On beauty and repro behaviour

The #MeToo movement has made clear that some of the stuff that happens around copy machines seems to have less to do with multiplying documents than with other kinds of reproductive behaviour. These machines from Canon and Xerox often create microclimates, similar with dimly lit parks: some visitors, recognising an opportunity for discretion, often pass by with ‘non-administrative’ motives.

Sexual harassment in the office does not happen to everybody who is trying to copy a document: there needs to be a special kind of attraction to motivate some male collegues to ‘coincidentally’ pass by. Even some women seem to wonder why it always happens to ‘her’. This type of attraction sometimes is called ‘beauty’.

Sex and beauty have a close, yet complex, relationship. One of the pivotal books on this topic by the evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff bears the revealing title ‘The survival of the Prettiest’. In her own words: “The idea that beauty is unimportant is the real beauty myth.” Etcoff shows irrefutable that there is more to beauty than just ‘the eye of the beholder’. Instead, some of its secrets are closely linked to a basic human drive: propagation.

"The idea that beauty is unimportant is the real beauty myth."

Not everybody agrees it is allowed to use the term ‘beauty’ when ‘improper motives’ are at stake. More purely aesthetical oriented souls for example, may try to steer the use of the term away from Playboy’s definition, and like to reserve it for a more spiritual energy. ‘Real beauty’, is what they call this. According to them beauty has nothing to do with physical attraction: calling a woman beautiful just because of her physique is a disgrace to the word.

This conceptual battle about the meaning of beauty goes back a long, long way. In the 18th century the German philosopher Kant held the opinion that things that fulfil a basic human need, cannot be called beautiful. Already for Kant a physically beautiful woman could not exist, it was a typical case of an oxymoron.

Project Beauty did not start off with strict definitions of beauty, but asks people about their views on the dilemma of beauty’s possible danger. And guess what: roughly only one third of us think beauty is completely harmless.

On top of it, the connection between beauty and sex is totally different for women and men. Nowhere in Project Beauty’s findings women and men diverge more, than when the topic of sex is involved. When asked “What type of beauty comes closest to what you regard as the most important in your life?”, the sex option was picked ten time more by men than by women. Also, the question “Is something sexy necessarily also beautiful?” was answered 50% more often affirmative by men than by women. Two serious examples of how sexually biased the meaning of the word ‘beauty’ is. Men seem to be much more likely to include that uneasy evolutionary element into their definition.

When it comes to beauty there is no equality between men and women. The word cloud posters that were created, based on Project Beauty’s questions about what men and women typically find beautiful clearly show this. Men enjoy the beauty of women. The beauty of man is much less apparent. As Etcoff stated, this is due to evolution. Unfortunately evolutionary psychology doesn’t offer any tricks about how to deal with this fundamental asymmetry. So, however sad, and with a wink to Peter Drucker, one could say that the #MeToo movement just proves, that when it comes to beauty, also around copy machines, at some sad moments evolution eats civilization for breakfast.