Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Who decides what is beautiful, and why does it matter?

Our perception of beauty becomes one-sided and united


Beauty has always been important to humans; even the philosophers of antiquity pondered beauty and its essence. In his book "About Beauty" (2010), the Orthodox monk Serafin Seppälä states that the ability and need to enjoy beauty unites all profound people. In his book, Seppälä details a wide range of different beauty perceptions, such as harmony and goodness. He is concerned about the current tendency to understand beauty only as a surface. Our perception of beauty is shallow.


Our perceptions of beauty are forcibly united in a mediated world. We all share access to the same news and internet sites. Our perceptions of what is beautiful are affected by algorithms. When we use Google Image Search and look for beautiful people, buildings, and places, Google's algorithm has selected these for us. It would be interesting to know how it has made the choices. However, Google does not provide this information. I wonder whose perceptions of beauty have been the basis for classification? Jill Rettberg (2019) tells how algorithms learn to "recognize" (and simultaneously define) beauty. She has studied how algorithms learn to classify images based on aesthetics. The classification uses the same technique as facial recognition. Algorithms rank pictures and predict what emotions people will experience when they look at them. Algorithms give points to different images according to beauty - and simultaneously, they happen to define what is beautiful.


Cosmetic surgeries harmonize people


In addition to algorithms, beauty perceptions become unified by selfie filters, which can be used to "beautify people"; remove wrinkles, enlarge eyes, and smooth skin. One such filter is in the Chinese Meitu app, which enhances selfie images by dilating the eyes, adding the makeup, and cartoon-like effects. Many see this as a mere joke that "beautifies" people for fun. However, this is not a small phenomenon, as according to Elina Lappalainen (2017), "Meitu has been downloaded to more than a billion phones and has more than 456 million active users". The problem is that Meitu's conception of beauty is narrow and stereotypical. According to an article published in the New Yorker, Meitu is changing perceptions of beauty in China rapidly.


According to a Chinese newspaper, cosmetic surgery has become socially accepted in China in recent years. China's cosmetic surgery business is growing six times faster than the rest of the world. More than 8 million people in China have undergone cosmetic surgery. According to the study, selfie culture is the main reason for the sudden and extensive cosmetic surgery growth. Students take loans for cosmetic surgery. Many students believe that physical beauty is the core competency that enables one to thrive in this world.


Is beauty a core competency?


According to several studies, romantic relationships are greatly influenced by physical beauty. Beauty is a stereotype of good and desirable (beautiful is good-effect) (e.g., Sangrador & Yela 2000, Hadjistavropoulos, & Genest 1994, Dion et al. 1972). It also affects who you want to make friends with (Lemey et al. 2010). In her study, Erin Shinners (2009) asked 284 students to rate people's likeability and reliability based on photographs. The results showed that more good-looking people were considered more reliable than not-so-good-looking people. This effect is partly subconscious, and people are not aware of it. 


Human physical beauty consists of many different elements; studies show that facial beauty seems to be the most critical factor (Pansu & Dubois 2002). The facial beauty consists of features such as face color, smoothness, eye brightness, hair shine, etc. These are all signs of health. Essential features include symmetry, mediocrity, masculinity, or femininity (Thornhill & Gangestad 1999). While (superficial) beauty may still not be quite a core competence, it has a lot of significance. So it matters a great deal who decides what is beautiful.


What is the essence of beauty?


As I said initially, Serafim Seppälä is haunted by the superficial perception of what is beautiful. In the preface to his book Beauty, Serafim Seppälä (2010) talks about his somewhat crazy motive for writing the book. He wanted to write about beauty because he wanted to "offer something amid modern ideological fragmentation that could serve as a unifying principle".  But then what exactly is beauty?


Michael Martin (2013) talks in Philosophy Bites -podcats different views on beauty among philosophers. David Hume thinks that what is beautiful or what we consider beautiful is a subjective thing (beauty is in the eye of the beholder). Beauty seems to exist within the viewer. It is reflected in different ways from different people and objects that a person sees. Hume considers the emotions evoked by an item as a measure of its beauty, meaning that it is also likely to be beautiful to us if something brings us joy or happiness. Immanuel Kant takes the exact opposite view, believing that beauty exists in objects themselves regardless of people or spectators. Some things are objectively beautiful, and their beauty does not depend on whether anyone is seeing them.


Serafim Seppälä's interpretation is something in between. He is annoyed that people recognize beauty as mere surfaces. People do not understand the profound value of beautiful. Beauty manifests itself as material qualities but is not in matter. In a way, Kant is right: beauty is a quality of a person or object, but Hume is also right, for beauty is more than just a surface. Experiencing beauty is a feeling of astonishment that can touch a person deeply.



  • CHINA CGTN (2017): What's driving China's plastic surgery boom? 26.9.2017
  • December 18 & 25, 2017 Issue
  • Dion, Karen, Ellen Berscheid, and Elaine Walster. "What is beautiful is good." Journal of personality and social psychology 24.3 (1972): 285.
  • Edmonds, David  & Warburton, Nigel (2013): ” Michael Martin on Hume on Taste”, Philosophy Bites  Podcast by David Edmonds & Nigel Warburton, who interview special quests, 3.8.2013
  • Fan, Jiayang (2017): ”Chinas’s selfie obsession: Meitu’s apps are changing what it means to be beautiful in the most populous country on earth”, The New Yorker, Annals of Technology
  • Hadjistavropoulos, Thomas, and Myles Genest. "The underestimation of the role of physical attractiveness in dating preferences: ignorance or taboo?." Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement 26.2 (1994): 298.
  • Lappalainen, Elina (2017): ”Kerro kerro suodatin”, Tekniikkalaji kolumni Talouselämä-lehdessä 3/2017, s. 25
  • Lemay, Edward P., Margaret S. Clark, and Aaron Greenberg. "What is beautiful is good because what is beautiful is desired: Physical attractiveness stereotyping as projection of interpersonal goals." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36.3 (2010): 339-353.
  • Pansu, Pascal, and Michel Dubois. "The effects of face attractiveness on pre-selective recruitment." Swiss Journal of Psychology/Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Revue Suisse de Psychologie 61.1 (2002): 15.
  • Rettberg, Jill Walker (2019): ”Machine Vision: Selfie filters and image recognition algorithms as cognitive technical systems”, presentation in conference  ”Moral machines? Ethics and politics of the digital world” –Conference in Helsinki, 6-8.3 2019
  • Sangrador, José Luis, and Carlos Yela. "‘What is beautiful is loved’: Physical attractiveness in love relationships in a representative sample." Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal 28.3 (2000): 207-218.
  • Seppälä, Serafim (2010): ”Kauneus: Jumalan kieli”, Kirjapaja Oy, s. 7-12. 
  • Shinners, Erin. "Effects of the “What is Beautiful is Good” stereotype on perceived trustworthiness." UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research 12 (2009): 1-5.
  • Thornhill, Randy, and Steven W. Gangestad. "Facial attractiveness." Trends in cognitive sciences 3.12 (1999): 452-460.

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