False Genetic Markers

A post on Advice Goddess, highlighting the work of Satoshi Kanazawa and Alan S. Miller, reminded me of a recent email exchange between my friend Grayson and I. We went back and forth about whether the value we place on beauty is largely a product of society. It’s from one of his comments that I took my post title:

We are at a point in the history of Western civilization when we can physically mold our bodies to fit beauty ideals that last through clothing and unclothing, giving the recipient an edge over the competition in passing genetic material. There, however lies the rub. They are—for lack of a better term—false genetic markers.

Psychology Today excerpted Kanazawa’s and Miller’s soon-to-be published book, Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters. They hit on this concept of “false genetic markers:”

Men prefer young women in part because they tend to be healthier than older women…Men also have a universal preference for women with a low waist-to-hip ratio…The irony is that none of the above is true any longer. Through face-lifts, wigs, liposuction, surgical breast augmentation, hair dye, and color contact lenses, any woman, regardless of age, can have many of the key features that define ideal female beauty. And men fall for them. Men can cognitively understand that many blond women with firm, large breasts are not actually 15 years old, but they still find them attractive because their evolved psychological mechanisms are fooled by modern inventions that did not exist in the ancestral environment. (link)

So what’s a male to do if he can’t trust what he sees? Same goes for women. Cosmetic procedures among men increased by 8% between 2000 and 2006. Top procedures? Nose reshaping and Botox®. (link)

As, Kanazawa and Miller point out, it’s the need to perpetuate the species that drives men to search for fertile mates. Over time, evolution has built into men that certain characteristics (e.g., blonde hair, small waists, etc.) point to fertility. So do women, or men for that matter, owe an explanation to potential partners about any cosmetic procedures? If a man really prefers being with a blonde and you get your color from a bottle, should you confess?

Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “How trivial. What’s bold about this issue?” I believe that Kanazawa and Miller even discussing the idea, and other’s like it, pushes us to reconsider how we think about ourselves and the world around us. If we don’t understand why we are driven or even built to behave a certain way, it can be difficult to understand why things happen. In the intro to the excerpt, the authors make a point about this idea, and the others they discuss, that can often overshadow the conversation:

The implications of some of the ideas in this article may seem immoral, contrary to our ideals, or offensive. We state them because they are true, supported by documented scientific evidence. Like it or not, human nature is simply not politically correct. (link)

This post isn’t about the morality or ethics of plastic surgery. If you really feel the urge to go under the knife or get shot up with collagen, go for it. I’m not the one looking in your mirror every day. Instead, I’m trying to understand why we keep forcing ourselves into a mold, why we choose to believe that “blondes have more fun than brunettes.” We try to fit the mold in other areas of our lives too—the cars we drive, the houses we buy, the jobs we take. I’m tired of seeing people afraid to be themselves. We weren’t meant to be a world of lookalikes.

Who are you trying to be? In a society that seems to prefer the “false genetic markers,” saying, “No, thank you. I’d rather be me,” can be the boldest thing you ever do. It takes guts to embrace who you are, and I believe it’s a lifelong journey. You change over time and time changes you. Gravity isn’t kind, and people in the movies, especially women, always seem a certain age.

Embracing your genetics isn’t always easy. Part of me will always lament that I stopped growing at 5’4”, while another part of me will be happy I can fly “comfortably” in coach. And I tried being blonde for a while, but the upkeep was ridiculous. My hair grows too fast for color to last long. Why do any of these things matter? Because being your big, bad, bold self isn’t about avoiding experimentation. It’s about knowing that even if you chose not to experiment, that’s ok too.

The pursuit of “false genetic markers” is here to stay. Like I said before, if you must have plastic surgery, do it. But don’t do it because you think others require it of you. And in answer to my earlier question, wouldn’t it be better to confess before you give birth to child with your “natural” nose and “natural” hair color?



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July 2007
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