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You're not vain; you probaby think this post is about you.
January 5, 2006 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Do people who might typically be considered physically unattractive think that they are indeed physically unattractive?
posted by tegoo to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (43 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Probably.
posted by jon_kill at 11:34 AM on January 5, 2006


Yes and no. I consider myself physically unattractive (few would argue), but there are plenty of people far, far worse than I who consider themselves to be "all that".

It all boils down to self-esteem/self-image.
posted by daveleck at 11:37 AM on January 5, 2006


There are plenty of physically attractive people out there who think that they are unattractive, so I imagine the opposite is true too. I would think that ultimately, it would come down to their self-esteem and whether they have learned to focus on the more attractive aspects of their physique or whether they are focusing on what makes them unattractive.

I'm also not sure if there are people who are "typically" considered physically unattractive, because different people find different things attractive/unattractive and are willing to overlook different things. Professor Snape has nasty greasy hair, but he also has Alan Rickman's voice, so...
posted by srah at 11:37 AM on January 5, 2006


There was some research about depression that seemed to indicate that most people overestimate their abilities but depressed people actually have a more accurate estimate. Maybe the answer depends on whether the ugly people in question are also depressed. If not, maybe they think that they are more physically attractive than is the case.
posted by amber_dale at 11:44 AM on January 5, 2006


It's a difficult question. It's not really as straightforward as 'I think I'm pretty' or 'I think I'm ugly'.

I know that most people consider me unattractive because I'm fat. I certainly consider my fat unattractive. And my lousy complexion. On the other hand, I think my eyes are quite pretty and that I have good cheekbones. And when I put some effort into it, I dress well for a person of my size. It's sort of 'Well, if I were thin, I'd be beautiful thing' for me, and I just sort of ignore the fact that I'm not, in fact, thin, and many men would find me even less than unattractive, but actually repulsive in a sexual context.

So there's a mix of awareness of how other people feel and how I feel about different parts of me that form my self image.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:51 AM on January 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Have you seen the "American Idol" episodes where they show the auditions? And a lot of fairly frightening looking people show up, thinking they're the next hot popstar?

I think (and hope!) that everyone thinks they're attractive. Because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and even people I find scary looking has someone who thinks they're all-that.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:59 AM on January 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'd say it's extremely common. I know I'm no oil painting, but I make up for it. I know lots of people who say the same.
posted by wackybrit at 12:17 PM on January 5, 2006


I'm one ugly sumbitch, but my girlfriend likes to look at me. Go figure.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:24 PM on January 5, 2006


What makes you think there is a way in which people are typically unattractive? Being attractive involves a whole heck of a lot more than outward physical appearance.

If you meant to ask whether people recognize that they do or don't look like the people selling clothes in magazines, then I'd guess that yes people can match their body type to pictures with a high degree of accuracy. (Of course there are people with illnesses, like anorexia, that might be unable to reach the appropriate conclusions, but they are ill.)
posted by oddman at 12:25 PM on January 5, 2006


This may be gender-dependent. From what I've read, women tend to under-estimate their attractiveness, while men tend to over-estimate it.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:50 PM on January 5, 2006


i sometimes catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror when i'm not thinking about there being a mirror, if you see what i mean, and am surprised by how ugly i am. so i guess that means that my default self-perception is higher than it should be (or i wouldn't be surprised).
posted by andrew cooke at 12:57 PM on January 5, 2006


I was just going to say that, Afroblanco -- I've never met a woman who overestimated her attractiveness.
posted by footnote at 12:58 PM on January 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


andrew cooke, the same thing happens to me, only with photographs rather than mirrors. It always appalls me that the photo image, not the mirror image, may be what other people are really seeing. It's rather deflating.

I like your phrase for it, "default self-perception." I've often suspected that mine is a little higher than it should be (basically similar to jacquilynne's details, except that I have very good skin).

As I write, I'm wondering if whether or not the person in question was *ever* considered "typically attractive" in the past would affect that default self-perception, and to what degree. I bet a lot of people who were considered beauties in high school still think they're beauties, even after they've "let themselves go," in vulgar parlance. I've always thought I've had it somewhat easier than women who once looked good in a bikini, for instance, and now don't--since I never looked good in a bikini in the first place. I think I looked a bit better in high school/college because I was somewhat thinner than I am now, but it hasn't been a tremendously extreme change, and I've also gained some confidence since then, I think. I feel like I've shifted from slight underestimation of my attractiveness to slight overestimation, at this point.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:30 PM on January 5, 2006


I'm realistic about how I look - I'm plain. I've always had low self-worth about how I look, and, in truth, I make little effort in terms of make-up or fashion (I live in jeans & boots). Nor do I have any sense of style - I envy those women who can throw a silk scarf around their neck and it looks all elegant and draped. On me it looks like a bit of rag I've tried to hang myself with.

But I smile and laugh a lot. I don't frown. I try to treat people well. And sometimes that makes up for what I lack in looks.
posted by essexjan at 1:32 PM on January 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I bet a lot of people who were considered beauties in high school still think they're beauties, even after they've "let themselves go," in vulgar parlance. I've always thought I've had it somewhat easier than women who once looked good in a bikini, for instance, and now don't--since I never looked good in a bikini in the first place.

I don't think your two statements match up here. I think the reason people who were beautiful in high school have such a hard time with aging is precisely that they're extremely aware that they're "losing it". So age is the great equalizer - 90% of 20 year olds are going to be hotter than pretty much any 50 year old, just by being young & nubile.

I've never met a woman who overestimated her attractiveness.

perhaps you are just generally attracted to women as a class, and thus give any female automatic points as it were? I dunno, I think women are easily as likely as men to be vain...
posted by mdn at 1:53 PM on January 5, 2006


mdn, you're right, that's a weird incongruence of statements--but at the same time, I think both of them could be true! And I'm also wondering if that might be a gendered thing, because men I know who were hotties in HS still think they are even if many would say the contrary, but some women I know are, as you say, very aware of the passage of time and looks. That actually says something about the emphasis placed on youth as a criterion for female attractiveness; I don't think men face quite as much scrutiny as they age (unless, maybe, they go bald, and even then there are varying degrees of agony about that). Men get "mature" or "distinguished." Women get "old."
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:58 PM on January 5, 2006


I think your confidence in how you look has an impact on how attractive other people see you as (which is different from thinking that you're an absolute hottie when your not).
posted by ancamp at 2:05 PM on January 5, 2006


I would never, ever, EVER describe myself as attractive, even if I thought I was. It seems to arrogant to me. So I'm always left speechless when someone calls themselves handsome or beautiful. I'm not saying they're bad for doing so. I'm not even saying they're arrogant (I just know that I would feel arrogant if I said such a thing) -- perhaps they're just giving their honest opinions -- but it's so different from me, I can't fathom it.

I'm pretty nerdy-looking, so I don't think -- objectively -- that I AM all that attractive (in a purely physical sense). I know I'm considered smart, but -- again -- I would NEVER call myself smart. PARTLY this is humility, but mostly it's honesty. I don't rank myself via other people. I rank myself based on how smart I'd LIKE to be and how far I am from being there. Objectively, I know this is silly, but I could never consider myself smart unless I unified the fields, wrote a great novel or cured cancer. Similarly, I wouldn't even THINK "I'm handsome," unless I looked like Carey Grant.

This may sound like low-self esteem, but I'm not moping. It's OKAY that I'm not smart and handsome. It would be nice if I were; it would be great. But my life isn't ruined because I'm not -- or because I don't see myself that way.

But clearly many other people don't share my (impossible?) standards. (Or at least they don't share them publicly.) The Internet has made this really interesting, because it allows me often to "meet" people online before ever meeting them in public. I'm generally taken aback when I meet a self-styled "smart" or "good-looking" person. I think, "SHE thinks she's smart?" or "HE thinks he's handsome? I'm better looking that HE is and I would NEVER call myself handsome!"

Some of this may be cultural. I'm an East-coast, Woody-Allenish Jew. I was raised around self-depricating people who generally have a glass-half-empty attitude.
posted by grumblebee at 2:16 PM on January 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


dlugoczaj - I disagree with that sentiment quite a bit.
I'm not bald (I am male), but I understand the frustration of my peers as they begin balding - they look in the mirror one day and are terrified that they're becoming George Costanza.

And personally, I'm much more attracted to older women - I married a woman 10 years (and two graduate degrees) older than me. I think media directed at women tries to convince them that "old = bad" but I don't think the general male public believes this is the case.

As for the question in general - it's a fascinating one.
In the past, I considered myself attractive - but after I got married - started really focusing on work... grew a beard and let my hair grow out... I don't ever really think about it any more.
I hadn't thought about my "attractiveness" at all until about a week ago, one of my coworkers said something about my shaving my beard.

I dunno. I think most people reach a point in their lives where they really don't think about it that much anymore.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:19 PM on January 5, 2006


perhaps you are just generally attracted to women as a class, and thus give any female automatic points as it were? I dunno, I think women are easily as likely as men to be vain...
posted by mdn at 1:53 PM PST on January 5 [!]


Nope, that's not it, but you're right that the perspective matters. And I do agree that men and women are equally as vain, but there's a difference between vanity and overestimating your attractiveness. Vanity is caring a lot about your appearance to the detriment of other qualities; overestimating is a failure to match up your self-perspective with other people's perspective of you.
posted by footnote at 2:21 PM on January 5, 2006


I'm an East-coast, Woody-Allenish Jew. I was raised around self-depricating people who generally have a glass-half-empty attitude.
posted by grumblebee at 2:16 PM PST on January 5 [!]


That's historically what I consider totally sexy!
posted by footnote at 2:24 PM on January 5, 2006


By the way, this question falls apart a bit without an objective standard for beauty. Someone mentioned looking like models in magazines, but I can think of PLENTY of models that don't do it for me. There are also movie stars, like Julia Roberts, who mystify me. I actually think Roberts is really interesting looking, but I don't get how she's supposed to be so hot. I always wonder if it's an Emperor's New Clothes thing because she was in a movie called "Pretty Woman." But I'm sure there ARE plenty of people who DO think she's really hot. But if I met a woman who thought she was attractive because she looked like Julia Roberts, I'd disagree with her. And we'd both be right. Right? Or both wrong. Or whatever.

I agree with Baby_Balrog about older women. I think women are generally most attractive in their 40s. Same for men. I don't get the Leo DiCaprio thing. I don't get the Brittany Spears thing. I'll take Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney (or I would, if I swung that way) over them any day!
posted by grumblebee at 2:29 PM on January 5, 2006


Generally, women complain about their appearances more than men, so it seems as though there are more women who underestimate their appearances.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 2:37 PM on January 5, 2006


andrew cooke, the same thing happens to me, only with photographs rather than mirrors. It always appalls me that the photo image, not the mirror image, may be what other people are really seeing. It's rather deflating.

I'm not going to touch the attractiveness vs. non-attractiveness, but I've had a stubbly beard going on for a couple years now (and grown it out this month so it's way out of control), and I still never see my facial hair at all in a mirror — but, in a photo, it's holy cow, who the hell is that bearded man?!

So in some sense, anyway, I'm deceiving myself when it comes to my own appearance.
posted by rafter at 2:38 PM on January 5, 2006


grumblebee: There are fairly objective standards for beauty. The main one is facial symmetry. The next is being healthy. For men, another one is being tall. These standards tend to be pretty reliable across cultures too. Men care more about physical attractiveness than women whilst women care more about status, which is indirectly expressed through confidence.

Of course, on top of this there is quite a bit of subjective stuff as you point out and personality does matter. But, whilst you say so and so is more attractive than X, if asked to rate the attractiveness of faces and bodies without knowing the people behind it you'd probably be closer to average.

And for the record as others are saying things here I'm a 4/10. Tall 189cm, fit (30km bike/day) but have an asymmetric odd face. So I'm an unnatractive person but I'm quite able to live with it.
posted by sien at 2:44 PM on January 5, 2006


Afroblanco : 'This may be gender-dependent. From what I've read, women tend to under-estimate their attractiveness, while men tend to over-estimate it.'

reverse this in SoCal
posted by menace303 at 2:56 PM on January 5, 2006


Well, personally, I know a lot of unattractive people who (1) go to great lengths to present themselves as attractive (2) insist they are attractive. Even people who insist they're not "all that" will be quick to explain that they're not totally unattractive. I think it's a pretty common affliction. It's especially prevalent among men. In fact, I suspect a good 75% of the guys on the scene think they're much more handsome than they actually are and quite a few of those guys are not while a good chunk are just average. Women seem willing to spend more time and money on edging up, which may suggest that they have a more realistic understanding of their appearance. Still, the number of hoops people will jump through in order to become more attractive is pretty apalling. I think Manhattan may be a special case though. When everybody is financially well off, relatively intelligent ("smart enough not to fuck up!"), and college educated then physical beauty is one of the few remaining elements that truly allows people to really distinguish themselves.
posted by nixerman at 3:01 PM on January 5, 2006


I know I'm considered smart, but -- again -- I would NEVER call myself smart

eh, I dunno, I think you kinda just did.

I get your point, but making a statement about what the general consensus is about you is basically acknowledging its validity, isn't it?

Anyway, I don't think very many people make outright claims to strong positive characteristics, because, as you say, it's considered rude, regardless of its truth value. And in some things, people think humility is a real plus. Actually, I'd bet that explains some percentage of the female self-assessment thing - that plenty of women who are quite happy with how they look will claim to think they're unattractive, either to get compliments (does this make me look fat? no honey, you're gorgeous!) or to come across as modest.

Although, another thing is that women are often made to feel like it's their duty to look good, and that if they don't, it's somehow a failing. (This may be true of men too, but I think more so for women.) From this angle, it doesn't have to be false modesty that makes a decent looking woman think she's below par.
posted by mdn at 3:01 PM on January 5, 2006


footnote: "I've never met a woman who overestimated her attractiveness."

Interestingly enough, I have observed a trend where women in engineering, techie colleges, and other places where men outnumber women to have what I like to call "Rarified Commodity Syndrome." Because they often get a lot of (sometimes unwanted) attention from the men who surround them, they often decide they are incredibly attractive and, as a consequence, that all men are interested in them. Clearly, this is a gross stereotype with lots of exceptions, but it's something others claim to have observed as well.

As for the bigger issue raised by this question- my wife thinks I'm much more attractive than I think I am, and I think she's much more attractive than she thinks she is. Go figure.
posted by JMOZ at 3:20 PM on January 5, 2006


I know I'm considered smart, but -- again -- I would NEVER call myself smart

eh, I dunno, I think you kinda just did.

I get your point, but making a statement about what the general consensus is about you is basically acknowledging its validity, isn't it?


No. I'm really not calling myself smart. I'm not smart. I am reminded of my intellectual shortcomings almost every minute of the day. But it IS true that people constantly tell me I'm smart. Almost everyone I know says that.

My theory is that they think I'm smart (a) because I'm an intellectual (which means I'm interested in brainiac stuff -- but it doesn't mean I'm GOOD at brainiac stuff) and (b) because I'm nerdy looking and wear glasses.

I do take your point that broadcasting the fact that people think I'm smart sounds like bragging. I don't normally broadcast it, but it seemed to belong in this thread (some people are told they're beautiful all the time -- how does this affect them?).

I guess the truth is that I'm arrogant enough not to care what other people think of me intellectually. I only care what I think, and I give myself a C-minus.

I think it's weird that you equate general consensus with true intelligence (or true beauty). But I guess it's eqully weird that I don't. (Zillions of people thing Peter Jackson is a great filmmaker. Does that make him one? I think he's a horrible filmmaker. Am I wrong or just eccentric? Does the difference matter?)
posted by grumblebee at 3:31 PM on January 5, 2006


Research studies like this one [PDF] would lead me to bet that ugly people overestimate their attractiveness and good looking people underestimate their attractiveness. This isn't to say that ugly people think they are better looking than good looking people think they are.

If someone is in the 10th percentile in attractiveness, they might say the are in the 50th percentile, while someone in the 95th percentile might think they are in the 90th percentile.

Although the linked article focuses on skills that involve thinking (e.g., sense of humor) and attributes the effects to impaired metacognitive skills (essentially the inability to accurate think about your own thinking), I've seen similar results on a number of skills and traits. My bet is that people have a flawed understanding of the true distributions of these characteristics in the general population.
posted by i love cheese at 3:45 PM on January 5, 2006


I've never met a woman who overestimated her attractiveness.

I've never met a woman who was *satisfied* with her level of attractiveness, but I have met plenty who overestimate their attractiveness *in the eyes of the men they know.*

No doubt grumblebee really isn't attracted to Julia Roberts, and he's not the only one, but to the majority of men (American men, anyway), a flat stomach, clear skin, and the ability to wear a skirt without looking ridiculous qualify as criteria for being a total hottie. Yes, men of metafilter, I'm sure you are all exceptions to this, as I am, but generally it's true. Many women who meet these criteria (and even many who don't) take this pathetic attitude to heart and decide that they are sex goddesses.
posted by bingo at 4:40 PM on January 5, 2006


This thread is neglecting a bunch of things:

1) Plenty of people of varying levels of empirical attractiveness call themselves unattractive specifically so that other people will flatter them.

2) Theres no such thing as empirical attractiveness, since people arent always attracted to any particular standard.

3) Ones attitude toward oneself contributes greatly to how attractive other people consider them (i.e. posture, choice of makeup, grooming and hygeine habits, even choosing to smile or not regularly)

4) If unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness and attractive people underestimate their attractiveness, isn't there a point at which the unattractive people, overestimating and considering themselves attractive would then underestimate their attractiveness therefore cancelling out the whole shebang?
posted by softlord at 4:42 PM on January 5, 2006


There may be objective beauty.

This study indicates that there may be some standards.
posted by sien at 5:16 PM on January 5, 2006


There may not be an objective scale of beauty, but certainly, some people are considered more beautiful by greater numbers of people and some people are considered beautiful by smaller numbers of people. And there are certain characteristics which help place a person along this continuum of beauty.

Of course everyone is a lovely special snowflake in their own way, but to deny that one person can be generally considered more physically attractive than another is a little disingenuous.
posted by the jam at 8:48 PM on January 5, 2006


to deny that one person can be generally considered more physically attractive than another is a little disingenuous.

Well, I'm certainly not denying this. I agree with it. The question is, if Mr. X realizes that he's "generally considered" unattractive but says, "I know I'm hot," is he deluded about what most people think or does he NOT CARE about what most people think?

Also, I suspect all these objective traits (symmetry, etc.) are mostly important when all other things are equal, which they rarely are. In other words, imagine a person who generally prefers Mystery to Sci-Fi. If you ask him, "Which would you rather read, a random detective story or a random space opera?" Of course he's going to go for the detective story. But this falls apart when you get to specific stories. It turns out that he's bored by Mrs. Marple but -- in spite of the fact that he's generally not a sci-fi fan -- he loves "Dune."

I don't think this is an odd, extreme case. I think the general rules OFTEN fall apart in specific cases. There are plenty of people who are not JUST considered attractive by one person -- they are considered attractive by MOST of their friends. They are considered so because of their magnetic personality or some other unusual trait. But they are NOT considered attractive by people who pass them on the street, because they don't fit the norms for attractiveness. Are such people attractive or not? Should they consider themselves attractive or not?

I myself am affected by the norms -- symmetry, clear skin and all that -- but I can VERY easily be swayed away from them in individual cases. And it's not rare that this happens. It happens all the time. And when it DOES happen, the attraction is more profound than when it doesn't -- because it's SURPRISING. I think, "Wow, I didn't notice her when she first walked into the room, and she's not what you'd call traditional attractive -- but she's really HOT!"

I suspect the original question wasn't about that sort of attractiveness. I suspect it's about who you instantly tag as attractive when you pass them on the street or when they walk into the room. But some people -- who consider themselves attractive -- may do so because people generally find them attractive after KNOWING them a little. Perhaps the question should be reworded. Perhaps it should be, "When people who don't look like models say they're attractive, do they REALIZE they don't look like models or do they really think they do?"
posted by grumblebee at 3:32 AM on January 6, 2006


But grumblebee, does "smart" mean "reaching a Platonic ideal of pure intellect" or does "smart" mean "greater than average human capacity for making sense of things"? I agree with you that we all fall short - human beings as a class are stupid. we're children in the universe, just starting to figure out how things work, perhaps incapable of ever really 'getting' it. But when you describe your friends, you still might describe them as smart, because we're speaking in relative terms when we attribute qualities to people (the context being other people). So do you have any friends who you consider smart? Do you doubt that they experience their intellectual shortcomings every day?

I think it's weird that you equate general consensus with true intelligence (or true beauty).

philosophically, I think this is a deep question & one I'm still thinking about (the objective/subjective/intersubjective thing). On a day-to-day basis, I think the general consensus - among groups I generally relate to - is at least relevant. It's a complicated thing to navigate because people take these qualities to mean you're a better or worse person, so if you suggest that you're smart or good-looking, you're implying you're a better person somehow. But I think that's where the error is, really, (rather than in judging yourself as you would someone else, i.e., if you were not you, would you think you were smart, externally as it were?)

We're born with certain capacities - if you are smart, it isn't as if you did anything to 'deserve' it, really. Yeah, you can make the most of what you get, make yourself better looking or better read, but whatever fundamental traits you had out of the gate are just luck of the draw, basically. Kant suggested that the only aspect we really have control over is our morality. That's the only way human beings can distinguish themselves willfully. HOwever intelligent or beautiful or talented you are, that's just the phenomenal world, that's just the 'given' fact. You did not earn that, and it ultimately isn't that important. But how moral a person you are, is all up to you.
posted by mdn at 8:21 AM on January 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


I don't think there's a conclusive answer to your question. Have there been surveys that compared people's self-image with how others rated them? I didn't read all the pdf links.

Desmond Morris has written (and made a few tv shows) about the subject, and he claims that there is a universal template for beauty, and newborns look at conventionally attractive faces longer than plain or ugly faces.

So my uneducated guess is that more than 50% of people know exactly how they rate, and the rest skew themselves too high or too low based on their self esteem, narcissism level etc. Btw, I think vanity (and drawing attention to one's looks or trying to elicit comments from others about one's own looks) is the biggest turn off. I don't care how attractive a woman is, if she's flaunting it too much it repulses me.

Here's an interesting review of a book on the anthropological aspects of beauty -- Survival of The Prettiest -- http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/etcoff.html
posted by Devils Slide at 9:44 AM on January 6, 2006


mdn, nice post.

To me, the answer to the question "what criteria do you use to judge people?" is "whatever criteria is most meaningful to use." Sometimes it's simpler than that. Sometimes it's "whatever your nature compels you to use."

So to answer your question about how I judge other-people's intelligence: yes, I do use some sort of standard. I haven't really thought too much about what this standard is or where it comes from. I think it has to do with whether I see someone figure out something I couldn't have figured out myself (or create something that I couldn't create myself) -- or something I could figure out (or have figured out), but only with great difficulty. There are other factors, but this is one of the main ones. I see these things in many people I know, and so I DO think they are smart.

I've noticed that many people equate the TYPE of knowledge one has -- and how much of it one has -- with intelligence. So if you know a lot about traditionally intellectual topics, like Shakespeare or history, that means you're smart. But if you know a lot about fixing cars or cooking, you're not. I've never been impressed by people who know a lot of highbrow knowledge -- though it happens to be the type of stuff that I'm most interested in and that I excel at. This is what I was referring to when I talked about how I don't think I'm that smart even though many people tell me I am. I can spend hours talking about literature, etc. I love talking about that stuff. But the fact that I love to do so -- to me -- doesn't say much about my intelligence one way or the other.

But I will admit to a double standard. Like I say, I judge other people according to obtainable standards. Yet if I could do exactly what they do, I STILL wouldn't call myself smart (even though I call them smart). In fact, I know people who probably have about the same IQ as me, and in my view they are smart and I'm not. That sounds silly, but I don't think it is. I don't have a goal for them. I DO have one for myself, and I'm not meeting it. And THAT'S what matters to me. (And I think it matters to me because that's my nature -- I'm BUILT to care about that.) In other words, I may be AS smart as many of the smart people I know, but I WANT to be much smarter.

My self-esteem isn't generally low. I continually strive towards this goal of unattainable, intellectual perfection. Most of the time, I get so involved in the chase that I forget the prize can never be won.

These sorts of discussions can be grounded by laying down rules: "I know we all have our own definitions of beauty and intelligence, but lets agree right now to discuss societal standards." Which is fine if you care about them.

I care MUCH more what my close friends think of me than people I pass on the street. (It might be different if I was in the dating pool.) Whether or not I seem attractive and smart to friends (and to myself!) is a much more complex issue than how I seem to strangers when I step into a bar. When I step into a bar, I WILL be judged by the symmetry (or lack thereof) of my face; I will be judged by what topics I discuss and how much trivia I can reel off about them. But with close friends (and when I look at myself in the mirror), the criteria changes -- or rather it gets much more complex.
As with most men, a pretty girl can catch my eye when I'm walking down the street. But she's a totally different sort of animal to the women I really KNOW. About the girl on the street, I might think, "Ugh. Bad skin." But if I get to know that same girl, I might not only start to overlook the skin, I might even be charmed by it.

Ultimately, I think trying to simplify the meanings of beauty and intelligence are like saying that "Hamlet" can be summed up in a one-sentence "theme."
posted by grumblebee at 9:58 AM on January 6, 2006


Weird answer:
When I think about "myself", I'm 20 pounds thinner and blonde, instead of mousy brown. Sometimes it's a shock to look in the mirror - I recognize that I'm not as attractive as I think I am.
posted by muddgirl at 11:40 AM on January 6, 2006


grumblebee:

You can meaningfully simplify the meaning of what a beautiful person is and what intelligence is. Beauty can be assessed by showing a bunch of people photos and working out what they like. Intelligence can be reasonably assessed by giving people IQ tests. These things correspond to what people mean when they talk about beauty and intelligence.

But it doesn't matter that much. What we really care about is what are people capable of, which is determined by all sorts of factors and how much drive people have. The usual example for intelligence is that Einstein's IQ wasn't that high, but he was obviously off the scale in terms of what he did scientifically.

Or, if you like, a great soccer player is someone who will have very good acceleration, good strength, good eye sight and good coordination. But there are probably people out there in the community out there who measure better in many, or even all of those traits but don't, or perhaps can't, put it all together because they don't have the drive, or perhaps the luck, to do it. Maradona was short and did not have a strong right foot. But he was the best player in the modern era.

Likewise, attractiveness has a large subjective component based on how you relate to someone but beauty, fitness and age determine the base level. Someone who drives you wild will do so for the oddest reasons. A smirk at the right time, a bit of teasing when it matters, good dancing, good technique.
posted by sien at 10:47 PM on January 6, 2006


Intelligence can be reasonably assessed by giving people IQ tests ... But it doesn't matter that much.

This is my point. Why give the IQ tests if they don't matter that much? We DO have standards for beauty and intelligence, but the test tube is SO dirty -- there are so many exceptions and subjective calls -- that I'm not sure the standards are all that useful. Sometimes, it seems to me that we've created things like IQ tests simply because we can't deal with the complicated reality.
posted by grumblebee at 6:21 AM on January 7, 2006


IQ tests are worthwhile because they are one of the better, perhaps the best, general test of how people will perform at tasks that are intelligence based. But, experience becomes more important reasonably rapidly.

IQ tests were created for a reason. If you have a large pool of people and you have to place them, for example the military placing people in a draft type setup, then using IQ tests to place people makes a lot of sense.

It is because, as you say, we can't deal with the complicated reality and often can't work out how to test for many skills. But, in the end tests have demonstrated that they are worthwhile for some purpose.
posted by sien at 12:14 AM on January 8, 2006


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