June 2011 – In Two Minds
Beautiful freak – challenging society’s perception of physical beauty
My project aims to highlight and challenge society’s perceptions of physical beauty through the creation of a genetically engineered child. I will use this creative process to explore the influence societal norms might have on scientific advances in genetic engineering. I was inspired to choose this topic after hearing the Eels song ‘Beautiful Freak’, which prompted me to think about my perceptions of beauty, and how they have been influenced by society.
Beauty can be defined as “the combination of all the qualities of a person…that delight the senses and please the mind.” (Collins English Dictionary, Complete and Unabridged, 2000). But what shapes our perception of what these ‘beautiful qualities’ should be?There is evidence that children develop a preference for beautiful faces very early in their development (Langlois, J. H., Roggman, L. A., Casey, R. J., Ritter, J. M., Rieser-Danner L. A. and Jenkins, V. Y. (1987) ‘Infant preferences for attractive faces: rudiments of a stereotype?’ Developmental Psychology, 23(3), 363–369.). This would indicate that certain aspects of our perception of beauty are hard wired in our brains. These inherited perceptions have a clear evolutionary basis. For example, we interpret facial symmetry to mean that a person is free from genetic disorders (Thornhill, R, & Gangestad, S. W. (1999). Facial attractiveness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 452–460).
These inherited traits are not the only factors which influence our perceptions of beauty. Our environment also influences our perceptions, which is reflected in the way our views on beauty have changed throughout history. The substantial curves of the sculpture ‘Venus of Villendorf’ from prehistoric times shows how society at the time viewed physical symbols of fertility as being particularly attractive (illustration 1). This can be contrasted with the relatively recent trend for stick thin, girlish models such as Kate Moss (illustration 2).
There are many environmental factors which influence our perceptions of beauty, from fashion to changing social attitudes and diets. Today the media plays an important role in shaping what we see as beautiful – film stars, TV presenters and musicians with attainable physiques are presented by the media as paragons of beauty who we should aspire to look like. Airbrushed images of female beauty are unattainable for all but a very small percentage of women. Not even the models look like their fashion photographs. The roots of this are largely economic. A multi-billion pound global industry has been built up around the desire to be beautiful encompassing fashion, food, cosmetics and even the medical industry. By presenting an ideal of beauty that is difficult to attain or maintain, the cosmetics industry has a guaranteed method of ensuring their profits continue to soar. There are a myriad of cosmetic products which claim to help women achieve physical perfection, from foundation to create the impression of blemish free skin to blusher which accentuates the cheek bones.
So why do people buy into the image of beauty as portrayed by the media? This can be partly attributed to the natural desire to conform. The sheer number of images of unattainable beauty – in magazines, films, TV programmes – gives rise to a perception that it is ‘normal’ to look like that. Another reason is that looking beautiful carries with it certain social advantages. A study by the University of California found that “attractive people make more money than middle attractive people, who in turn make more money than unattractive people” (Journal of Economic Psychology. 2007). Beautiful are also perceived in a more positive light than those who are unattractive. For example, they are regarded as being intelligent and successful; regardless of whether this is actually true (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/beautiful-people-earn-12-more-than-ugly-bettys-461261.html, 15.11.2010).
Women (and more recently, men) have gone to increasingly extreme lengths to achieve physical perfection as technology has advanced. Cosmetics are merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of changing the way we look. Plastic surgery is now widely available and has become more convenient and socially acceptable to the extent that most British women now expect to have cosmetic surgery in their lifetime ‘Most British Women Now Expect to Have Cosmetic Surgery in their Lifetime’. How did the ultimate Feminist Taboo become Just another Lifestyle Choice?’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/sep/14/gender.deccaaitkenhead 17.11.2010). There are dangers in society’s acceptance of cosmetic surgery, with cases of addiction becoming more common. Jocelynn Wildenstein is one particularly extreme example of someone who has become addicted to cosmetic surgery (illustration 3)
Genetic engineering now threatens to take the beauty industry one step further by giving us the ability to create ‘designer babies’ with handpicked genes to determine their physical appearance. The first venture into the world of designer babies has started with the most basic choice parents can make. For $2,500 parents can now choose the sex of their child (Life and Death in the 21st Century: Designer Babies, BBC2, 2000. 13.10.2010). This raises serious ethical concerns about whether it is right for us to be able to make those choices.
Having looked at perceptions of beauty, I then began to think about our reactions to people who look ‘abnormal’. Historic attitudes towards people who are physically different from us have been far from tolerant. For example, European explorers in the 18th and 19 Centuries “regarded Africa as a backward continent, inhabited by savage and abnormal human beings.” (The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist image of Africa, Milton Allimad, 2003). The story of Joseph Carey Merrick also known as the elephant man (illustration 3) is another famous example of how society responds to individuals that appear different. Suffering from a disease and having been shunned by his father and stepmother, he continued to be ridiculed throughout his life. He had no friends or social support and was forced to display himself as a curiosity by joining a freak show. (http://www.reference.com/browse/Joseph_Merrick 16.11.2010). Thankfully society has become more accepting of people with physical disabilities, for example through equality and discrimination legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. The circus freak shows of the Victorian era are no longer considered to be socially acceptable. However, discrimination still exists and will continue to do so as long as the media continues to act irresponsibly in the physical ideals it promotes. Scientific advances in genetic engineering also threaten to create a society with increasing levels of inequality between different social groups. “Fostering the notion that only a ‘perfect baby’ is worthy of life threatens our solidarity with and support for people with disabilities, and perpetuates standards of perfection set by a market system that caters to political, economic, and cultural elite.” (The New Eugenics: The Case Against Genetically Modified Humans, Marcy Darnovsky). http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/dar/dar_01againstgenetic.html 15.11.2010