Konrad Paul Liessmann
Reputation through appearance – The beautiful man, his value and his dignity*
There is hardly any area of life in which beauty does not play a central role, and it dominates as the central norm the aesthetics of clothing and the design of everyday objects. Human beauty not only satisfies a disinterested pleasure, it is not only a sexual-erotic signal, but it always seems to refer to other inner moral qualities such as character and social status. What is beauty? The author explores this question from different angles.
* Lecture presented at the 20th Anniversary Meeting of the Austrian Academy of Cosmetic Surgery and Aesthetic Medicine, October 19, 2019 in Vienna.
“Beauty” is one of the equally controversial and inescapable concepts of European culture. There is hardly any area of life in which beauty has not played a central role. In everyday life, beauty represents a value that is present from birth (the “beautiful” baby) to death (the “beautiful” light’ ), beauty determines to a high degree eroticism and sexuality (the “beautiful” body, “beautiful” sex), beauty underpins the goals and desires of our life practice (the “beautiful” apartment, the “beautiful” holiday, the “beautiful house”, a “beautiful” evening) and beauty as a central norm dominates the aesthetics of clothing and the design of everyday objects.
But what is beauty? One of the most famous definitions of beauty can only be found in a footnote. In his reflections on love, the French writer Stendhal (i.e. Henri Beyle, 1783-1842) concludes that for anyone who prefers an ugly woman to a beautiful woman, ugliness must obviously mean beauty. And in a comment it says: “Beauty is only a promise of happiness”. This thought settled and became one of the most famous definitions of beauty. But what does beauty promise? In Stendhal’s case, I believe that this definition has a reservation. Beauty is only a promise of happiness, not its fulfilment. The sight of beauty arouses expectations, desires and longings, but does not itself represent this happiness. According to this definition, beauty is not only fulfilled in its appearance, but gains its deeper meaning by referring to something else, something future. Beauty lets us sense that there is more in the world than the useful and the useless, than immediate desire and immediate suffering. But the experience of beauty is also not free of these sensations. As a promise of happiness, beauty does promise lustful satisfaction, but as a mere promise that cannot be fulfilled by itself, futility, disappointment, even destruction and self-destruction are inherent in this promise. Beauty is always also a risk.
Human beauty therefore does not only satisfy an indifferent pleasure, it is not only a sexual-erotic signal, but it always seems to refer to other, inner, moral qualities. In modern attractiveness research, numerous studies have repeatedly led to one and the same result: Beautiful people are attributed other positive qualities much more often than people who are perceived as ugly. A good appearance does indeed increase the value of a person, his or her standing in society, and this social standing results from our ability to look at a person and to judge him or her by his or her appearance.
Even though there is no scientific evidence of a strict correlation between appearance and character, in everyday life we behave as if more beautiful people are in fact also the better people and therefore deserve a different kind of attention and care than less attractive people. This begins with beautiful children being preferred by their teachers, continues with the fact that more beautiful people have better chances in court, and ends with attractive salespeople being more successful than less attractive ones. And it almost goes without saying that more beautiful people than erotic objects are more desirable than less beautiful ones. Beautiful people obviously get more out of life. The relevant psychological experiments, however, only investigate the connection between ascriptions of attractiveness and associated attitudes, and thus do not provide any objective criteria for beauty. More precisely, it would have to be said that we view people whom we consider beautiful or who correspond to our sense of beauty differently from the way we physically consider them to be unattractive – and this also applies if we consciously want to avoid such stereotypes.
But what are the characteristics that make a human face appear beautiful? Empirical studies on this question have been around for a long time, and they have generally been concerned with the female face, even though it has now become clear that physical attractiveness is of approximately equal importance for both sexes. For example, studies in which male subjects were asked to assess female faces have shown that the following factors are decisive for an attractive appearance: Large eyes, small nose, small chin, high cheekbones, narrow cheeks, high eyebrows, large pupils and an open smile. Follow-up examinations of male beauty gave similar results, but the strong chin dominated. In women, however, the “childlike pattern” plays a role that should not be underestimated.
Features of the child’s face such as full lips, disproportionately large eyes and a delicate chin area usually make a female face more beautiful. But beware: beauty cannot be increased at will by enhancing these characteristics. Disproportionately injected lips sometimes have the opposite effect, they do not result in a beautiful face, but distort and disfigure a beautiful face.
Apart from this, these factors must be supplemented by three essential dimensions in both sexes. Smooth skin, symmetrical facial features and youthfulness. This, however, also brings the modern sense of beauty close to the beauty ideals that have been handed down for thousands of years. The beautiful bodies spread by magazines, media and models often correspond not only in pose to the ancient ideals but also in almost all other characteristics, such as physique, muscles, shoulders, hips and – again – smooth skin. And depending on fashion and the spirit of the times, the possibilities of expression also vary here between masculine, powerful figures and androgynous figures, which are more reminiscent of Adonis than of Hercules.
Beauty as a gift from nature is one thing. Beauty as the result of training, cosmetics and surgery is the other. The actual or even merely assumed connection between physical beauty, social acceptance, erotic success and professional career opportunities has made the desire for beauty a dominant aspect of modern society in recent years, and the cult of beauty is booming. What is behind this trend? Does it mean the subjugation of people to the dictates of an increasingly comprehensive beauty industry or a further step towards self-design of the body and thus towards self-determination? In current discussions, the question of cosmetic surgery is sometimes seen in a more comprehensive context, in which it is generally a question of manipulating and modifying one’s own body. The question arises as to whether in these experiments the body is actually only subjected to the dictates and ideas of a beauty industry mediated by the media, or whether it is also a form of body experience, ultimately physical-aesthetic self-determination.
However: the beautiful is never only the pleasing, the neat, the attractive, the pretty, the charming or the aesthetically appealing. The beautiful can also be all of these things. But beauty always goes beyond a simple appeal to the senses. When we call a picture, a landscape, a person, a situation, a city, a conversation, a text or an encounter “beautiful”, we want to describe a whole, never just one aspect. A beautiful conversation does not only consist of a few successful punch lines, but is meant to characterize a complex situation. When we call something “beautiful” in everyday life, in art or in nature, we usually mean that something has succeeded in a special way, is coherent in itself, is successful as a whole. Precisely because this success is so rare in life and in reality, the moments of beauty are almost always accompanied by a slight melancholy. This also applies to all attempts to enhance one’s reputation through good looks.