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Thom Barker: Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Submitted

On April 29, I posted a picture on Facebook of snow coming down outside my living room window.

The response was almost universally sympathetic. “Ugh,” uttered one. “When will it ever end?” asked another. “Poor you,” lamented a third.

But that’s not what I was thinking at all. I was thinking how pretty the big, white flakes looked, twinkling in the streetlight against the dark backdrop of spruce.

I was projecting ahead to the next day, imagining how peaceful and cozy the woods would feel with an unspoiled blanket of snow on the ground and snow pillows nestled on the tree boughs.

The commenters’ reactions juxtaposed against my own brought to mind the old saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

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Clearly, when it comes to April (almost May) snow, my eye is the minority beholder, but the beauty idiom suggests it is the one that counts.

The relativism of beauty has become so ingrained in western culture, having first appeared in Greek philosophy more than 2,000 years ago, it is generally taken for granted that beauty is a wholly subjective concept.

But is it?

The question has been tested by science with some interesting results.

One must bear in mind objectivity itself is potentially a subjective concept. If our measure of objectivity is democratic (majority rule) or cultural (conditioned familiarity), then we would have to conclude a late April snowfall is ugly, despite my dissenting point-of-view.

Objective is, after all, a word, a human construct. By definition, it is impartiality and lack of bias, which perhaps none of us is truly capable of, introducing additional inherent bias.

I digress.

Usually when we talk about beauty, we are describing something we find exceptionally pleasing. And that finding is generally an emotional response, not a process like ticking off boxes of attributes and coming to a logical conclusion.

Or is it?

In fact, studies dating back all the way to 1878 suggest what most people find beautiful is not exceptional at all, but average. Francis Galton, an English statistician hypothesized types of people might be distinguished by their appearance. To test the hypothesis, he developed the technique of composite photography — in which multiple faces representing a category of people (i.e., criminals) were superimposed on each other. While the technique created averaged faces, it did not prove Galton’s hypothesis. However, he noticed the averaged faces were more attractive than any of the constituent faces.

Multitudes of subsequent studies show time and again most people find averaged faces more pleasing.

This is true of people of all ages. One study noted even babies three- and six-months-old will look at an averaged face longer than individual actual faces.

It seems there may, in fact, be a “standard” for beauty whether we are aware of it or not. The closer to average someone’s features are, the more symmetrical a thing is, the more likely we are to find it exceptional.

It kind of harkens to Plato’s theory of forms.

There are probably evolutionary implications for attraction to averageness being hard-wired. Having standard points of reference allows us to live and work together in large groups, which is largely responsible for our unprecedented success as a species and the preferential success of “beautiful” people within societies.

We are not alone. The advantage of averageness has also been demonstrated in other species.

When you think about the people who are more-or-less universally accepted as being beautiful (e.g., George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson), or a perfect tree, or a late spring snowfall, there are, in fact, measurable criteria. For snowfalls, one of those criteria is, apparently, the time of year it occurs.

Of course, there are people who find beauty in the grotesque, but on average, we like average.

But average may also be subjective. There is so much diversity within our species particularly, and within nature generally, it can be argued that we not only perceive average as exceptional, it is, in fact, exceptional. It may even be non-existent, merely a Platonic ideal. Even George and Scarlett only score about 90 per cent of the mathematical mean.

I could go round and round on the subjectivity of objectivity or the objectivity of subjectivity, but the thing that may trump any other consideration is attitude.

I live on the north coast of Labrador. I love the north coast of Labrador. In April and May (and sometimes June, July or August), on the north coast of Labrador, it snows. If you’re not going to find that beautiful, there is not much point living here.

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