What is attractive?

This post is one I’ve been thinking of doing almost since I started this blog but never got around to writing. In many ways it builds on what on Ace Theist’s Attraction posts, that I would also encourage you to read as it focuses more of differentiating types of attraction, which I’m going to refer to but not go into any depth on. Rather I will be looking at what we consider to be attractive and the language that is used to describe it.

Everybody in the world recognises what is beautiful,
and deems it to be “beautiful”
and then there is “ugliness”

Tao te Ching

Beauty and ugliness —
how different are they really?

Tao te Ching

These two quotes are extracts from verses of the Tao te Ching (translations will vary) written before 300 BC. The first thing to be considered when looking at these quotes is that language was very much being analysed and the way in which it could be used.

The first quote looks at the fact that initially we actually have no concept of what is beautiful until it has been taught to us by somebody else, and that it in turn creates it’s opposite ugliness (effectively the have not). The second quote looks at how beauty and ugliness are social conventions that are learned (this verse focuses on “learning”) and how they they can change over time, often switching places.

In many ways these concepts haven’t changed at all we still have changing concepts of what is beautiful and ugly and these are still taught to us by society, often through media at a subconscious level and we still have changes in what is deemed beautiful and of course the concept of beauty and ugliness can be the exact opposite or completely unrelated in different cultures or even social groups.

Of course what is beautiful is often considered attractive and ugly the opposite, unattractive. In many cases we will be shown what is attractive by the media as it is more appealing to watch, whilst the other can be considered radical at best. Though it doesn’t take long to see how these concepts have changed and the radical can become attractive whilst the attractive becomes unattractive.

I’m going to keep this post focused on aesthetic attraction as it is probably the easiest to examine within this context, but remember that this can apply to any sort of attraction from sexual to financial attraction. The easiest thing to look at is the way the human body is portrayed, particularly the female body. We constantly see bodies in media and are informed of what is attractive. Of course this means we are constantly assessing people on how attractive they are. This article Surprise: Men focus on women’s bodies, not faces, is not really surprising, as it says in the article most women could probably already tell you this. However the part I found most interesting was how women have the same pattern when looking at other women. Whilst the article thinks it is for social reasons, I would argue it is part of the social construct around what is attractive and what we have been taught to think about what that means about someone, and that men have been taught to put more emphasis on the aesthetic appearance of women when assessing them such that it is almost expected. The distinction of sexual and aesthetic attraction isn’t even made here but merely assumed, however I would argue that primarily both sexes are assessing the aesthetic beauty as they have learned to do and the sexual attractiveness is a secondary inclusion, mostly for men who have learnt what they should find attractive in this way. (Of course personal preference will also be a factor in this but I’m going for a more general overview here to same time.)

Of course language is also a problem here as we know have words such as “hot” and “sexy” being used to describe almost everything. Sexy being a fantastic example of how a word can lose its meaning. Sexy is now becoming a synonym for attractive due to its overuse, often in an attempt to be cool and in line with modern culture. This restricts our ability to recognise what is attractive, as some things are not sexually attractive (to most people at least) but are attractive for different reason. But the wrong words make it harder to communicate what is attractive and using the wrong words give more weight to specific types of attraction. This only makes it harder for us to differentiate and identifying what is attractive and why is it.

To close I’m going to leave the following clip from Gruen Planet (an Australian show about advertising) from there segment The Pitch. In this clip an advertising company had to make an ad trying to create a new bodily insecurity in men. The main question to ask yourself when watching it is: why is that voice attractive?


4 comments on “What is attractive?

  1. acetheist says:

    Thanks for the shout out.

    Reading this reminded me of the times when I’ve looked at someone/something for a long time, engrossed, and took a while to realize that they or it were attractive. They weren’t characterized by markers of typical beauty norms and so words like “pretty” didn’t spring to mind until I realized how long I’d been staring. It made me have to recognize that, regardless of typical conceptions of attractiveness, how interesting the person or thing was to look at probably meant something in its own right.

    “men have been taught to put more emphasis on the aesthetic appearance of women when assessing them such that it is almost expected”

    Definitely expected. This also reminded me of this interview with Dustin Hoffman, where he acknowledges as much. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YBiS4GyyjM It’s not revelatory by any means, and he’s kind of clueless and cringeworthy in some parts of that interview, but I’m glad that at least he had the realization.

    • Victrix says:

      No problem, the pieces that you’ve written have been really well written and helpful,, It also saves me from having to find the time to clarify points, which I probably wouldn’t do as well.

      The number of times I’ve caught myself doing the same thing and then trying to work out why. Unfortunately I usually give up as it would become weird if they noticed.

      I still can’t believe that people don’t realise those expectations exist, and find it remarkable if someone actually points it out.

  2. […] Reflective Ace has some thoughts on attraction. […]

  3. Sara K. says:

    It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of which voices are considered ‘attractive’.

    IIRC, in Ancient Greece (Jo, can you confirm this) they generally considered higher-pitch voices to be more attractive because they were clearer. Of course, some people like lower-pitch voices because they have more resonance? harmonics? Gah, I forget the word, but the lower-pitch voices come with extra sounds, whereas higher-pitch voices are generally simpler and ‘clearer’. Both low and high-pitch voices have an equal amount of these auditory, ah, ‘richness’, it’s just that in higher-pitched voices much of that ‘richness’ is outside the range of human hearing. If human hearing shifted upwards, we would find that higher-pitched voices had richer sounds, and that the lower-pitched voices were ‘clearer’.

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