and premature death? Or those European and American society ladies from slightly earlier who, we have read, starved themselves into malnutrition, anorexia and an even earlier grave than their Chinese sisters, just so they could fit into a corset? Or for that matter the female of today in almost every culture who applies lavish amounts of toxic chemicals to her visage on a daily basis (and even more sometimes on a nightly basis in order to "clean" them off)? Other examples abound - the distended necks of the Paudung women who risk instant death should the metal rings which have caused the deformation be removed. Or Japanese women who once encouraged their teeth to rot in order to demonstrate their wealth (they could afford sugar). The list goes on.

And of course men have not been immune from such excesses either, as the history of lip plates - labrets - readily shows. Their usage can be traced through several cultures as far back as 8,700BCE and right up to today where they are as likely to be seen implanted in a male as a female, despite the health risks associated with their insertion and their use. Men have also been at least as preoccupied with their appearance as females in many cultures, but it would be a fair generalisation to say that traditionally men's excesses historically, in the main, have been confined to elites and cliques who, for whatever reason, could avoid the daily drudge of the majority of their counterparts. The same cannot be said traditionally for women. Often it has been the least advantaged of females socially who have been the victims of the most barbaric of these customs.

So what are we to make of this litany of abuse? Is it an evolutionary urge which at times goes out of control to the extent that it achieves the opposite effect to what the urge is there for in the first place? Is it a very human contrariness which encourages not just individuals but entire cultures to indulge in such risk-taking when it comes to ensuring their own survival? Or is it in fact a subtle but nevertheless effective evolutionary device in its own right - thinning out the population (thereby decreasing competition for resources) while still functioning as beauty in the eyes of its human beholders (thereby encouraging procreation and keeping the generations rolling in)?

Any thoughts?
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Islanddawn
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Wed 11 Jan 2012, 18:48

Tattoos were also a form of beautification in both male and female. Rather painful procedure and with the real risk of infection and poisoning from dyes.

But women don't go to extravagent extremes only to attract a partner, there is also peer pressure to conform to a certain type or standard in dress and behaviour from other females.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 00:10

Whether the pressure is perceived to come from others or individually perceived as from within per person, it is the same in the broader evolutionary sense. It is a compunction being enforced which is understood by the individual, regardless of the perceived source, and this itself has evolved to this point or else it would be meaningless.

I left out tattoos as so many people have them these days who just would not believe how fraught with danger of infection the process was a mere few decades ago. But you're right - that form of self-inflicted mutilation fits the bill. I also avoided reference to female castration which is not performed to enhance the beauty of the victim but still fits the bill as it is designed to enhance her availability to a potential mate within the culture which allows it.

This is actually a very morbid theme, when one really thinks about it.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 00:38

Many of these perceived beautifying processes are also a way of identifying the tribal group or social class to which the person concerned belongs; the Paudung neck rings are surely an extreme example of the former and Chinese foot binding of the latter? It could be said though that it's the identity of the husband, father or master that's being affirmed, a reflection of his wealth and status, and so the perceived 'beauty' is not simply aesthetic but symbolic.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 00:50

Good point - but it's still "beauty" in the sense that in all the cases cited above the "victims" themselves believe or once believed their attractiveness had been enhanced, and are or were surrounded by peers (as ID pointed out) who reinforce this belief.

What I'm trying to say is that you're right in a sociological sense, but what I was wondering about was if there is a deeper evolutionary logic to the thing?
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 01:19

In that case it would have to improve reproductive success, I can't immediately see how. Sorry, I'm thinking as I type so it may not make a lot of sense. I suppose that fostering group identity, cohesion and support by the tribal modifications has evolutionary advantages and I'm also sure that I've heard somewhere that 'good looking' people are said to have more daughters, a plus, but whether that would carry over when the beauty in question is an acquired characteristic rather than an inherited one I don't know, seems irrational. On the other hand, if the women who end up having the most extreme modifications were those with the most highly prised features to start with........
Too complicated for this hour.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 04:07

But humans aren't born with longer necks, holes in their ears, very small feet nor with designs on their skin. Is it evolutionary or is it merely that innate and instinctive drive to attract a mate, in order re-produce and survive as a species?

The modern version of cosmetic surgery. Breast, bum, lip, cheek implants which, at its most basic, is the enhancement of what is sexually attractive and is not far removed from this http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/place_settings/image.php?i=2&image=317&b=bio
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 11:30

What men apparently *really* find sexually attractive are those physical attributes that suggest youth and health - and therefore fertility. A slim figure, but with enough fat to ensure that menstruation is still regular and that, if food becomes scarce during a pregnancy, mother and baby will survive; long, flowing, glossy hair; unblemished skin; bright eyes; high energy levels.

So what do we make of the "beauty" trends (most of them?!) of our own times that defy all this and would seem to repel rather than attract a mate? Skinny and/or otherwise tortured figures; false hair, often sticky, sprayed and stiff with "product" (hairdressers' favourite word); skin caked in make-up and smeared with orange dye; false nails; fake boobs - Lord, it's a wonder any babies are still being born.

And then what to make of the recent "heroin waif" look? These girls seem to be shouting out, "I'm anorexic, infertile, sick and addicted - for God's sake don't try to mate with me!

And the ultimate in female beauty at the moment is apparently that beautiful boy (can't remember his name), who parades himself on the catwalks of Paris, Milan and London, for all the world like a lovely, but sexless girl. He makes any ordinary "curvy" (to use that dreadful word so beloved of the Daily Mail - always used as a euphemism for "fat") female look positively vulgar (see - I'm brainwashed).

It does make a kind of bizarre evolutionary sense. We live in a world where population growth is dangerously out of control. Women, not as sex objects, but as no-sex objects?
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 13:21

I'm not sure if the nature of whatever the valued expression of beauty is makes any difference to nordmann's question; is it purely cultural or is there an evolutionary driver at work?
Certainly the research seems to indicate what you said, a healthy and fertile woman is the most attractive to men as is a man showing the traits of a good provider to women. The only bit of research that I could find that ties in evolution suggests that symmetry is important in perceptions of attractiveness but, taken to extremes, that might imply perfectly spherical women or men should score the highest in the fanciable stakes.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 17:18

Sorry, I wasn't really engaging with the question at all - just musing. I do that all the time these days.

But at least it was another post.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 18:03

Oh dear, if I appeared in any way critical, I didn't mean to. As I said, I also tend to muse as I type and so what emerges often is what's going on in my head spewed directly onto the page, I should probably keep it in there!
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 18:14

Lord, ferval, it was fair comment - no huff!

I'm all over the place these days - a bit worrying actually! Brain cells (on both sides) are seriously depleted, I think.

cyclops I like this - just noticed it.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Thu 12 Jan 2012, 20:20

I thought your post was completely on the topic, Temperance. I don't understand beauty trends nowadays, but it doesn't always pay to say so. I recall a girl getting off a bus a while ago in Sheffield whose trousers were so far down we could see everything and it was appalling. But when I said in front of my son that I couldn't see the point of it, as it couldn't be attractive to anyone, I got blasted (though not convinced). Though in her case it could be sexually inviting maybe. I think one of the reasons they give for anorexia is that girls don't want to become adults and don't want to use their sexual and fertility functions.

Most of the examples Nordmann gave were based on the need (often for others, ie men) to show wealth and presumably wealthiness has its own reward in attracting sexual partners. I mentioned on the bar thread an article I just read on young men abusing the practice of body-building. http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/wellbeing/6247974/Muscle-dysmorphia-a-growing-issue

What I found odd was that after an article talking of this as a problem, the comments below tending to be supportive of people spending half their life at gyms and working on their bodies. One at least said they didn't do it to impress women, but just for themselves. You hear that from women too, but I don't think anyone would bother with these sort of punishing regimes if they were on their own on a desert island.

There must be studies on how these practices generally fit with evolutionary theory.

Caro.
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 16:08

Thank you, Caro - I am now emboldened to add a few more comments which, although not learned observations on evolution and cultural drives, are still perhaps *vaguely* connected with the Original Post. Ferval and Nordmann will - I hope - forgive me if I seem to be just chatting!

Trying to change the colour of one's skin in order to appear more attractive has a long and dangerous history of course. A beautiful woman - until the 20th century - was expected to make every effort to achieve a white face (and body). Pale, translucent skin was desirable because it indicated high social status: the wives of rich and important men did not ruin their complexions by working outside where the sun could roughen and redden the face, neck and hands. Some practices - the use of lemon juice or bathing in asses' milk (Katherine Parr regularly used both treatments) - were harmless enough, but the use of lead-based make-up was, as we all know, deadly.

I've always thought that lead paste was first used by Elizabethan women, but no! The "white mask" look had apparently been admired for centuries before Elizabeth I made it fashionable in England. The Romans and Greeks (male and female) put lead in their cosmetics, and lead-based foundation was particularly popular for French men during the reign of Louis XV. Putting known poisons on (or more recently with Botox *in*) your face has always seemed like a good idea to some. Alternatives to lead - amazingly used right up to the end of the 19th century - have been arsenic (nice effect when used in face powder apparently) and mercury. The Geisha girls also used lead make-up.

Evolution, cultural drive or just madness?

The saddest beauty abuse in our own times, however, must be the craze for black women (*and* men - the late Michael Jackson being the obvious example) to apply damaging bleach-like preparations (substances that can irritate, burn, even permanently disfigure the skin) to the face in a futile attempt to achieve a look that is presumably believed to indicate not just beauty, but also cultural superiority. White skin, it would seem, still equals power, privilege and prestige.

Meanwhile, white men and women risk cancer to achieve a darker look. This is changing though. A tanned skin - from around the 1920s - was seen as indicating wealth, leisure and health (didn't Coco Chanel at Cap Ferrat start it all?). But no longer. It's now apparently the height of vulgarity to be tanned (who wants to look like a chav celebrity who's spent hours on a sunbed?), and we see the likes of Madonna and Nigella Lawson on the beach, kitted out in bizarre burka-like bathing garments - not to preserve their modesty, but to preserve their skins. No ray of sunshine must be allowed to penetrate the protective gear. But the protection is not against skin cancer, but rather against the sun damage that can cause wrinkling and ageing. Alas, the madness of extremes! Lack of sunlight and the Vitamin D it produces on the skin can lead to osteoporosis - an illness that kills many women.

Who was it who advised, "Moderation in all things?"

One last observation, and I'm afraid it's a sick one - literally. You can, it seems, never be too thin, especially if you live in New York. I read a while ago of a fashion editor - the Prada-Devil sort - who, after visiting a friend who was dying from cancer, admitted that she was struck by - and not a little *envious* of - how the illness-induced gauntness suited her friend. The invalid's face, which had apparently always been, prior to her illness, unfashionably fleshy, now had the most amazingly sharp cheekbones.

Reminds me of Hamlet addressing poor old Yorick's skull:" Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, though she paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come."

The sooner the better for the editor of Vogue it would seem.


Last edited by Temperance on Fri 13 Jan 2012, 16:27; edited 1 time in total
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 16:21

I've just looked up the moderation quotation. It's from Terence:

"Excess in nothing - this I regard as a principle of the highest value in life."

But he pinched it from the Delphic Oracle: "Nothing in excess."

Final word must go to Benjamin Franklin: "Do everything in moderation, including moderation."
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 16:29

Do you realise that I've been too embarrassed to post here again? Temp, I wasn't suggesting at all that your post wasn't on topic but that there were different threads to the discussion, one of which was nordmann's question and I was, in that reply, trying to address that. Heaven knows, I'd waffled enough about the others and the gist of it was to try to articulate my thoughts about the evolutionary argument.

I'm still wrestling with that but I think it may tie in with the instinct of women to secure that 'good provider' and therefore explains their willingness to submit to these procedures and fashions to improve their chances.

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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 16:38

Ferval, don't be so silly. I am *NOT* having a huff or being mardy. Honestly, if you knew me in real life you would realise that I rarely flounce (waste of energy). I know I often get in a muddle with Nordmann's posts - I'm reminded of a comment on Henry James's prose style: "The man is so clever that by the time I've got to the end of one of his sentences, I've forgotten what the beginning was."

I *was* off topic - you were right! I'm still wrestling with the evolutionary argument too - in fact I've given up. Embarassed
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 19:36

No-one can have a huff anyway, at least not until Priscilla arrives and gets to work on the new range. We may even need a set for each board, colour coded I hope, so there will be no confusion.

I've given up on the evolutionary question also, but I agree that the lengths some will go to conform could easily be seen as self-abuse.


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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 20:22

http://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/local-news/6253515/Asian-Kiwis-avoid-harsh-NZ-sun

I have just read the above and, while it said Kiwis still like to bask in the sun (no chavs here - indeed my son keeps having to change our pronunciation of this word - we can never remember if it is 'ch' or 'sh') Asian young women spend $1000 on two-week sessions of skin-whitening. With most legal products here, but mercury was still mentioned being used by some.

Their reason was for youthfulness, and indeed in the pool the other day (I have been exercising!!!) the younger women were noticable sunburnt whereas the older ones weren't, so the opposite application applies perhaps for the same reason.

I suppose doing things to look young is another way of ensuring you attract a mate, though it doesn't explain why women older than reproducing age should still need to look younger than they are. And I've never met anyone who wanted to look older than they are, and I have wondered why youthfulness is so valued, at least in looks. Is it a fear of death coming through? I thought it might be different in Asian countries but the girls in this article don't suggest that.

Cheers, Caro.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 21:37

I suppose my point was not so much about the diversity and subjectiveness of what is considered "beauty" but in trying to fathom whereby the most extreme manifestations of these opinions, so extreme as to be life-threatening or simply unimaginably cruel in any other context, are taken up by whole societies or by entire cultures and can even last through countless generations. This on the surface appears to fly in the face of normal evolutionary theory in that the species which has the highest capacity for self-preservation on an individual basis tends to have the same as a species - and therefore has best chances under natural selection of surviving. A species which habitually ignores or even contradicts this basic requirement on any appreciable level is literally risking extinction. I cannot see where the behaviour I described departs from this definition in any major way.

What makes it ironic is that it is done (and understood to be done) in the name of "beauty", a subjective theme but at the same time generally understood to be a euphemism for attractiveness, without which motivation no species can survive.

"Henry James - he had a mind so fine no idea could violate it" - TS Eliot
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 22:31

Quote :
This on the surface appears to fly in the face of normal evolutionary theory in that the species which has the highest capacity for self-preservation on an individual basis tends to have the same as a species - and therefore has best chances under natural selection of surviving.

Is that entirely correct? Is it not that the species with the highest rate of reproductive success survives and the death of an individual is irrelevant to that as long as they have lived long enough to produce sufficient offspring to at least balance or preferably exceed the death rate?

In the earliest times, these customs may have served as a means to recognise fellow tribes people and been important in the creation and maintenance of cohesion and mutual support. Once adopted they might develop to the extremes we observe by stages. As you say, concepts of beauty are cultural constructions and I don't find it too difficult to imagine that while one neck ring may be chic, thirteen are even more so. Why else would anyone choose to wear 6" stilettos?
There is also a link to rites of passage, both in the general and in the anthropological sense, and the ornamentation or body transformations that women practice are probably correlated to the trials by ordeal which young men undergo. If anything is life threatening those are but are widely practised.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 23:17

The male rites of passage are normally considered to be related in behavioural origin to the requirement within certain species for males to forcibly demonstrate their superiority, both as potential mates and in social species in terms of status within the group. Essential to this behaviour is the ability to distinguish between immature and mature males when it comes to ability to procreate. Different species solve this problem different ways and "rites of passage" are a particularly human way of doing so. I find that explanation understandable in the circumstances, especially if one looks on these rites of passage as just a more elaborate (but not much more) expression of the same urge, stylised but essentially achieving a similar effect in establishing male "worthiness" in terms the whole group can immediately understand.

When it comes to women however the similarity is less pronouced than you seem to imply, in my view. While grotesque and exaggerated displays of beauty as understood by the group may establish the mating credentials of the female, this falls short of an explanation for the more hideous extremes, such as the Chinese foot-binding. When one extends the definition of hideous social customs to include female circumcision, and the very real danger to the victim's ability to procreate (if not her life), then it becomes even harder to maintain the analogy.

However your point about the stilettos growing longer in tandem with the neck rings is spot on in my opinion. They are indeed related phenomena.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Fri 13 Jan 2012, 23:58

I was using Rites of Passage in the sense that Gennep and others do, the marking of the various life events from birth onwards that serve to demonstrate the move from one status to another and the facilitate acceptance and incorporation of the individual into the group. The nature of these rituals of course varies enormously but those which have a religion based origin could have, like other manifestations of superstition, accrued an importance that outweighs its practical disadvantages. Most of the others, although deeply unpleasant and cruel to our eyes, do not directly impinge on the ability to conceive or give birth. Much like your depiction of male initiation, they could also demonstrate "worthiness".

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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sat 14 Jan 2012, 01:14

Evolutionary advantage isn't the only force driving behaviour, though, is it? Surely with the foot binding (and with other things like female castration) there is, behind it, a behavioural need which seems quite widespread over various cultures and eras to control women and keep them in their place, away from predatory or just nicer or more desirable men? Taken rather literally in the Chinese instance.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sat 14 Jan 2012, 05:28

Well yes, I think some of it does have to do with control also Caro. Although, what I find most puzzling is not that there were efforts at various forms of control over the females in the herd, but that women themselves were complicit in enforcing and re-inforcing that control, no matter how hideously painful and damaging the practice may have been. It doesn't speak well for the female pshyche.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sat 14 Jan 2012, 09:01

None of these points are invalid, or even contradictory. There are several motives and ways of explaining most human behaviour. I am intentionally focusing on the evolutionary theory aspect since it is generally accepted that our capacity to identify attractiveness in others is a product of this process and is directly related to procreation, whereas the deviation of this concept into practises which maim, kill or simply remove procreational potential would appear to be an aberration which must jeopardise a species' chances of survival.

Is it a Darwinian "self-correcting" mechanism for when species' populations outstrip resources? If so what is the physical mechanism by which such "mass consciousness" is transmitted genetically?
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sat 14 Jan 2012, 09:16

@Caro wrote:
Evolutionary advantage isn't the only force driving behaviour, though, is it? Surely with the foot binding (and with other things like female castration) there is, behind it, a behavioural need which seems quite widespread over various cultures and eras to control women and keep them in their place, away from predatory or just nicer or more desirable men? Taken rather literally in the Chinese instance.

I think that's an important point, Caro - and one that's explored in Naomi Wolf's excellent book, "The Beauty Myth - How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women". And it's no longer just the need to keep females away from other men that is the driving force. Women can be kept from competing too successfully in the job market (competing for resources?). A weak, starving woman (and believe me there are lots of them), or one who has wasted time in prolonged grooming rituals rather than in careful preparation for an important task, is surely at a serious disadvantage?

Standards of beauty and femininity that are impossible to attain mean that many (not all) women are reacting with what appears to be increasingly obsessive behaviour in attempts to measure up. Energy that might be used to pursue more worthwhile goals is turned inward and dissipated in guilt, shame and misery at one's physical "faults".

What is really depressing is that, despite feminism, nothing seems to have changed; in fact, things seem to have got worse - the younger generation of women is still weakened and made wretched by this myth - "the last and most dangerous of a long line of lies concerning the rules of feminine attributes and behaviour.

PS Re our apparently aberrant behaviour - has this been observed in any *other* species - grooming or courtship rituals that in fact *diminish* the chances of successful procreation?
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sat 14 Jan 2012, 09:28

For evolutionary success, the organism must be able to recognise a partner it can breed with successfully, produce enough offspring and one or both parents support them until they reach breeding age. Where that organism is a pack or group living being, the coherence and supportive participation of that group is critical.
These practices seem to me to facilitate these factors. We also know that higher status animals and people generally breed and raise more young more successfully. If these procedures play into that arena then they are also factors in evolutionary success.
The behavioural and cultural manifestations of this could then become more extreme over time and since a driving motive in human behaviour is the desire for acceptance, they are undertaken not just willingly but enthusiastically. Consider the alternative - exclusion or even expulsion from the group.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sat 14 Jan 2012, 09:31

@Temperance wrote:


PS Re our apparently aberrant behaviour - has this been observed in any *other* species - grooming or courtship rituals that in fact *diminish* the chances of successful procreation?


There are several species which engage in behaviour to the detriment of individual males' survival. From a procreational point of view this is actually in the species' best interest as it targets the males less likely to produce "successful" offspring. Killing off the females is one in which we seemingly specialise. Doing so in the name of "making them attractive" seems completely perverse in that context.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sat 14 Jan 2012, 09:36

Another aspect is, are these customs memes, they seem to exhibit the characteristics that Dawkin's states " the role of key replicator in cultural evolution belongs not to genes, but to memes replicating thought from person to person by means of imitation. These replicators respond to selective pressures that may or may not affect biological reproduction or survival"?
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sat 14 Jan 2012, 11:39

This definition fits the bill in my view. However most memes which are irrelevant to the requirement to ensure biological production seem to perpetuate because they do not adversely affect the process, at least not too much. Self-mutilation etc to an extent that it most definitely could have an adverse effect on the process appears to be an extraordinary meme to have survived so long and show no immediate sign of being purged from a species which prides itself on its self-awareness.

I'm beginning to sound like Private James Frazer - "Wur doomed! I tell you, wur all doomed!"
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sat 14 Jan 2012, 12:03

Have you been listening to Radio 4? That clip was used several times in a programme earlier this morning.

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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sun 15 Jan 2012, 21:53

We were talking about this at lunch today. The discussion veered away from the beauty thing and turned to suicide. Is suicide another bizarre and illogical "adaptive behavioural strategy"? I know ants will sacrifice themselves to defend the colony, but that is surely not so much suicide - more a kind of ant altruism which makes complete evolutionary sense.

Apparently around 20 million people each year attempt suicide and about 1 million actually succeed. That is a shocking number. There have been appreciable rates of suicide throughout recorded history, and I read earlier on the internet that "Anthropological studies indicate many cases in technologically primitive cultures as diverse as Amerindians, Inuit, Africans, Polynesians, Indonesians and less developed tribes of India."

Suicides are not, as might be supposed, mainly the elderly, the sick or the infertile; that would make evolutionary sense - people whose direct reproductive prospects are discouraging or hopeless, or those whose continued existence is perceived as interfering with their genetic kin's ability to survive ("being a burden"). No, the group most at risk are healthy* heterosexual young men, males in their reproductive prime.

Someone this afternoon said that no other primate species ever commit suicide. Is this true? I mentioned grieving baby chimps - the little ones who have lost their mothers - who refuse to eat. This was discounted as "just pining", and it was pointed out that there are no confirmed cases of "real" suicide in any non-human primate species. Even a seriously depressed ape in a zoo does not climb to the top of tree and fling himself down, nor does he attempt to bash his brains out on the enclosure wall.

I know this is well off topic, but we did have an interesting discussion - thought I'd report back!

*Physically healthy, that is.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sun 15 Jan 2012, 22:20

I would guess that this is a question of consciousness; being able to make the choice to end one's life is predicated on an awareness that one is 'alive', in one state of being, and, envisioning one's own demise, that death brings an end to that. It must also involve the ability to come to the conclusion that death is the preferable option. Although apes and elephants seem to understand bereavement and exhibit what has been interpreted as mourning behaviour, do they have a concept of momento mori?
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Sun 15 Jan 2012, 22:23

Is that perhaps because they don't have foresight? They maybe can't envisage what will be the end result of flinging themselves down, or bashing their brains out. Animals (some anyway) seem to realise they are about to die and seek out the best place for them to do this, but I doubt if they can reason enough to actually seek out death itself.

(I think this is much as the same as you have said, ferval.)
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 09:20

@ferval wrote:
I would guess that this is a question of consciousness; being able to make the choice to end one's life is predicated on an awareness that one is 'alive', in one state of being, and, envisioning one's own demise, that death brings an end to that. It must also involve the ability to come to the conclusion that death is the preferable option. Although apes and elephants seem to understand bereavement and exhibit what has been interpreted as mourning behaviour, do they have a concept of momento mori?

I hesitate to add anything else here for fear of being dismissed as irrational (rather than non-rational - there *is* a difference), but could there also be a spiritual element in all this that is worthy of consideration? Do we, in discussions about evolution, concentrate too much on our (undoubted) apehood, but neglect man's spiritual essence? Darwin himself said it was possible to be both an evolutionist and a theist.

Are we no more than angry (or despairing) apes, and does our awareness of being and non-being - the concept of "Remember you must die" - simply indicate an intelligence that is more evolved? Does our intelligence actually make us weaker - prone to depression and unhealthy introspection? It might be better after all to be - as Whitman suggested, "placid and self-contained" like the (other) animals. Animals have no concept of "sin", especially that most terrible and destructive of "sins" - "accidie" - (not sloth, but the worst thing of all - despair, a sense of meaninglessness).

For centuries it was believed that there was another element at work - within and without - one that is bent on corrupting, spoiling, destroying what has been created - or, if you prefer, what has come into being. St. Paul simply called it "powers and principalities". Perhaps he had a point, although we hesitate to use his language today - or at least we are careful in what company we use it!

But this is again quite off topic and I'm sure, ferval, you'll be giggling into your coffee as you read this - what *is* this woman blathering on about Mad (and first thing on a Monday morning, too)? I'm not Bible thumping - honest - just musing.


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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 09:58

I shan't try to comment on the spiritual aspects of your post, Temperance, but a couple of sentences relate to something I read just this evening (have already managed to forget whether it was a magazine article or a newspaper review). Your paragraph "Are we no more than angry (or despairing) apes, and does our awareness of being and non-being - the concept of "Remember you must die" - simply indicate an intelligence that is more evolved? Does our intelligence actually make us weaker - prone to depression and unhealthy introspection?" was on the same subject.

The university professor was talking about intelligence as an evolutionary tool, and was saying (or seemed to be) that there was a limit to human intelligence growth, as it brought with it problems. Have found it! From the Observer and quoting Thomas Hill, professor of psychology at Warwick University. Two downsides of highly developed cognitive skills: one is where too little or too much focus creates a disadvantage - not knowing when to give up or carry on. And the other was a trade-off where exceptional abilities in one sphere are balanced by deficiencies in another (idiot savants, or apparently London taxi drivers, where their amazing knowledge of London roads and spatial awareness is off-set by poorer performance in other areas). He said, quoting a study on Ashkenazi Jews, that their increased intelligence is associated with a similar rise in specific neural disorders. "in other words, increasing human intelligence appears to have arisen with a cost in cognitive diseases specifically associated with increased intelligence".

The improvement in IQs in the last 100 years is unlikely, according to him, to be an evolutionary phenomenon. Not long enough, I suppose.

This seems to be awfully off the topic, but there's no Host Andrew to tell me I will be banned. (There is Nordmann, of course.)

Cheers, Caro.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 10:14

On looking a little further in the paper I see another article which relates to evolution and behaviours that seem counter-intuitive to it. It was talking about studies showing adults react faster and more usefully to a baby crying than to other sounds. But in women with post-natal depression that response is disrupted "through no fault of their own". It seems an odd nature flaw to give so many women post-natal depression. Hard to see any evolutionary benefits, but maybe it is just a case of brains going a little haywire.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 10:15

@Caro wrote:


This seems to be awfully off the topic, but there's no Host Andrew to tell me I will be banned. (There is Nordmann, of course.)



I can't see that this is off-topic at all. I introduced the concept of "beauty" in the opening post, which is about as subjective a concept as can be found. What your quoted article from the Observer indicates is that the concept of intelligence is equally subjective, and that this therefore must certainly have a bearing on the behavioural aberrations I referred to.

For the record though I must say that I personally disagree with Professor Hill when he equates taxi drivers' ability to memorise routes and placenames with intelligence. The "Knowledge" is indeed a remarkable mental feat when acquired and executed by cabbies, but I am not sure there are many of us who would see it as proof of superior intellect, at least not when judged in isolation.

Temperance's spiritual slant on human behaviour is also interesting but I would still disassociate myself from its central assumption. I do not see awareness of spirituality or even the experience of it as anything other than an extension of our cognitive ability. In the case of spiritualism it can often be a misfiring of the process, or a correct firing but poorly expressed. A good rule of thumb when attempting to define an experience (or anything for that matter) is to force oneself to use expressions as devoid as possible of semantic obfuscation. These terms have been introduced as a form of shorthand in general expression and though they serve that purpose admirably they tend to be rather less than useful in analytical debate. Spiritualism tends to fall into this category, I feel.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 10:37

@Caro wrote:
He said, quoting a study on Ashkenazi Jews, that their increased intelligence is associated with a similar rise in specific neural disorders. "in other words, increasing human intelligence appears to have arisen with a cost in cognitive diseases specifically associated with increased intelligence".

Makes me think of all those philosophers who went completely bonkers (not to mention Sylvia Plath).

Seriously, Caro, that's interesting. I'm sure I've read about the taxi driver example in my book of the moment, "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World." Got to go out now, but I'll see if I can find it later and what Ian McGilchrist says about it.

PS Spirituality is not spiritualism, Nordmann! But I take your point.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 10:48

Don't even get me started on spiritualism! Basketball
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 11:45

Quote :
Makes me think of all those philosophers who went completely bonkers (not to mention Sylvia Plath).
And poor Marvin!
Which leads me to think of the vaguely recalled story, I can't remember which, where the realisation of the vastness and indifference of the universe leads the character to madness. I can understand that; when I listen to cosmologists talking about the entropy death of the universe, the existential despair just leaves me so miserable and hopeless that I have to go and have a large drink and several cigarettes, it's all pointless and we really are doomed.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 13:13

Blimey ferval… that’s heavy going and I agree. Nevertheless, I shall enjoy watching Prof. Brian Cox tonight on the box no doubt adding more anguish to my already doubtful future plans.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 13:21

Norm, have you seen this? It could be a good way of passing the time if you're interested in astronomy. http://www.planethunters.org/
There's this as well. http://www.galaxyzoo.org/

Sorry for the deviation folks.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 13:23

@ferval wrote:
Quote :
Makes me think of all those philosophers who went completely bonkers (not to mention Sylvia Plath).
And poor Marvin!
Which leads me to think of the vaguely recalled story, I can't remember which, where the realisation of the vastness and indifference of the universe leads the character to madness. I can understand that; when I listen to cosmologists talking about the entropy death of the universe, the existential despair just leaves me so miserable and hopeless that I have to go and have a large drink and several cigarettes, it's all pointless and we really are doomed.

When I am sunk in cosmic gloom I find a cup of PG Tips and a chocolate Hobnob to be an efficacious remedy.

What's all this "Aediles" nonsense - in charge of public buildings? Huh.

I want to be a Vestalis
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 13:32

You'll do your Cursus Honorum like everybody else, young lady! cyclops

However - since you insist ...
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 13:42

Hail Caesar, sir, yer honour.

People called Romanes they go the house.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 13:45

Oh, I take it back - I've become a Vestalis - eat your heart out, Quentin!

I'm thrilled to bits - thank you, sir!

Right, enough of this, work now.


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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 13:49

@Caro wrote:
On looking a little further in the paper I see another article which relates to evolution and behaviours that seem counter-intuitive to it. It was talking about studies showing adults react faster and more usefully to a baby crying than to other sounds. But in women with post-natal depression that response is disrupted "through no fault of their own". It seems an odd nature flaw to give so many women post-natal depression. Hard to see any evolutionary benefits, but maybe it is just a case of brains going a little haywire.

Not so odd when you take into account that until recently man had always lived communally, in close proximity and within an extended family and social structure. The raising of the young was shared by the group, and if (for some reason) a new mother wasn't able to care for a child there were always older siblings, grandparents, aunts etc there to step into the breech. It is only within the last 100yrs or so that our traditional way of group survival has broken down and leaving sole responsibility of rearing young with only one or two people, not nearly enough time for women or men to evolve mechanisms that would cover problems that arise in modern life. I think, we are equipped to cope with survival in a way of life that no longer exists or unequipped to cope with survival in the new. At least, not yet anyway.
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PostSubject: Re: Beauty - a history of self abuse?   Mon 16 Jan 2012, 16:52

In the distant past, the woman who did not respond adequately to her crying baby would very soon have no baby and therefore the prevalence of the syndrome, if it was genetic and kicked in at each birth, would disappear unless there was a handy wet nurse.
To be brutal, the odd baby dying is neither here nor there to evolutionary processes. It's the herd not the individual that matters and that's still the principal which governs immunisation policy.
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