One of the grocery stores in town has a small sign at each of its checkouts that reads “If you’re lucky enough to look under 27, please have your ID ready!” The language of the sign always grabs my attention. If you’re lucky enough to look under 27. Why is the grocery store so confident in the universality (or near-universality) of the notion that to look under 27 is to be lucky? I don’t disagree with the idea that the average American would believe that, all other things being equal, looking young is desirable. But how did we get to this point, and what does it say about our society?
What makes this question especially fascinating to me is the sort of reversal that occurs during the life course with regards to the age people wish to be. Kids frequently wish to be older, in order to have access to the various facets of life that are (at least in a legal sense) restricted to those of a certain age – driving, buying tobacco and alcohol, seeing R-rated movies, and so on. Then, once we are firmly enmeshed in adulthood, suddenly the “desirable age” shifts to an age younger than we actually are.
I had a teacher in high school who grasped this conundrum and sought answers from our class. He said something to the effect of “I always hear from you kids that you want to be older and you can’t wait for your birthdays, but people my age dread their birthdays and wish they were younger. So exactly how old do you kids want to be, anyway?” In response, a student in the class raised her hand and, in a matter-of-fact, isn’t-this-obvious tone of voice, replied “21.” That was just one person’s opinion, but I’m sure she isn’t alone. It’s not hard to figure why 21 might be the “magic number,” as it were: You’ve passed most of the age milestones (including, particularly, the legal drinking age), yet still have what are often called youthful good looks. But what are “youthful good looks” anyway? Why are good looks typically associated with youthfulness? It calls to mind the significance of social factors in determinations of physical attractiveness. We might often think that since physical attractiveness is, well, physical, that it is an entirely or mostly biological process that society has no real input on. Nancy Etcoff makes such a point in her 1999 book Survival of the Prettiest. Her general claim is that modern notions of what constitutes physical attractiveness are rooted in evolutionary strategies for maximizing the likelihood that we can produce offspring and that these offspring will survive. Social institutions such as advertising, corporations, and the media, she suggests, can tweak and interact with our hard-wired preferences, but they ultimately do not create them, any more than “Coca-Cola or McDonalds created our cravings for sweet or fatty foods” (1999: 4).
Sociology and evolutionary psychology have a number of disagreements, to put it mildly. I don’t think I have enough knowledge of genetics (“none” would be my precise amount) to fully rule out possibility of some biological influence on our perceptions of attractiveness. Yet I do believe that society’s impact on these judgments is real and is significant. Superficial differences of biology are imbued with cultural meaning in ways that blur the lines between what is biological and what is social. A comparison to race could be instructive. Human beings are born with surface-level differences in skin color, it is true, but it is society that seizes upon these differences and uses them to construct the institution of “race.” It is society that chooses to attach these social consequences to skin color and not to eye color, finger length, or other ways in which human beings can differ. Just as it is society that frequently attaches esteem and privilege to light skin and stigma to dark skin (calling to mind W. I. Thomas’s observation that if human beings define something as real it will be real in its consequences), it is society that can set the terms of for what is considered an attractive human body. What’s more, these standards can differ across cultures and are subject to change. Consider the increase in the prevalence of disordered eating in non-Western societies whose traditional standards of beauty differed from those of the West but are increasingly exposed to Western media and advertising (e.g., Becker et al. 2002).
It’s clear that what I’m grappling with when I speak of recognizing cultural influence on attractiveness while still feeling that I lack the training in genetics to conclusively rule out any biological factors is the classic nature-vs-nurture debate. Are attractiveness standards hard-wired or socially constructed? As a sociologist, I lean strongly toward the social construction end of the spectrum. But more to the point, I don’t feel that leaving the possibility open for the existence of some biological influence necessitates the abandonment of efforts to recognize cultural influence, or to change or push back against it.
Becker, Anne E., Rebecca A. Burwell, David B. Herzog, Paul Hamburg, and Stephen E. Gilman. 2002. “Eating Behaviours and Attitudes Following Prolonged Exposure to Television Among Ethnic Fijian Adolescent Girls.” The British Journal of Psychiatry. 180: 509-514.
Etcoff, Nancy. 1999. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. New York, NY: Doubleday.