Forget about a good sense of humour, confidence, and similar interests: perhaps the most attractive qualities are written in the genetic code.
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you may remember the article Wild Woman Beauty Tips – and Maybe an Accidental Mustache during which I started at revolution. If you feel impressed, don’t. I’m referring to a term coined in a beauty mag, namely a “major brow revolution.” It simply involves growing your eyebrows out for a year. Inspiring, I know.
My musings about eyebrow beauty standards were roused by Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. At the time I didn’t stop to wonder why I zeroed in on eyebrows specifically. It became a little clearer later while writing My Shameless Love Affair—I had been influenced by the people I spend the bulk of my time with. They also happen to be a couple of the most beautiful people I know (said every mother ever). Clearly, I’m talking about my kids.
I’m only now putting two and two together. Like the tortoise, I might be slow but I get there eventually. As a baby, we used to call my daughter “eyebrows” after a couple hilarious instances where that was the only word uttered by someone upon meeting her. Seriously: just the one word. They’re expressive.
Looking at my kids with their unadulterated looks, I grew nostalgic for my own youthful appearance. Yes, I’m still talking about eyebrows. At this point it must seem like a borderline obsession, out of place considering how little attention I commit to my physical appearance. Yet, I thought there was an idea tangled up in there, waiting to be teased out. Rather than dig in, I went about my days, confident that if the idea was important, it would surface again.
It resurfaced unexpectedly while reading our current book choice, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. In it, Harari states “…Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’.” He also explains that before the advent of storytelling, humans could cooperate with an approximate maximum group size of 150 individuals, after which things would become unstable, possibly leading to division of the group. Individual survival was reliant on being part of the ‘in’ crowd.
Evolution aside, humans have the capacity to act in direct opposition with our natural tendencies, and xenophobia is a prime example. Many people strive for universal love, a concept that may now serve us better from a survival standpoint in light of the global crises that grip this planet. Whether or not we can overcome the challenge of cooperating with so many individuals is a discussion for another day. Instead, my mind couldn’t help but wonder about the other side of xenophobia—attraction. From an evolutionary standpoint, how does attraction play into how we define our social groups and how we keep from being ousted?
Kin selection is an evolutionary mechanism whereby “…an animal engages in self-sacrificial behaviour that benefits the genetic fitness of its relatives.” Altruistic behaviour isn’t entirely unselfish if it ultimately ensures our genes get passed on. Perhaps this is one of the reasons people revel in how beautiful their young relatives are—it’s less about the beauty of individual children and more about seeing part of ourselves thrive. Offspring are like the fountain of youth for genes.
Does kin selection go both ways? Imagine for a moment that the instinct to care for relatives can be used to induce another into sacrifice for us. If it can, it would make sense if I subconsciously yearn to look like people I care about. The social animal in me seeks secure membership in my group, and fostering this natural attraction is one way to do it. This is not just about blood relatives. Standford University researchers found that “… people tend to select partners who look similar to themselves.” Forget about a good sense of humour, confidence, and similar interests: perhaps the most attractive qualities are written in the genetic code.
A quick aside for a sci-fi story idea: Imagine a world where dating apps looked at genes and facial recognition to match couples? Creepy, yes, but also possible with current technology.
People imitate subconsciously when feeling a rapport with someone by mirroring their body language. This behaviour communicates attraction, and increases attractiveness. Attractiveness on its own carries with it a wealth of advantages such as job offers, higher pay, perceived trustworthiness and happiness, and lighter sentences in court. Does attraction in general brings about altruistic behaviour, and kin selection just happens to be one manifestation of that?
At this point in writing, I left the computer to think through these questions. One thing led to another and I found myself showering, putting on make-up, cooking up a batch of homemade pomade, styling my hair, and changing into clothes slightly more stylish than my default jeans with concert T-shirt. It seems like procrastination, but I prefer to call it “my process.” The small effort was a way of immersing myself in the idea of attraction.
Later that day, I left home to run a couple errands. I made four stops, and in each one I found myself engaged in longer than normal small-talk, receiving particularly helpful service, and greeted by passers-by while walking between stops. One woman changed her gait to intercept me and wish me good day. At the time I was taken off guard—I had forgotten about “my process” from earlier that day. It wasn’t until dinner when my husband asked if I was wearing mascara did start to wonder if it had been a coincidence. Suddenly, the idea that changing my appearance could arouse altruistic behaviour seemed more likely.
All these friendly, helpful people did not look like me. Resemblance is only one part of the attraction story. There are more universal and cultural measures of attractiveness, such as symmetry and fitness, as discussed by Anjan Chatterjee in his TED Talk How your brain decides what is beautiful.
My thoughts and feelings are still a little muddled up on this subject. As a mother, I try to model a self-esteem based on things other than physical beauty. I can count on one hand how many times I wear make-up in a year. I don’t obsess about my weight, diet, or fitness. I’ve embraced that while some of my features do not fit into the mainstream definition of beauty, some are closely associated with my identity. Their distinctiveness awards them a loveliness of their own. Often, the things that make others unique increases—not decreases—my love for them.
On the flip side, on those rare occasions that I dress up, I’m questioned profusely by my daughters. Why would an adult paint their face? Why not paint something more interesting, like a tiger? I tell them that I apply make-up because that’s the fashion, and I dress up to show others that I value them by putting effort in my appearance.
The twinge of feminist guilt I felt while reaching for the mascara is probably an overreaction. I might be teaching my daughters something valuable, after all. Certain social situations demand special treatment, whether we’re trying to look good or not. A funeral is a prime example. For all those I’ve attended, mourners work black, and trying to look sexy would have been considered disrespectful. As much as my culture values individualism, conforming through dress and grooming has its place. From what I’ve learned, it might do more—like getting a call back after a job interview or gaining trust. Having a good body image is great, but it need not come at the expense of feeling shame over something as common as wearing make-up for a night on the town. Add to that the phenomenon that attractive friends make you look more attractive, and my efforts may inadvertently benefit the people around me.
Where did I land on the eyebrow thing? So far, this is what I’ve reasoned. Subconsciously, I am both attracted to those that look like me and try to look like those I care about. Since mirroring increases attractiveness, this might secure my social inclusion. This sameness might protect me if group dynamics become unstable, ensuring my survival. If this means that my kids want to take care of me during old age because I look like them, that’s a bonus.
Is this the secret to universal love? Does focussing on the sameness, the kinship of us all, activate altruistic behaviour? Could this be a biohack for global cooperation?
What about you? What qualities do you admire in the people closest to you? Do you and your partner look alike? What kinds of attraction have the biggest impact on your life and decisions?
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