Beauty is a cultural obsession of ours. And while some of us believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, others are convinced that our ideas of what is beautiful are shared by everyone across the globe. So which is it? Is our sense of what is beautiful really innate and universal, or is it socially constructed and changeable?
Today we’ll explore this fascinating topic by taking a look at where our ideas of beauty come from, how these ideas shape how and what we create as designers, and how we can become better designers by pushing against the ideas and conventions of our own cultures.
Beauty is defined as the combination of qualities in a person or thing that pleases the senses and delights the mind or spirit.
Today we know that all humans respond to beautiful people and things, but does everyone across the globe see the same things or people as beautiful? Well, that depends on who you ask.
Beauty Is Universal
The Golden Ratio
Let's start with the Golden Ratio, a mathematical formula revered by many a designer, architect and artist, that when used in design is supposed to foster the kind of symmetry embodied in objects as diverse as the Pyramids of Giza and the Parthenon. Symmetry is held to be the foundation of all things beautiful, and it is claimed that it can be found everywhere in nature, from a Nautilus Shell to a spider’s web to the human face and form.
This idea that symmetry is the foundation of all things beautiful is supported by geneticists, who believe that our preference for symmetry, and thus our perception of what is physical beauty, is hard-wired into us by evolution.
Their ideas come out of a theory called the Evolutionary Advantage, which posits that we have evolved to prefer symmetrical faces, which are perceived as more attractive because the symmetry indicates good health in an individual.
This theory, they say, has been backed up by studies where people who had never had contact with the Western world, and others from the US, looked at photos of faces from both environments and came to similar conclusions about which faces they found beautiful.
There are even plastic surgeons who swear by the Golden Ratio and have created patented facial grids derived from it to give both women and men the perfect surgically enhanced face.
Beauty Is in the Brain of the Beholder
The Golden Ratio Overturned
That seems to be the sum of the "beauty is universal" argument. So let's look at the other side of this idea. Mathematicians have rubbished the cherished idea that the Golden Ratio is the natural blueprint for beauty. “Pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus” and a “myth that refuses to go away”, they say, according to an article in the Independent, a UK newspaper.
Furthermore, the idea that the Pyramids and the Parthenon were built according to the Golden Ratio has also been disproved. According to Stanford University mathematician Dr. Keith Devlin, there is “considerable evidence that people do not find golden rectangles more appealing than others. On the contrary, they tend to favour aspect ratios they are familiar with, such as an A4 piece of paper or a computer screen.” he said. “The golden ratio stuff is in the realm of religious belief. People will argue it is true because they believe it, but it’s just not fact.”
In more bad news for the celebration of symmetry as the ultimate indicator of beauty, physicist Alan Lightmart posits that what makes the natural world beautiful isn’t perfect symmetry. The physicist points out that “nature’s laws are beautiful because they strike a compromise between boring symmetry and confusing asymmetry.”
The Dominance of Western Values
One reason why the myth of universal beauty has been so pervasive is that it reflects the values of a dominant culture.
For Gender Studies Lecturer Dr. Hannah McCann, ideas of universal beauty are inextricably linked to the history of capitalism, imperialism, racism, and sexism.
"To say that [beauty is] biological is so dangerous because that exactly plays into those deep ... racialised imperialist arguments about who is better and why, and who should be dominated and who should be in charge, who is inferior and who is superior," she says.
To extend Dr. McCann’s point, Western ideas of beauty have been transmitted far and wide by the media, with many observers noting the rise in skin-whiteners and cosmetic surgery among Asians and Africans to lighten their skins and change the contours of their faces and bodies.
This is something that you might also see in commercial arts across the world, as artists and designers adapt their styles to fit into the Western aesthetic and to appeal to Western audiences.
One respondent to the question “Is Beauty Universal?” on Debate.org said:
“I live in India and beauty here is what Westerners believe is beauty. Indians look a bit dark and don’t have such features, but I always see Western models in advertisement. India also has a fairness obsession.”
Another blow to the idea of universal beauty can be found in art and life. Contrast, for example, Rubens’s 17th-century celebration of voluptuous women compared with the more recent reverence for exceptionally thin women—a tide, I might add, that appears to be turning again with the current obsession with surgically enhanced bigger breasts and bums.
And, of course, when we move away from North America and Europe to countries in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, etc., we encounter many different ideas of what is beautiful. For example, the Himba of Namibia deliberately remove their lower two front teeth and consider their absence a sign of beauty.
Ultimately, scientists say that scans of the brain taken while a diverse group of people observed various images and listened to music indicate that we all respond to beauty, but each of us responds only to what we think is beautiful. So it seems that beauty, after all, is really in the brain of the beholder.
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What Does This Mean for Designers?
As designers, we’re shaped by our culture, and this is reflected in the work we do. Without realising it, biases based on our ideas of who and what is beautiful and who and what is not can creep into our work and show up in our design decisions.
This is known as beauty bias, and it’s especially evident when it comes to the way we represent people in our design. If we have a singular idealised idea of what a woman or a man should like, then we’re likely to represent that idea in our designs and maybe represent people who don’t possess the “right” features as villains. Have you ever wondered why so many villains in movies, for example, have facial scars? Why so many beauties are blond and villains dark?
Think about how often you represent human images in your work. Maybe you’re a graphic designer who puts together corporate brochures and websites. Which faces do you choose to feature in those designs, and why? Or perhaps you’re a digital artist and love to put up your creations on Behance or other sites. What sort of people do you paint and, more importantly, how do you choose to represent them?
All of these questions matter because, as well as being shaped by our culture, we also shape it. Images are powerful, and as designers we can either reinforce stereotypes or fight against them. For more on this, see my recent article on why designers should get political.
There’s also a great opportunity here for you. If beauty isn’t universal, then it means that you can learn a lot from studying the work of people with different ideas of beauty. If you break out of your own usual sphere of influence and look at how other people see the world and what they think is beautiful, you can make your work much richer and more powerful. Start by checking out our Diversity in Design series here on Envato Tuts+.
I’m not suggesting here that you surrender your own aesthetic sense of what is beautiful. What I am suggesting is that you expand it to start looking at the world with a slightly altered consciousness. The internet is a great resource that allows us to tap into worlds we would not normally have insight into. Start looking at the work created by designers from countries completely different from your own to begin to see ideas of beauty from another perspective, and maybe once in a while try to incorporate some different ideas of beauty into your own work.
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In this article, we’ve seen that the idea of beauty is not nearly as universal as you might have thought. Many of the traditional Western beliefs in the value of symmetry and a “Golden Ratio” have been overturned, and it’s becoming clearer that beauty is, as the saying goes, in the eye of the beholder.
As designers, we have a responsibility to question, explore, reject stereotypes, and push the boundaries of accepted norms to ensure that our work is interesting and fresh and reflects the full diversity represented in our communities. Our aim shouldn’t be to be trend followers but trendsetters. So embrace the complexity of beauty, start questioning more and learning from others, and use your discoveries to take your work to a new level.