I have a long-time good friend named Alexandra. By any modern-day measure she would be considered a beautiful woman. She began life repeatedly identified as “adorable.” Any time either parent took her out in public, she invariably attracted the attention of adults and other children as well. She heard “She’s such a beautiful child” so often, as an adult, in a fit of ironic pique, Alexandra considered changing that to her middle name. In defiance, she refused to accept what Baylor medical researcher Heather Patrick calls, “contingent self-esteem” – basing her primary value only upon her looks. “When your self-esteem is contingent upon how you look,” Patrick notes, “you can only feel good about your looks if they meet a specific, and usually very high, expectation, such as weighing in at a certain number. Self-satisfaction does not exist on a spectrum for you: If you don’t meet the culture’s introjected standard, you will feel absolutely ugly.” No way this worked for Alex.
As a teen, while used to being stared at, Alex soon realized that peoples’ eyes and the way they use them, convey a lot of information about their “energy.” Mostly what she became aware of was the way some people looked at her that didn’t make her feel especially seen or safe. It wasn’t something she could easily put into words, and the feelings of being both invisible and in danger didn’t make sense when Alex tried to explain it. At those times when she would talk about it, people would accuse her of being “sensitive,” narcissistic or neurotic. Because of the unwanted attention it often attracted, Alex grew up much more aware of the curse being beautiful was, rather than any real blessing it conveyed.
We now have a word to describe Alexandra’s experience: neuroception – threat detection without awareness. One day Alex paid an unwanted price for ignoring it. It was her first year of graduate school at an all-girls college where she decided to study neuroscience. Learning that the brain has structures that automatically and unconsciously attend to both beauty (reward and motor centers) and faces (fusiform gyrus), helped Alex begin to stop taking people’s stares so personally. It wasn’t her; it was other people’s brains.
While her parents didn’t require her to, Alex elected to work part-time. She found a job at an inner-city woman’s health co-op where many of the co-op’s clients were abused women. Her school studies taught her that abuse in many forms tends to adversely impact the brain’s network organization – cognitive functioning and impulse control often become problematic. One holiday weekend at the health co-op she had a chance to encounter it up close and real. When she arrived at work she found four women in the waiting room fresh from the nearby hospital Emergency Room. Two had recently been beaten and raped, one had had her face cut with a straight razor, and the fourth, addicted to methamphetamine, was pacing the waiting room and screaming at the other three women. All four were unusually attractive women. Or, they had been prior to their recent visits to the neighboring ER. It was clear to Alexandra that their current distress was in many ways connected to the way they looked – to the attention they attracted.
She resigned her position at the health co-op a week later.
There is some research that suggests one way to address the challenge of beauty is to simply not pay much attention to it, your own or other people’s. This makes good sense when you consider that what we pay the most attention to affects our brain in ways that increase both the numbers of cells and the number of connections they make related to what we’re attending to. Paying mindful attention to what we most want our life to be about, pays off.
Not paying attention to beauty, however, is not such an easy thing to pull off. UCSD neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran makes a strong case that there are many aspects of beauty that have an organic, evolutionary neural basis connected to Darwinian survival. Beautiful things outside us tend to make us feel safe. Regularity of features suggests genetic robustness. Some consider Ramachandran to be the Father of Neuroaesthetics. Some don’t.
No Thank You
Not caring how our brains have evolved or much for neuroaesthetics, many women take strong issue with contemporary cultural expressions of beauty. Photographic artist, Jessica Ledwich captures many of the ways women are forced into being that have violence at their root. In the image at the right, she graphically portrays some of the mechanistic aspects of contemporary beauty.
Actor Evangeline Lilly expresses just how painful these mechanistic aspects can be: “I spent many nights crying myself to sleep wishing I was ugly because of the way men leered and disrespected me, because they assumed things about my mental capacity or my physical willingness based on my looks.”
“Ever since high school I had done things so people wouldn’t just respect me because of the way I looked. I decided, to hell with it. I’m going to pursue mediocrity, and I’m going to be so happy.” Six weeks after her first TV audition, she was in Hawaii filming “Lost.”
The main brain challenge then for beautiful women is this: “It’s not you, it’s other people’s brains – they have simply naturally evolved to pay great attention to external beauty.” It’s a mistake to take any of it personally.