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.