Maria Popova plumbs Nancy Etcoff’s Survival of the Prettiest for insight into how we experience beauty:
Although the object of beauty is debated, the experience of beauty is not. Beauty can stir up a snarl of emotions but pleasure must always be one (tortured longings and envy are not incompatible with pleasure). Our body responds to it viscerally and our names for beauty are synonymous with physical cataclysms and bodily obliteration — breathtaking, femme fatale, knockout, drop-dead gorgeous, bombshell, stunner, and ravishing. We experience beauty not as rational contemplation but as a response to physical urgency.
And don’t forget “crush”. Popova also seizes upon Etcoff’s summary of the fascinating work of anthropometrist Leslie Farkas, who compared survey responses to photographs with the “conventions of the classical beauty canon” and concluded there’s no formula for attractiveness:
The canon did not fare well. Many of the measures did not turn out to be important, such as the relative angles of the ear and nose. Some seemed pure idealizations: none of the faces and heads in profile corresponded to equal halves or thirds or fourths. Some were inaccurate—the distance between the eyes of the beauties was greater than that suggested by the canon (the width of the nose). Farkas’s results do not mean that a beautiful face will never match the Renaissance and classical ideals. But they do suggest that classical artists might have been wrong about the fundamental nature of human beauty. Perhaps they thought there was a mathematical ideal because this fit in a general way with platonic or religious ideas about the origin of the world.
Take it away, Dustin Hoffman:
(Detail from Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1485, via Wikimedia Commons)