The Ugliness of Beauty

By Tom Veatch

Draft: This is a work in progress


Humor Theory
The Ugliness of Beauty
Postural Anesthesia
Oxytocin and the Vortex of Love
On Suffering
What is Anger
Notes from on the Ground

In Beauty, the beauty is not just the innocent, the beneficiary, the sergeant and flogger, the husk, of Beauty's emergent social dynamic, but also the crushed one -- and others, also, are crushed for Beauty.

My theme of the ugliness of beauty has been on my mind for decades. In my present half-dotage I recently thought to myself, Where is it?, Haven't I already written this down?, which seems sufficient cause to write it down, now, finally, and share it with you.

Perhaps the young may be more shocked than the old, perhaps people who have experienced tragedy and loss will be less shocked than those who naïvely affirm that some (like Miss Piggy's "moi") should be at the top of the world and probably that that should be them whether they have done anything to deserve it or not, or at least they have a chance and while they still do they are doing their best to believe in and support -- which is part of climbing -- their particular hierarchy. But here's what it looks like to someone who aggressively climbed all available dominance hierarchies, after plenty of success and getting really sick and tired of that game. Some will hate this perspective, and me for holding it, but that's fine by me. If it's just maturity, then they'll come around later.


So, What is beauty?

Beauty is the quality of an object that induces inner surrender in the perceiver.

For more on this theme, see

Nature, art, music is beautiful insofar as it brings inner peace to the perceiver: the non-operation of the inner judge. Ahhhh, one says, melting into the experience. The critical faculty of comparing and considering this aspect or that to be analyseably better or worse than another, the critical, separated, intellectualizing witness attitude, the emotionally judgemental person, perhaps by a checklist of measureable values or an intellectual sense that one sufficiently knows the observed, that the observed holds no surprises, these things when present induce emotional judgement, the sense that you know how to feel and so you feel appropriately, and they repel the experience of inner surrender which is constituted by the non-operation of the inner emotional judgement system, especially of identification. When that system stops operating, emotional down-regulation stops, flow starts, bliss and serenity are possible, the irrational emotions which are always present underlyingly but are, for most, crushed under the structure of self-belief and ego-attribution, emerge effortlessly as they are the default state of the emotional system, since it takes work to downregulate one's emotions, and that work is not done when the inner judgement system stops operating.

Similarly the beauty of another human being is that quality which makes you experience inner surrender. It is subjective, though people can be intersubjectively similar. It can lead to interpersonal submission, upgrade of the status of the other and downgrade of one's own status though neither necessarily or wisely. Kant in his essay, "The sense of the beautiful and of the sublime" [1764], refers to what I call beautiful as "sublime"K, and what I call pretty as "beautiful"K. It's a step shift in the meaning grid; evidently, we have lost the concept of the sublime in our materialistic culture. Pretty is attractive, "exciting...pleasure", but not impactful to the soul; beauty in my terms, or sublimityK in Kant's, is as he says, "agreeable .. but .. mixed with awe". Allow me to use the modern meaning grid, and you can reverse it when you read Kant, as everyone should.

Socialized Beauty Perception

The features of prestige and attractiveness are learned and socially acquired, develop historically and spread across social networks not unlike changing language features through contact between languages or spreading over geographical and social space with both age grading and real-time change in progress, as exemplified by some personal experiences here:

When I landed in New Delhi in 1985 the taxi from the airport went past a milk advertising sign, with a young woman displayed proudly, and with all my American fat prejudice my thought was, Ugh, look at those arms, those cheeks, that waist, she's a bit fat and not at all attractive, are their advertisers competent? Then after a year in school there, on the way back to the same airport in a different taxi we went by the same sign, and I thought, hey baby, look at that ad, she's HOT. Same ad, same arms, same cheeks, same waist, different experience of a year being socialized with a different crowd of people. It's socialization, analogous to dialects or languages in contact, and learning features of a different one from your first.

Did you experience on turning 50 years old as I did that my in-group had changed from being folks under 50 to certainly including folks over 50, and suddenly I noticed that there was this whole world of hot gray haired ladies all around, did you notice that? Revealing my own age prejudice fortunately to be changeable. It's not just socialization but a constructed affiliation with self, analogous to age graded language variation, which in the study of language change in progress is a head-fake: it doesn't show a change in the society, but only a change in the individuals as they grow through different ages in the same unchanging society.

Did you experience as I did that starting after Obama's election, African American women suddenly became better looking? And Thank you Barack! Obviously it reveals my own racism, but also it shows that attraction is not genetically determined entirely but influenceable, due to socialization, in this case analogous to real time change in progress as observed occasionally in the sociolinguistic surveys of language variation (See R. Herold's thesis on the merger of "COT" and "CAUGHT" in Pennsylvania): some of it is actual change as the dialect or society itself changes as it progresses over history. There are three basic categories of language change studied in sociolinguistics: age-grading, real-time historical change in progress, and languages in contact. I offered some personal experiences, revealing my own prejudices, and examplifying each of those categories. It amounts to a suggestion, and encouragement to researchers that indeed, quantitative, replicable, validated, social-stratificational survey research may be able to prove what these examples suggest. Thus I encourage you, dear reader.

Birth or Choice

There's a controversy over sexual attraction, whether it is chosen or genetic. Born gay, is the claim, or on the opposite side, let's deprogram you out of your ungodly choice to be attracted to same-sex partners.

I say it is not chosen, since my attraction-o-meter is quite automatic and having done its work unconsciously presents to my conscious awareness its assertions that this one is attractive and that one is not. I can't decide to be attracted to someone, believe me I have tried. I have no sense of volitional control over it, rather it is a visceral perception.

But I also say it is not genetic either, since it can be learned, is socialized, and can change.

Affiliation with self

Male perception of beauty in females is so socialized, groups of perceivers learning in parallel, just as sharing laughter socializes people into shared morality when people share and watch each others' responses, that standards become limited and non-individualized, and the form that produces Beauty Perception ("BP") becomes somewhat standardized culturally. Through the slippery skill of self-conscious, emotional response downregulation, in which it seems anything representable cortically, that is, anything, can be retold or re-envisioned from its immediate and wholly impactful direct experience into the systematicity that one can impose on it, and thereby made to fit within one's story of a manageable, predictable, controllable world, that is, reconstituted in an emotionally regulated, and downregulated, vision.

It's not even beauty any more. The more you experience, the less impactful it is. The more you think about it, comparing it with others, the less your emotions are allowed to feel. Downregulation. The more it becomes a socialized experience where a group tells the same story, views it the same way, the more it becomes susceptible to formula, to repetition, to manufacture, to manipulation for other ends. Ugly ends.

So there are plenty of reasons to opt in and opt out of the beauty perception economy.

Value and Dominance

I wrote many pages about the concept of value itself, which is the basis of judgments of better and worse, making of comparisons, measurement of quality, and how that relates to the social structure of a dominance or admiration or valuation hierarchy. It relates to beauty but so remotely that I pulled it out and made a separate essay of it. Have a look here.

Dominance or valuation hierarchies

Can we get back to beauty and other dominance hierarchies? Is beauty a dominance hierarchy?

(1) It seems NOT, since evaluating one's position in a dominance hierarchy, measured using the valuation metric of that hierarchy, is clearly a subjective moral judgement containing a self-attribution (as the judge), which by Veatch's Razor removes one immediately from the possibility of transcendent emotion, and by its nature is not transcendency, while beauty is transcendency.

(2) It seems SO, since beauty produces inner surrender in the perceiver, and inner surrender can be socially interpreted or manipulated into interpersonal surrender and interpersonal surrender can be interpreted as self-placement within a hierarchy.

What's going on here with this, let's call it a, valuation hierarchy?

Beauty perception, intrinsically, is actually opposite to hierarchy. Hierarchy is measureable quality using a metric of value. The experience of beauty is the experience of the abandonment of measure.

  • The logical sequence is, first comes the organizing metric, then comes the aspiration of people to acquire higher values on that metric, then comes the moral obligation of others to be subject to their valuation according to that metric, in the end there is a social organizing principle which is a dominance hierarchy.

  • The ethological sequence is: doing, admiring, teaching, oppressing. Folks just do what they do. Then some of what they do, others admire. Then those or other people teach it and learn it. Then some people oppress others using it. Worst and last, some people oppress themselves with it.

These valuation hierarchies are multiple.

They seem to be associated in a mobile society with geographical locations, with institutions. Stanford, Cambridge, Madison Avenue, Washington DC, Silicon Valley, all these have their own internal self-sucking-up hierarchy of how so-and-so did something so fabulous on our shared measure of value and aren't we therefore higher in the world being associated with that pinnacle of value, and most unforgiveably and yet somehow rationally unpreventably, how valueless and small all those many, many others are, who are lower on this branching and inclusive hierarchy, how indeed even geographical location, location on our quite spherical world where most fundamentally no place has any intrinsic value above any other, locations are divided into those places where goodness and desireability resides using our socialized metric of value and every valueless other place else. What a pathetic stupidity, how ugly such a view, how unpleasant to be around, how arrogant, how unattractive. This rational valuation trap is one of the ugliest things about humanity (though Penis Theory competes in its ugliness).

Because the primary use across society of these valuation hierarchies is to devalue almost everybody.

Examples: I knew some folks from Cambridge University, who thought they were superior to others. Really, you think that's attractive? You think your supposed superiority in some narrow measure is worth something in the balance against your arrogance and ugly dismissal of all others? Go ahead be ugly but don't expect others to come after you. Go be ugly alone.

Or... I spent many years in the Stanford University subculture. The dialog was always, well, I just can't tell you how often it was, about how so-and-so, associated with Stanford, had done some virtuous or brilliant or enviable thing, and by implication how we as members of the community therefore were associated with that shining light, how we bask in it by implication, by having been of the chosen few, however randomly, irrationally, racistly, or even manipulatedly by the well-funded enrichment recipients of feeder private schools. So Sandra Day O'Connor got appointed to the Supreme Court, do I share her achievement? Et cetera. There were indeed quite a few super smart folks one could learn something from and have a great conversation with, but there was also a general, wide, underlying culture that was frankly anti-intellectual, siloed to avoid interesting or challenging or technical conversations except within subspecialties, where all acted casual, said they were fine, appeared unruffled and had not much to say offering any challenge or real personal growth. The point of a Stanford is to produce a predictable crop of bureaucrat functionaries, well socialized into their bureaucrat functionary roles of the future, not to cultivate genius or bring out the thinking that might significantly change the world. The latter might occur there but rather incidentally.

The result: people can't imagine moving to the "hinterlands". (What a sneer implicit in that self-circumscription. What ugliness.)

It's like the prestige of academia, you can't imagine not giving everything to get a research faculty position at a prestigious university on the tenure track. Anything less is simply failure. Everyone who achieves less is simply not to be emulated, does not quite count in your world of values.

Similarly suppose you live in Manhattan instead of a subway ride away in Brooklyn, there is a world of difference in prestige. It's like a disgust reaction for a person well entrenched in their position in a hierarchy, to imagine themself descending so far to be out in those boonies. It's like a loss of identity.

But when you get to the peak of one of these hierarchies, the fact is that suddenly your universe has shrunk down to a tiny circle, the power zone of your valuation hierarchy, might be on one block on Wall Street, or one city in the Western Hemisphere, or in one office building. You trade your self-valuation on your dominance hierarchy for the world itself. Really, that's the goal?

Elon Musk dreams of Mars; escape there is his avowed motivation in life. But if you concentrate your target of value on so tiny and remote a target, you really have lost the world. You put all this engineering energy toward escape, toward an imagined dream, while the reality, the Earth itself, rots behind you? Worse yet, then you topple off your imaginary ladder to the sky back into the rot, to rot yourself. What if we did win Mars? With half the sunlight and 1% the atmosphere you'll have minimal argiculture, minimal life support. Life underground is the goal? You can have that here, troglodyte! For such a dream for 10 or 10,000 people, Earth itself may well take its eye off the ball of saving itself, of improving the actual world for billions. Oh but we don't care, we're going to Mars! You might well be disgusted with life, sure; I also read a lot of science fiction to escape from my adolescent emotional hell too. But your disgust with this world we live in leads toward a disgusting result. Rot on rot, instead of cleanup and thoughtful gardening, and a realistic and inclusive happy future. The Earth itself, this unfiltered recycling aquarium we breathe in, is what we need to value: the whole Earth. Do what you want, but this is certainly a clear and definite example of a motivational hierarchy, when you devalue everything in the world to chase after your red dot in the sky.

Back to academia, where actually the winners lose. Who gets their tenure track job, who publishes enough not to perish, who finally gets their tenure, is such a workaholic killjoy without any human qualities including compassion for self or others, such a person has nothing enviable except the fancy name or title of their position. That's why people work the prestige angle so much, there is so much less else to celebrate. Everyone loses in the academic hierarchy, including the winners.

The same is true when your interest tends toward political power. You see your state capital as where it's at, and if your ambition is higher, simpler, even more naïve, in Washington DC. That's where you aim to go for an internship to learn the ways of power. That's the pinnacle, and those who don't orient towards it are just not part of your value hierarchy, who needs them, let's not even consider them, they are disregardable.

The same is true in any kind of cult. In Linguistics, it's Go to MIT to be at the feet of the master Chomsky. Thank God he has retired. Among the Hindus, it's Go sit at the feet of your Guru, every other place is a dry desert.

The emotions are strong, far deeper than superciliousness. I myself have experienced it as a palpable energy perception, coming in and out of the door of the ashram. I can't prevent myself from feeling the vibrations of peace and love on the inside, yet I do believe it is a terrible and unjust thing to experience the outer world as like a dry desert. Worse, because I grew up in, I love, actual dry desert and we all know that a saints find their goal in the desert. So I think I will only have achieved my own goal when I feel inside and outside are the same.

Among the David Koreshes and Jonestown and Aum Shinrikyo and fundamentalist Christian and Muslim and Jewish and Hindu groups and every other religious cult, there is a strong, shared, cultivated, indeed enforced, uniform belief that being "in" is super important and that those who are not "in" are missing out on the essence at least and more often pawns of the devil. One must constantly demonstrate one's allegiance to the values of the cult, and one's value as a person is accepted as being measured by adherence to and closeness to the center of the cult.

The whole business is frankly ugly. It's the use of some arbitrary measure of value to distort the true value of the world, which is bliss and serenity, mirth and delight, everywhere and in every one. We get a glimpse of the emotional unregulated state of bliss when we climb to the top of our wall of value and peek over it into a place which is finally good enough and where the trade of counting and marking value finally is exchanged for a moment of lightness of being: transactional transcendence. But that perfection is everywhere, and it is our state of, how can I express it, of sin, perhaps, if we can use that word lightly, then, that we cover it with self-attributions, with moral judgements of self and others, that regulate our emotions, that box us into limited and inflexible emotional states whose only positive value may be some minimum bare level of tolerability (cf. level 2 of the 5 levels of happiness).

BP: Beauty Perception

  • Beauty Perception (BP) makes boys surrender to girls. 'You're so pretty!' means 'you have the power.' When there is no effort on the part of the judged-as-beautiful person, then the message is that one's own effortless being in itself is powerful, valued, and inducing of surrender and cooperation on the part of others.

  • Sexual selection is evolutionarily ancient, birds do it too. Beauty perception relates to sexual selection; it can be used as a mode of sexual selection. (Incidentally, see also Penis Theory)
  • Women detect and engineer for BP response by men: the pool of appreciators.

  • Beauty considered instrumentally becomes a dominance hierarchy for women.

  • The currency of BP is attention.

  • The measurement of BP is eye tracking behavior.

  • But there are flaws in the admiration hierarchy system:

    Rejection of all and many for few or none, is a stupid assessment for the all and for the many, though it may be functional for the organism that must choose from many options just one.

    Non-merit-based attraction leads to entitled behavior by those who contribute nothing.

    Fat shaming, ugly shaming, ethnicity shaming aka racism, gender shaming aka sexism, sexual orientation shaming aka homophobia, disability shaming, all these are not just emotionally destructive to the prejudicially shamed, not just unjust, based on fundamentally meritless valuation metrics, and but also pernicious to society's members as well as society's overall productivity and success. If productivity is proportional to social acceptance (as seems obvious, since a rejected, demoralized person may typically be less productive) then all these -isms, or forms of pointless shaming, exclusion, disempowerment, and rejection of contributions, destroy social acceptance and reduce overall productivity. We could simplify by saying these -isms are Wrong, and seek to advance a progressive social agenda to eradicate all of these.

    The power of the BP response convinces many women who have greater capabilities than make-up that their path is (only, or mostly) through stimulating beauty perception in men, to get their own needs met and to accomplish their goals in life. To the degree this happens it wastes half of all humanity's productive lives. Is it productive at all?

    It can be fairly productive, actually. Allow me to paint a cartoon picture of an important, perhaps essential dynamic between the sexes as driving the engine of civilization. Men want one thing, it's their top priority, and they'll do anything to get it. Women want it too, according to their relative testosterone level, which is non-zero but positive, the ratio is around 1/10, as I understand it. So women want it also, but as the last thing that they want. Presented with a man who wants nothing else but will do anything for it, the woman specifies what needs doing, the man runs about to do it, and when everything is satisfactory and done then her list of wants is cleared down to the last item, and so the answer finally becomes Yes, and the man then gets what he has been wanting all the time. In this way the furniture gets moved here and there, the carpentry and painting are done, the necessary work outside the home to bring in resources is carried out successfully, the home itself is provided with sufficient resources to be an attractive and acceptable nest, etc., etc. In short, this is the engine of civilization: Woman specifies, man serves, both get their needs met and domestic contentment is achieved, more or less stably.

    I know this cartoon picture is not universal, but I think it is a general, widespread, and frankly healthy model of shared happiness in (cis) relationships.

  • The use of BP based dominance hierarchy creation is to push down most people down down down the hierarchy, to devalue them, to make it socially appropriate to not pay any attention to the non-beautiful, to decide there is nothing there.

  • Dominance hierarchies in general are a socially validated excuse system for devaluing everybody that isn't at the top of the dominance hierarchy. Everyone knows where the pinnacle is, aims their eyes together in unison toward the top of the hierarchy, so that admiration orients upstream, just as conversely the boots on the neck of those below orient downstream.

  • The locally-acculturated beauty hierarchy is one of these. Therefore almost everyone is devalued, ignored, left without attention, due to their beauty, engineered or otherwise. Someone becomes the beauty queen, noone else counts.

  • This is what produces unreconstructed cheerleader behavior, catty teenage cliquing to jointly push down the ugly ones.

    My high school yearbook shows photos of hundreds of pretty girls. What was I thinking! I actually remember the time when I decided to not be attracted to them all but only a few or even just one. Perhaps my reasoning went along these lines: If I think all these girls are so pretty it'll be trouble (I might connect with someone, and therefore be vulnerable, and I'll not have that, no), so I had better ratchet up my threshold of standardized beauty in order to only be attracted to a tiny number of them, indeed only to Cindy Doyel, my standard-of-beauty ideal, and in that way I can keep away from the dangers of interpersonal surrender through beauty perception. I can regulate, this way.

  • So long as beauties themselves remain stupid, naïve, immature, and childish, they work their power with a self-proclaimed moral authority, feeling justified in their position because of their effortless achievement of BP. It is generalized to moral authority, to personal superiority, to social entitlement, to every kind of ugly behavior.

  • When later in life they experience change in their own looks, they often with increasing desperation, expense, and self-deception try to engineer and retain the beauty forms and attentive/submissive response behavior of others that are the basis of their ego-attached social position.

  • If they experience tragedy, pain, or suffering, or find some iota of compassion or empathy for others, then they may drop this game and become more loving to others, a lot nicer to be around, and typically a lot more gentle to themselves as well. It will help if those better qualities are in their environment too. But family and friends may have to be quite patient, and maybe not so emphasizing of the beauty's beauty.

  • Regarding beauty, Solzhenitsyn has a paragraph, in his book, "1914":
    The dangers of beauty are well-known: narcissism, irresponsibility, selfishness. When they detect that perilous flame burning in a girl's face, her mentors should beware.

There is this wierd dovetailing, whereby the admiration of some becomes the aspiration goal of others -- and their moral demand. A dimension of social organization exists at these various levels and from these various perspectives simultaneously. There is a sort of measure of quality, then people orient positively toward high values of that measure, then people seek to achieve high values of that measure, then both the attraction/admiration and the moral imposition fall out as well as the sorting of people into their places of relative measure in the hierarchy, and the pushing down and out of the vast majority of people. For every beauty there is so much construction of ugliness. One example of a beauty provides so many hundreds thousands millions of excuses to devalue lesser beauties according to that reference, that standardized metric. Treating most people with such ugliness is what actually comes out of the social practice of appreciating rare beauty, putting it on the pedestal is the same thing as pushing everyone else into the mud.

Instead, folks, experience inner surrender at every excuse, or no excuse at all. Or one could say, stop devaluing everything because it isn't at your cruel and ugly pinnacle ideal. Or one could also say, Experience beauty in all things.

Footnote: Health educator Emily Nagoski discusses Kate Manne, Down Girl, The Logic of Misogyny, and the Human Giver Syndrome: pretty happy calm generous and attentive to the needs of others. Check it out.
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Copyright © 2000-2020, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Created: April 28 - May 13, 2020. Modified: Febuary 10, 2023.