Is my face attractive? Don’t answer that. Not because I’m ducking out of this, but because you can’t. Attractiveness is subjective, perhaps the most subjective question of all; that we outsource the answer to Google (and we do, in our droves) is ironic since it depends on a bias that is impossible to unpack. Yet in searching the internet for an answer, it also reveals the question to be one of the great existential tensions of our time. Because, as we all know, being attractive is absolutely 100% the A-road to happiness.
If you are Googling to rate your attractiveness, then you are probably working on the assumption that you aren’t. You’re also, possibly, more vulnerable and susceptible to being told that you aren’t. In short, you’re a sitting duck, someone who had a sore throat and who asked good old Dr Google for advice only to be told it was cancer.
Still, it’s only in investigating precisely why Google is the last person you should ask – being a search engine therefore insentient – that you can start cobbling together an idea of what attractiveness really is.
It’s worth starting with semantics. Beauty is not attractiveness and vice versa, though we commonly confuse the two. Beauty (arguably) has a template against which we intuit and against which we measure ourselves. It is hinged around genetics and a particular look associated with this politically correct (and largely western-governed) model.
Darwin wouldn’t agree: “It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standards of beauty with respect to the human body,” he said. But a lot has changed since his time. Magazines, TV, porn and Instagram – the latter of which allows us to project a very specific image of ourselves – automatically render us as “packages”. Blame what you want, but there is a standard. And “beauty” now feels relatively arbitrary, like cravings or road rage. Attractiveness on the other hand is completely unpredictable – which is wonderful or disastrous, depending on how you view the glass.
Perhaps this explains the advent of “fit” as a word to describe attractiveness. Traditionally it suggests someone can hold their breath under water. And of course you might be into that. Being fit also implies a superior physicality. But its definition is amorphous, as is attractiveness.
Instead of searching the internet for an answer, approach this question as you would a Rorschach test: openly and instinctively, with the idea that there is no right answer. As anyone who has ever been attracted to anyone will know, a fitty is hard to define. It’s ephemeral, spiritual, the way they talk, the way their eyes change when they laugh. It’s their approach to the welfare state or their work ethic. It’s whether they have money or don’t, like money or don’t, like children (or don’t). It’s the break in their nose, how well they pun, where their morals lie, how they eat crisps. Physicality is part of it, of course, but beauty and attractiveness are not intrinsically linked.
So if beauty is a societal thing, attractiveness is more anchored to the response of others, right? What’s my bag is not necessarily yours. This is helpful, because heaven forbid we all fancied the same person. But, it is also fundamental to evolution.
As Darwin also said: “If everyone were cast in the same mould, there would be no such thing as beauty.” This may muddle beauty and attractiveness, but makes the same sanguine point. Of course the two can coexist, especially if you are able to transcend the idea of beauty. This would mean closing down your browser – another bitter irony of the internet is that it doubles up as a hellhole of unrealistic beauty ideals.
Our tendency towards confusing attractiveness with beauty is understandable. Beauty certainly feels more defined. If you are beautiful, bully for you. But it’s worth remembering that a conventionally beautiful person can also be unattractive. In fact, beauty often whips up some unattractive quirks, such as arrogance and over-confidence. Again, these quirks might be attractive to you and not to me, so we’re back at the start.
Susan Sontag offers the kindest social definition of beauty, describing it as “a gladness of the senses” and something “to multiply the notion, to allow for kinds of beauty, beauty with adjectives, arranged on a scale of ascending value and incorruptibility”. It sounds a little idealistic, but it’s something to work towards.
It also varies according to gender. Women tend to take more cognitive values into account when defining their own attractiveness. Men are a little simpler. But no one is immune to it, and while we can get an intellectual handle on its role, we are vulnerable to its power. Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard academic, opened up the dialogue in her book Survival of the Prettiest. Eleanor Roosevelt, a wildly successful and bright woman, was once asked if she had any regrets. She said she wished she had been prettier.
The final (and perhaps most damning) hurdle is the beauty paradox. If we confuse physical beauty with attractiveness, and set about trying to achieve the former in order to become the latter, and if we fall short of what we deem to be universally beautiful (inevitable) then we automatically become unattractive.
The best approach is to look at what makes someone attractive to you and work backwards when thinking about yourself. Working on the assumption that beauty is stagnant, remember attractiveness tends to evolve and shift. The current, and indeed the most explicit, mode in psychology suggests that what makes someone attractive often comes down to whether their values and outlook match our own.
There are some social psychologists who believe values are the guiding principles in a person’s life, part of our self-conception. And how you behave is a massive part of it. The older we get, the wiser we get, the more we know what we want, the narrower the window of attraction can become. I don’t know if you are attractive, but someone definitely thinks you are. “Someones”, even. But I, like Google, can’t tell you.