Among the traits acquired by us humans is the ability to be judgmental. An area of this ability is beauty. When we receive a message through any of our five senses, sight, touch, sound, smell, or taste our mind responds. Usually with a spontaneous moment of awe and wonder or a simple exclamation of “wow!”
A secondary response is an opinion. When triggered most of us have an opinion, hard to believe, just ask! Some of those opinions are fact based, but it seems that many lack any forethought or rational explanation. What constitutes beauty and how is that opinion discerned? Let me explain.
You are out shopping at the mall. It’s the weekend so it is crowded. People of all shapes, sizes, colors, and attire push and shove their way past the stores. You are in no hurry, in fact, you rather enjoy people watching. And do people ever make that easy.
Sitting down for a break you observe a couple approaching. Still in your people watching mode your perception detector is going full blast. From afar you can’t tell if the couple is heterosexual or gay. What you can see is that they both appear to be young with one being much larger than the other. You begin to make judgments about your perceptions so far. Walking arm in arm both appearto be wearing the very latest in “hip” clothing. Still unsure about the gender thing you wait as they get closer.
And there they are, in front of you. How were your perceptions? Yes, they were a younger couple, probably in their late teens or early 20’s. Yes, given the way they held on to each other, smiling and talking, they seemed to be a couple. And yes, this was a heterosexual couple. As it turns out the woman was not just larger, in your eyes she was obese. You guess around 225 pounds. So different, yet apparently very much in love.
As they walk by you, you can’t help but overhear him telling her how beautiful he thinks she is. Your final thought turns to a question that many of us ask about others: “What does he/she see in that person?” Which brings me to the larger question, how are our perceptions of beauty formed?
Just what constitutes perceptions and how are they different from objectively formed information? I would like to suggest that perceptions are the responses formed in the mind without any supporting factual evidence. As the online source of all knowledge Wikipedia J tells us perception is the “…the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment.”
In its most basic form a perception is nothing more than a sensory impulse perceived by the mind and then reacted to. In the above example I referred to the woman as obese, a judgment call. Depending on several things including cultural views, ethnicity, medical or psychological conditions, her own self-image, and so on she may not be obese at all.
This doesn’t take into account the man’s own judgment about her. For all intents and purposes his own preferences may be that he prefers larger women. It probably suggests that she offers him something beyond her physical appearance. Remember, we are not dealing with rules written in stone, rather we are dealing with the ways of the human mind.
If left to its own devices our mind is the great trickster. Without discipline and forethought, our minds take us places we would never imagine going. We’ve all heard the rationale for certain actions, “I changed my mind.” In many cases you didn’t change your mind, your mind changed you.
“In the eye of the beholder?” Each of us creates our own criteria for beauty. While there is a larger set of cultural standards that inform us, individually, we add or subtract from that norm according to our own needs. Beauty boils down to those things, people, objects, places, or even an idea that triggers a perception of pleasure or satisfaction.
Our own perceptions of pleasure or satisfaction are fickle. As noted earlier our experience of beauty is a perception under the direction of the mind. That place where fact and fiction are often confused. From this view, the perception of beauty is a moving target. From moment to moment beauty can be represented by this or that stimuli.
Our interactions with the perception of beauty change over time. What follows is a generalization, although representative of many, there are exceptions. For younger children the concept of beauty is pretty much non-existent. For the child it usually comes down to “I like that” or “I don’t like that.”
As the child grows into adolescence, they develop the capability to form more sophisticated judgments, including words to express their reactions. This introduces them to the wonders of beautiful. The downside for the adolescent through early adulthood is that beauty is often confused with lust.
Fortunately, with age usually comes maturity. By the early to mid-thirties the perceptions of beauty become less and less flights of fancy, but a solid recognizable source of pleasure or satisfaction.
If so much of the information surrounding the question of perception and beauty remains unanswered how can we explain the beauty found in the relationship of our mall couple? Except in those instances where there is a commonly held sense of beauty like a sunset, a smile, or children playing beauty remains an emotional or sensory response that becomes a meaningful experience.
For whatever reasons, the couple in the mall had found in each other something that is emotionally satisfying to each one. Yes, there are those who will wonder about the attraction between them. Others who will make fun of them. And even those who will be repulsed. How sad!
As the lyrics of John Lennon’s song Imagine suggest this bond between two people is beautiful.
Image credit: www.flickr.com/photos/emmanuelfrezzotti/3990907078