Physical Beauty vs. Intelligence

A hot topic du jour is America’s seemingly out-of-whack fascination with physical beauty: lionization of actors/actresses and models, proliferation of cosmetic surgery, toddlers & tiaras. The primal part of us naturally embraces and values physical beauty, thanks to thousands of years of human evolution. The more erudite part of us eschews physical beauty in favor of intelligence — at least out loud at cocktail parties, anyway. But even at the intellectual level, is intelligence really more important, valuable, and praiseworthy than physical beauty? Is it shallow or wrong to believe that physical beauty and the pursuit thereof are just as noble as intelligence and the pursuit thereof?

I say “no” in both cases. Let’s examine the primary reasons physical beauty is denigrated relative to intelligence (for the sake of this argument, I’m defining intelligence as raw, natural cognitive ability).

  • Physical beauty is “luck of the draw”. Guess what? So is intelligence. You can thank good genes and chance for both. Favoring intelligence seems fairly arbitrary on these grounds.
  • Physical beauty is undeserved. This reason is really an extension of the previous one, adding on a layer of value judgment. Is any innate human trait really deserved? Does Michael Jordan deserve the height, quickness, and steel will he possesses? Did Newton or Einstein deserve the capacity for logical thinking and reasoning they were afforded? Not any more than a supermodel deserves the physical beauty with which he/she was blessed. Take physical beauty and intelligence for what they are: equally deserved, unevenly distributed human traits.
  • Physical beauty requires no effort. Intelligence doesn’t really require any effort, either…a brilliant mind is often a lazy one. With intelligence, as with physical beauty, there’s a big difference between what you’re dealt and how you play the hand. Side note: oddly (hypocritically?), reactions to the playing of each of those hands are very different. Of the folks born with great cognitive skills, we praise the ones who develop it with hard work and lament the ones who don’t as “wastes of potential”. On the other hand, we call those who are naturally physically beautiful “lucky” and those who work at making it better “narcissists”.
  • Physical beauty is fleeting. Is this really a good reason to knock physical beauty? Lots of things are fleeting, not the least of which is intelligence. Intellectually, we very often deem ephemeral qualities/entities rare and wonderful, things to treasure. Therefore, why shouldn’t physical beauty be valued as much as intelligence precisely because it’s fleeting? Also biased/arbitrary is the fact that attempts to prolong physical beauty (cosmetic surgery) are often ostracized, while attempts to prolong intelligence (crossword puzzles, fish oil) are praised.
  • Physical beauty is less useful / useless. This reason is the most interesting to me because it speaks to application (some would say “exploitation”). No, physical beauty won’t help you solve logic puzzles. It won’t help you pass standardized tests. It won’t help you pick the next hot stock. But it does provide opportunity, access, favor, and attention that can be used for good or bad…just like intelligence. If a beautiful smile gets you in the door and allows you to prove your worth, is that any less useful or worthy than a witty quip or good test score doing the same? In the end, it’s all about getting stuff done. Some tasks are better served by physical beauty, others by intelligence. Judging which specific tasks are more useful than others is an entirely different argument I’m not addressing here.

I don’t advocate the excessive pursuit/adoration of physical beauty, which has wreaked havoc on countless people’s body image and self-value. I don’t condone endless cosmetic surgery. I don’t think magazines should doctor the photos that grace their covers and pages. But I do think that physical beauty should be held in equal esteem with intelligence because neither has a unique, inarguable advantage over the other.



Filed under Social/Cultural/Political

7 responses to “Physical Beauty vs. Intelligence

  1. Jim

    I don’t know how hot the people are that invented HDTV, the iPod, BV Cabernet and the cure for polio, but I certainly appreciate the fruits of their intelligence.

    You might as well throw athletic ability and artistic ability into the discussion.

  2. san mateo pete

    I’m all for intelligence and the creature comforts its application has delivered. I’m also quite certain you’ve appreciated physical beauty many times in your life.

    Yeah, athletic ability certainly falls in the same arena (hence my Jordan reference above). Not sure I’d distinguish artistic ability from other intellectual pursuits, though.

    • Jim

      The irony of course is that people seem to value the intellectual/artistic ability to create things of physical beauty – e.g. Venus diMilo, etc.

  3. Tom

    The problem with beauty is that the pursuit of it, and conversations with people who are blessed with it, is boring.

    • san mateo pete

      Not all conversations with beautiful people are boring, are they? And for the conversations that are boring, why would you attribute that fact specifically to the person’s beauty? Are you suggesting that being physically beautiful and being a good conversationalist are mutually exclusive?

      • Tom

        No, to be more clear: I’ve had some attractive girlfriends and I wish they were smarter. Why? Because their attractiveness becomes secondary after you know them for a while (like in every relationship). Their relative lack of intelligence made conversations much less interesting in my opinion, especially as time wore on. I’m certain that this happens with anyone to a degree, but I believe that it is worse when dealing with the many beautiful people who rely on their beauty in their youth to get help in school or at work or wherever they go. There is a gradual and cumulative effect that starts when they are young, and by the time they are older, they don’t know how to think as deeply on topics. So, beauty leads to intellectual laziness which makes many beautiful people boring, if you ask me.

        • san mateo pete

          You’re blaming physical beauty for stunting intellectual development (or at least conversational acumen). That may or may not be the general case (I’d love to see research that definitively links the two together…I think it’s one of those cases where we try to create patterns due to our own biases); regardless, it doesn’t refute my argument above. The fact that people may use physical beauty as a crutch is not unique to that trait; there are plenty of people who use their intelligence as a crutch that prevents them from being interesting (you’ve met brilliant people who are so single-minded/combative/awkward that they’re not the least bit interesting, right?). So it’s not really physical beauty per se that begets boringness; it’s a person’s unwillingness/inability to be a friendly, interesting conversationalist…which could have a host of underlying causes.

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