Are Beauty Standards Universal? What Cultural Anthropologists and Psychologists Have to Say on the Matter

Hey all! This is a thread originally posted in my now-defunct subreddit r/LeftistIncels and which can currently be found in r/leftyincel here. I’m posting it here because it hasn’t generated much discussion so far and am hoping to hear people’s thoughts. Any constructive feedback would be much appreciated!

One of the most oft-repeated assumptions in mainstream incel culture is that beauty standards are universal. Our ugliness is “objective” and does not depend on time and place. But is this really what the available research tells us? A cursory review of the literature indicates that this little bit of folk incel wisdom is completely off the mark.

In his online tutorial for introductory cultural anthropology students, Palomar College Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Dr. Dennis O’Neil reports that beauty standards actually exhibit remarkable sociohistorical variability:

It is clear that concepts of beauty are not universal. . . . ideals of beauty change over time.

Ethnocentric values universally play an important part in our perceptions of beauty. . . . Individual cultural differences come into play in favoring particular shapes, sizes, and colors of eyes.

As we can see, the folk wisdom could not be more wrong. There are no universally favored sizes (including tallness), shapes (such as square jaws), or colors (JBW theorists, I’m looking at you!). These standards (and whether any beauty standards exist at all, for that matter) are the historical products of the unique political struggles that determine the specific features of any given society. They follow the laws of Marx’s historical materialism. They are not coded for by genes, nor are they immutable.

While it’s common for humans to feel that the cultural factors that shape their society are “natural,” this is textbook ethnocentrism, which is a flawed, unidimensional, unscientific perspective.

So, cultural anthropologists recognize beauty standards are not universal or “objective.” But how have psychologists weighed in here? More generally, what have psychologists found about human perception overall? Do specific perceptions have particular genetic underpinnings? As you might have guessed, once again research points away from the common wisdom. Observes UNLV psychology professor Wayne Weiten in Psychology: Themes and Variations (10th Edition), a standard college textbook in introductory psychology courses:

Our experience of the world is highly subjective. Even elementary perception—for example, of sights and sounds—is not a passive process. We actively process incoming stimulation, selectively focusing on some aspects of that stimulation while ignoring others. Moreover, we impose organization on the stimuli that we pay attention to. These tendencies combine to make perception personalized and subjective. (p. 22, my emphasis)

Contrary to what many believe, while sensation is a passive process determined by genetically programmed sensory organ systems, perception involves “the selection, organization, and interpretation of sensory input” (Ibid., p. 107); it is a highly cognitive process that, like all such processes, draws heavily from concepts given by the sociocultural environment. Concepts like “tall man good” and “thin jaw bad.”

As an example of how thoroughly conceptual visual perception is, consider color perception. Research has demonstrated that the way humans perceive (select, organize, interpret, experience) color depends on linguistic codes:

Many studies have focused on cross-cultural comparisons of how people perceive colors because substantial variations exist among cultures in how colors are categorized with names. For example, some languages have a single color name that includes both blue and green (Davies, 1998). If a language doesn’t distinguish between blue and green, do people who speak that language think about colors differently than people in other cultures do?

. . . recent studies have provided new evidence favoring the linguistic relativity hypothesis (Davidoff, 2001, 2004; Robertson et al., 2005). Studies of subjects who speak African languages that do not have a boundary between blue and green have found that language affects their color perception. They have more trouble making quick discriminations between blue and green colors than English-speaking subjects do (Ozgen, 2004). Additional studies have found that a culture’s color categories shape subjects’ similarity judgments and groupings of colors (Pilling & Davies, 2004; Robertson, Davies, and Davidoff, 2000). (ibid., p. 264-265)

Incidentally, research is also in line with what O’Neil notes regarding shape perception:

Other studies have found that language also has some impact on how people think about motion (Genmari et al., 2002); time (Boroditsky, 2001); and shapes (Roberson, Davidoff, & Shapiro, 2002). (ibid., p. 265, my emphasis)

Clearly, it is sociocultural factors, not genes, that determine how we experience color. If such elementary visual perception is not genetically determined, does it make any sense to presume that higher-order forms (such as facial perception) are, especially when the anthropological record has definitively established otherwise? Hopefully, the absurdity of the folk wisdom here is evident.

While, as O’Neil acknowledges, “some psychologists have suggested that in all societies the essence of beauty is a symmetrical face and body,” this is mere evolutionary psychology claptrap. While the untenability of evolutionary psychology is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that, like most of its claims, this supposed “symmetry fetishism,” while prima facie plausible, is pure conjecture unbacked by experimental, molecular genetics, or any other sort of solid evidence. Similarly to the common belief that beauty standards are universal, “objective,” immutable, etc., this claim is, in a word, ideological.

So there you have it. Science shows that these standards are not universal but rather pliable. Since they are the chief factors implicated in society’s widespread inceldom, our political energies should be primarily directed toward their elimination.

too high IQ for me

dumb it down

you should ask nicely for things…


Beauty is objective.