On occasion it is useful to outline definitions and frameworks. One thing that I often hear (i.e., I am constantly told) is that beauty is a subjective, and culturally defined, construct. In particular it is common for me to listen to explanations of “Eurocentric Western” beauty standards, as if they are sui generis. These views do not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, they grasp upon a real phenomenon: that beauty standards are malleable and vary across time and place. But like Classical Greeks who may have promoted a converse view, that beauty is an objective aesthetic reflection of innate characteristics of human value, modern subjectivists ignore the empirical reality in favor of a clean and simple narrative.
From where I stand it strikes me that Western intellectuals who engage in a discourse which engages the construction of the non-Western Other sometimes forget that the non-Western Other is itself a social construct with only constrained utility. To unpack it in more plain language, non-Western societies are diverse across themselves, and can not be bracketed as singular non-Western Other in a deep sense. And, they exhibit strong similarities to each other, and Western culture. This is all common sense, and I can attest to it personally, since my parents were raised in a non-Western society, and reflect a combination of banal and comprehensible attitudes, as well as shocking and outrageous ones. People are people. Just somewhat different.
Several people have inquired as to my opinion on the OKCupid post The Mathematics Of Beauty. I’ve blogged data from this dating website in the past, in particular, the differential race consciousness of women vs. men. But that material is a different class than the current post. As I have noted before, there is a robust result in the social science research over the past decade which suggests that women express & reveal more race consciousness than men when it comes dating & mating. The previous OKCupid analysis wasn’t ground-breaking, it simply added some wrinkles into a series of patterns which were replicated in the literature. The current results are different insofar as I haven’t followed the academic literature which relates to this in detail. This matters because unlike most of my peers I’ve done very little online dating (basically 2 weeks in the summer of 2002), and so can’t bring a personal familiarity with the topic to the discussion. To be sure, plenty of my friends have discussed their issues with online dating with me, so I’m not ignorant of the phenomenon. My male friends routinely complain how difficult it is to get the attention of women who are bombarded by messages from all directions. A female friend who is in her mid-30s chronologically, but physically resembles a women in her 20s, has complained how men clearly have automatic age filters set for searches which are working against her.
Let’s start at the beginning. To the left you see a scatter plot of # of messages received by women per month as a function of their rated attractiveness. They controlled for background variables (e.g., race). On the one hand, the results aren’t surprising. You see that more attractive women receive more messages. But on the other hand, the residual (noise) around the trend line is enormous, especially in the top half the distribution. I am personally rather surprised at the enormous variance of message # at the higher ratings. But here’s an important point: this is the mean rating of attractiveness. It turns out there’s a substantial variance around the means of attractiveness for any given mean value. There are two ways to look at this. It seems there is a general consensus about a mean of a distribution as to someone’s attractiveness level. In other words, you don’t have a preponderance of uniform distributions, suggesting that attractiveness is extremely plastic. This is in line with what evolutionary psychologists have found: people from “small scale” societies can ascertain who is, or isn’t, attractive in a set of photos of Europeans. But there’s another part of the story: differences in opinions about physical attractiveness of the same person from the vantage point of outsiders.