Vanity, thy name is human
The Western culture is often criticised for its shallow values. These critiques come from within and without the culture. One of the objections most often heard is that people of the West are obsessed with their appearance. New research set out to establish whether Westerners alone in that failing or is a feature of our species?
Itâ€™s not really surprising that being beautiful physically is important to us. After all, attractive people have been shown to get better jobs, have higher salaries, and to have their pick of partners. Being physically beautiful is a powerful thing and therefore highly prized: but is that true across all cultures?
To investigate this question researchers tested a physical vanity scale across China, India, and the USA. The results showed that while the different cultures have different ideas of what beauty is, the idea that physical beauty is important was consistent across the cultures.
Based on this we can say that physical vanity is a universal trait. In many ways though, this is neither surprising or particularly bad.
Beauty is said by some to be the unifying concept that we apply to certain signals processed instinctively by your unconscious brain. This lets Hollywood and fashion magazines off the hook as recognising is probably hardwired into your DNA. To lend weight to this idea, many studies have shown that faces judged to be beautiful, regardless of culture, are highly symmetrical. This symmetry is thought to reflect favourable exposure hormonal levels and a comfortable environment while we are in the womb.
In a sense then, detecting physical beauty is really detecting a healthy individual who would make a good mate. Thatâ€™s why we have general agreement within cultures as to what is beautiful, and why physical good looks is important to all cultures. Itâ€™s a survival thing: neither good nor bad, it just â€œisâ€.
What is bad is when physical vanity becomes the predominant motive for behaviour and when marketers deliberately prey on this deep biological urge.