Eyes Of The Beholders

IS BEAUTY A SOURCE OF FEMALE POWER OR AN INSTRUMENT OF OPPRESSION? IS our preoccupation with good looks innate? Or are scientists inventing biological explanations for acquired habits of mind? And if beautylust is indeed part of our nature, can we hope to rise above it? NEWSWEEK correspondent Karen Springen moderated a forum in which scientists, social critics and people in the beauty business debated the issues raised by this week's cover story. Some excerpts:

author of "The Beauty Myth" The questions science asks are often dictated by cultural ideology. It's notable that the inquiry is one-sided, looking at men's perceptions of women and not women's perceptions of men nearly as much. Do we want to take this one quality and assign the primary worth of a person on that basis? Would men in America want to be judged in the workplace on the basis of their height, if that were found to be a preference for a majority of women? All of human society isn't ordered around fertility selection. If you reduce people to one aspect of their identities, you get a very distorted and ill-functioning society.

neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, author of a forthcoming book on evolution and beauty These feminist critiques are only the most recent in a long line of searing attacks on beauty and its handmaiden, fashion. Until the age of capitalism, every civilized country enacted laws attempting to control sumptuous dress. For centuries the church has railed against the deceit and vanity of fashion, and the medical doctors have expressed horror at the risks and dangers people incur in the name of beauty. None of it has made a dent. There is now deep cultural dissatisfaction with the focus on beauty. But the beauty business shows no signs of abating. A pursuit so ardent, so passionate, so risk-filled, so unquenchable reflects the workings of a basic instinct. To tell people not to take pleasure in beauty is like telling them to stop enjoying food or sex or love. Rather than denigrate one source of women's power, feminists should embrace all sources of women's power. Why is being beautiful and being prized for it a social evil? The idea that beauty is unimportant or a cultural construct is the real beauty myth.

poet and essayist Part of [evolutionary psychologists'] argument is that the most beautiful woman gets together with the most powerful man, and their children have the best chance of survival. That's not necessarily true. In a lot of small, primitive societies, resources are shared and there's a lot of collective caring for children. As to these being innate preferences, I don't think so. All over the world, one fifth of the people are watching "Baywatch." No society is immune from pop culture. So, increasingly, what is regarded as beautiful on a television set in America is regarded as beautiful in Peru and Africa and Korea. What these researchers are really describing is our social world, in which men have money and power and women are defined by their looks and sexuality. What they deny is that there could be other social worlds, in which different qualities would matter. If the sexes were equal, would women still swoon for Henry Kissinger? Would Susan Sarandon be "too old" for sexy roles? I don't think so!

Rutgers University anthropologist, author of "Anatomy of Love" The feminists raise good questions that have scientific answers. But will they listen? I have come to think the human animal is more deeply wired for politics than for truth.

Why do some scientists and laymen continue to fight investigations into our human nature? They seem unable to embrace the simple concept that biology and culture go hand in hand. We are not packets of DNA or social creatures acting in complex networks of friends and relatives. We are both. I hope the 21st century sees an end to the nature-nurture argument. What a waste of ink and paper. We need to move forward and investigate how nature and culture interact.

Northwestern University political scientist, author of "Why We Lost the E.R.A." Should you worry about having small breasts or a high waist-hip ratio? No. What does this new evidence tell a woman who looks like that? It tells her to look for a thinking mate. That move will improve her life and her children's lives more than the best waist-hip ratio on the planet. Our hunter-gatherer days, when these beauty-oriented aspects of our psyches formed, are over. Humans came to dominate the world by brain, learning to master the natural urgings that were bad for us. In no culture do human beings defecate spontaneously, a natural outcome of our primate heritage. We should ask: is today's focus on female beauty good for us? If not, we should change it.

editor, Ms. magazine In a world where women bear the brunt of the beauty hype and hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in pursuit of this ideal, reports like this give me the willies because I can't forget the high price we've paid. Women have had ribs removed, their feet bound, their thighs suctioned, their breasts siliconed. Women get lifted and tucked and snipped and tightened, and have their faces totally recast. Girls and women binge and purge and starve themselves until their bodies fail. Beyond reinforcing the hype, what does it matter that scientists can now "prove" that there are universal standards?

author, "Sexual Personae" I am delighted by the recent resurgence in evolutionary biology, which is forcing science back onto the feminist agenda, where it has been disgracefully absent. We are half-animal beings, driven by instinctual forces that we can only dimly know. Science is our best hope of understanding the strange alchemy of lust that so disrupts our social lives. Supreme moments in the history of civilization, as in ancient Egypt, classical Athens or Renaissance Florence, were always accompanied by the worship of beauty. Feminism is shot through with puritanical Judeo-Christian assumptions, which exalt the soul over the body and moralistically devalue the physical realm. Today the human hunger for beauty is satisfied by the much maligned fashion magazines, which are glorious art for the masses.

editor, Allure magazine Readers continually bemoan the absence of real women in magazines, including Allure. They say they want to see themselves. If that means the average American woman, then they'd want their models to be asymmetrical, 5 feet 4 and 143 pounds. OK. But whenever Allure runs pictures of women with asymmetrical features, we get letters of vehement objection. We ran a story in the March issue about obese women, complete with pictures. Readers wrote us in disgust. One said, "How could you waste your time writing about these marginal, abnormal creatures?"

Emory University anthropologist, author of "The Tangled Wing" Supporters and critics are mostly talking past each other. This is not junk science, but it is baby-step science; those who pursue it had better use caution. Critics, whose remarks here show little understanding, should study the research before judging it. Social psychologists have known for decades that the more attractive are more likely to be favored by teachers, to be successful at work, even to be acquitted by a jury. The effect is clear to everyone who watches the news and wonders why people have to be so good-looking to explain the budget crisis. The answer: more of us believe them. But bias toward beauty is bias against those who lack it. As with other kinds of prejudice, change can come only after we recognize it for what it is.

art critic Evolution could no more leave differential attractiveness to culture than it could metabolism or respiration. Beauty is beauty across all cultural divisions. This leaves the question of why, randomness aside, we are not all symmetrically beautiful, the way robins are uniformly red-breasted, or tigers striped. The answer is that most animals must make do with second best. An asymmetrical male primate who happens to be a good hunter has his choice among well-favored carnivorous females. And among humans, cleverness, power, wealth, wit, fame and family fill the beds of the esthetically lopsided.