The Subjective Nature of Beauty and Attraction Explained

"Wow, you're so pretty!" "Gosh, you're gorgeous." What wonderful compliments to hear, right? Even if you are one of those folks who get a bit awkward after being showered with compliments, we all enjoy the confidence boost every now and then. Yet, as good as the flattery may make you feel, it's important to remember that these opinions are subjective.

Beauty has long held the center of many philosophers' debates over the centuries. Though this is a highly subjective valuation of someone's aesthetics, certain facets can be considered objective. On the other hand, attractiveness is a metric influenced by a myriad of an individual's personal characteristics. Thus, it is entirely subjective.

People's preferences for others' appearances can change at the drop of a dime. With the next era of societal beauty and fashion standards, or a person's life experiences, the criteria determining whether a person is beautiful or attractive can be washed away without a trace. Yet, what precisely makes these two aspects subjective versus objective?

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The Centuries-Old Debate on "Beauty"

Over the years, "beauty" has grown into quite a divisive topic – with some using the term in genuine expressions of admiration, and others wielding it as a metric for elitism. Philosophers have wrestled with the language of beauty for centuries, especially those in the Western world. The debates have become a cornerstone in "philosophical aesthetics," and rightfully so.

The concept of beauty is considered to be a core virtue of Western culture. It was also a prominent theme in discussions between thought leaders in the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea still entangles influential figures to this day. What issues could there be to create such disagreement in philosophical and lay communities when discussing what is and isn't beautiful?

Any subjective matter will inevitably invite multiple perspectives on its "truth" and ultimate value as a measure of humanity, hierarchical and social status, and life, in general. Beauty is no exception. We've all heard the age-old phrase, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." This is perhaps the simplest way to speak to the complexity that comes with determinations of what is and isn't beautiful with the utmost brevity.

This saying holds within it some of the oldest, yet most definitive schools of thought about beauty (Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

  • The Classical Conception of Beauty: This school of thought arose in the Italian Renaissance, a time in which perfect proportions and symmetry were emphasized in all things art, including the human aesthetic. Yet, each feature, each distinct component of the art, was considered to have a "life" and "existence" of its own. All were arranged together to create a "coherent whole."
  • The Idealist Conception of Beauty: Socrates credited a portion of this ideology to an instructor of his, Diotima. Diotima considered beauty not to be a simple feature, but an experience closely related to sexual desires. Further, by its connection to reproductive impulses, beauty is also related to the yearning for immortality. In this school of thought, beauty was interpreted as an entire element, as opposed to pieces of a whole, as introduced by Classical theory. Further, it was not restricted to the physical body, but the individual's soul as well.
  • Beauty as Love: Similar to Idealist thought, beauty to this school of thought is not necessarily an outward feature, but a feeling to be experienced. According to philosophers like Sartwell, beauty is an "object of longing" and represents intense, unsatisfied desires.
  • Beauty in Hedonism: Ludovico Antonio Muratori, an Italian historian, once attributed the beholding of beauty to the emergence of "agreeable sensations" within the human body and experience. Whenever someone sees, hears, comprehends, or enjoys "beauty," they feel something positive. Hume went further to declare that both pleasure and pain "constitute [the] very essence" of beauty, emphasizing that beauty is not one static element, and not even concentrated within the beautiful being, but the crux of the beholder's experience.

As you can see, there are endless interpretations of what beauty is. 

From a superficial descriptor of an individual's aesthetics to a profoundly moving experience of fervent desire and romantic longing, the concept of beauty changes with the times and the individual.

In the Eye of the Beholder

Everyone has their own definition of beauty. As the schools of thought demonstrated above, these definitions can take many forms. To some, a person's beauty is independent of others' experiences or interpretations. It is restricted only to the object of admiration. In the others' eyes, beauty influences the world around the spectacle, offering an experience for other living things around them to indulge in.

One might say that the former comprises the argument for objectivity. Since no one else can experience the beauty that that person holds, it is defined only by that individual's aesthetics, experience, and spirit. The latter, however, which invites others into what it means to be beautiful, brings to light the subjectivity of what it means to be beautiful. 

What does it mean to be objective vs. subjective?

  • Objective: Definitive or inarguable, this means that the interpretation of someone's beauty is factual and unbiased. "The person is beautiful, regardless of what you or I think."
  • Subjective: This is opinion-based, and so is debatable. You, the next person, and so on, will all have differing opinions on whether someone is beautiful to you or not. "I think this person is beautiful."

Subjectivity quite literally means that the interpretation or summation of something arises from within the mind of the subject. The "subject" is the one who hosts the thoughts about the matter at hand. Interestingly, in the context of determining beauty (or a lack thereof), this shifts the focus of the interaction not on the beautiful person, but on the person viewing that individual. (Source: Philosophy Talk)

An Example of Subjectivism with Regard to Beauty

Suppose you are meeting someone on your first date. Your date quite tells you that your eyes, your hair, your face – everything about you is beautiful. This person has stated their opinion of you and, curiously, it has nothing to do with you. Instead, it has everything to do with what they like and the types of features they prefer.

With this in mind, you can conclude that they have given you a subjective declaration concerning the quality of your aesthetics. A fickle declaration at that, given the fleeting nature of human sentiments. Although it is certainly flattering, it does not, and never will, define your value. The only measure of beauty that should hold any bearing on how you view yourself is that which has been determined by you and only you.

Is It Possible to View "Beauty" Objectively?

Objective definitions of beauty are difficult to come by; however, they do exist. According to the physicist David Deutsch, such factual perspectives on exquisite aesthetics are straightforward to identify. Deutsch points to nature to illustrate this point.

Flowers, for example, evolved their special appearances to attract pollinators. Its very persistence as a species depends on whether other organisms see it as beautiful. Given that they are still around, we can conclude that, yes, flowers are, objectively, beautiful. This introduces another element into the conversation of what beauty is: A single portion of an overarching evolutionary process. (Source: Nature)

The same can be said of humans, too. Humans evolved specific aesthetics for the sexes to find one another attractive. So, in a sense, we are all objectively beautiful. There wouldn't still be a human race if we weren't, right? Yet, there is still subjectivity underlying this facet of reproductive prospects. It lies in the reality of attraction.

What Makes Attraction Subjective?

Perhaps one of the quickest ways to spot subjectivity as it relates to attraction is when someone says, "You're not my type." This is an immediate indicator that a person has a set of criteria that an individual must meet to be considered "beautiful" in their eyes. 

This is not to say that one who does not meet another's criteria is "ugly," only that they will not receive the same adoration for their aesthetics as someone who does fit the bill.

What exactly makes someone "attractive," and how does this relate to beauty? As illustrated by some of the schools of thought discussed above, an individual's beauty can offer a unique experience to onlookers. Most of the time, this experience entails some sort of longing or desire. Often, these yearnings come in the form of sexuality and romance. 

Beauty's Role in Attraction

These feelings function to draw the beholder deeper into the presence of the beautiful person. This magnetism is the result of the onlooker being strongly attracted to that individual. Yet, not all people experience this in response to the same stimuli. For instance, as mentioned above, beauty can lie in the person's physical appearance, or who they are - their spirit or soul. 

Some people may become attracted by merely gazing upon another human being whose physical features appeal to the onlooker's standards. Others may have to spend time with someone before they can confidently declare that they are indeed attracted to them. Further, there are even more people who must become fully immersed in both to confirm their feelings of attraction. In this lies one more facet of attractiveness: its existence on a spectrum.

The Scale of Attraction

You may recall a time in your life in which you were "sort of" attracted to that guy or "kind of" thought that girl was pretty. These sentiments reflect an underlying reality of what defines attractiveness. Rarely does someone make an absolute decision on whether they find another person attractive or not. To be attracted to someone is a fluid experience that changes with fluctuations in preference over a lifetime.

How can something so capricious and fleeting be objective? The truth is that it cannot be. Just like the factors that determine a person's beauty in others' eyes, the elements by which people measure an individual's attractiveness are ever-changing and influenced by the surrounding environment. 

Thus, attractiveness exists on a fluid spectrum that is incapable of reflecting another's appearance or behavior accurately and without bias. This metric is entirely based on the beholder's preferences at the time of interaction. The extreme subjectivity of attractiveness even has grounds in scientific research. 

The Science of Human Attraction

Last year, a team of researchers put this subjectivity to the test by asking participants to "sculpt" their favorite features in the "face-space" and emphasize their most preferred facial regions. There were a few significant differences between male and female participants in what was deemed the most attractive:

  • Eyes: Males preferred a greater distance between the eyes. They also favored faces that had eyes that were positioned relatively lower on the face.
  • Cheekbones: Males were attracted to higher cheekbones than women were.
  • Dimensions of the face: Males favored thinner faces with sharper features more so than females did. They preferred narrower noses and jaws, specifically. 

The scientists noted that the participants' performance highlighted just how subjective attractiveness is due primarily to two things:

  • The regions of the face that were categorized as "attractors" varied considerably among the study participants, even though the choices for the sculpting activity were limited.
  • Preferred features in the group spanned a broad spectrum, even though all participants were of the same cultural background. (Culture and society are typically strong predictors of what the "standard of beauty" will be in a population. This is significant, given that all were of the same general culture, yet they maintained highly distinct criteria for attractiveness.)

The researchers also noted that the participants' various cognitive processes were strongly correlated to what each deemed attractive. This serves to confirm with even greater confidence that attraction is indeed subjective, as it differs not only by gender biases or societal influence but how the observer thinks. (Source: Nature, Scientific Reports)

Further Research into the Biases Driving Attraction

Back in 2010, yet another team of scientists tackled the concept of facial attractiveness and how people determine whether they do or do not like someone based on this factor. This team wished to emphasize the unique traits not of the model being judged on their level of beauty, but the "judgers." 

According to these researchers, facial attractiveness lies not only in what people have learned from their surrounding environment but also in their individual life histories

Though sets of judges in these types of studies generally agree on beauty ratings, these factors may be more reliable predictors of attractiveness perceptions than previously believed.

To put this theory to the test, they recruited four judges and had them measure the beauty of 65 women. With each photo presented to the judges, they were required to rate the photographed person from 1 (the lowest score) to 7 (the highest rating). The 65 women were asked to rate themselves as well. 

One of the critical factors separating the two groups was knowledge of life history. 

The women being judged knew things about themselves, of course. They knew whether they were married, had children, their age, and other details of their life. 

On the other hand, the judges knew nothing about them and were judging based only on a photo. Surprisingly, this knowledge (or lack thereof) seemed to be a critical factor in the ratings 

  • Women who assessed their own attractiveness scored a group average of 4.85 out of 7. 
  • The judges' assessments resulted in a mean attractiveness rating of 3.61 out of 7. 

Age was a significant element in how the women viewed themselves. 

  • Those who scored themselves high on the scale of facial attractiveness were 39 years old on average. 
  • On the other hand, neutral scores were mostly granted by those who were an average of 45 years old. 

(Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine):

Even when rating yourself, your determined level of attractiveness can change along with any given detail of your life. Just as the participants in both studies showed, attractiveness is nothing but the summation of a person's life history, individual desires, culture, and more. No matter who is doing the observing, you can almost guarantee that the final determination of attractiveness will always be subjective.

Final Thoughts

Your beauty and level of attractiveness are not set in stone. These traits manifest in your outward features and in the substance of who you are, thereby changing throughout your lifetime. Further, the people you interact with will undoubtedly vary throughout the years. Each individual you come into contact with will have unique dispositions concerning what they do and do not believe is beautiful or attractive.

These perspectives are highly volatile, influenced by ancient schools of thought, gender biases, societal influences, individual life histories, etc. Though it can be argued that aspects of beauty are, in a sense, objective, when it comes to attractiveness, there is no such thing.

So, you don't have to waste your time toiling over everyone else's ideas of beauty. Within yourself, you are beautiful. Whether you choose to pamper yourself with face masks and moisturizers to wear your naturally glowing skin or doll yourself up a bit with makeup, you are objectively beautiful, as long as you deem it so. The only person that needs to be attracted to you is you

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