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Some thoughts on beauty

Shelly and I have season passes to Busch Gardens. On weekends, we like to go there and hang out sometimes. Busch Gardens has a "wild animal encounter" section where you can go nose to nose wih various animals, separated only by Plexiglass.

We went there last weekend. Among my favorite animals at Busch Gardens are the hyenas; I took a picture of this fellow some time ago:

I have heard many, many people say "Oh, those hyenas are ugly!" when they look at the hyena display. Hyenas look a bit like dogs; but they look like poor dogs. If you compare a hyena to a domesticated dog or to a wolf, they look all kinds of wrong--heads too large, snouts shorter and sloping, necks longer, fur all short and spiky. As dogs, yeah, they're pretty ugly.

And I think that's very interesting.

If you watch animated porn, you start to notice something. Most animated porn, like Japanese hentai, uses characters that aren't photorealistic by any stretch of the imagination. The women in hentai tend to be completey disproportionate to real human beings--huge eyes, tiny mouth, really only crude sketches of the basic form of a person. And that works for us; we look at these characters, who are only approximately human, and say "Aww, cute." (Well, some of us do, anyway. others of us say "Satan! The sins of the flesh! Out! Out! Devil, begone!" Still others of us say "What's with all the tentacles, anyway?" But I digress.)

If you watch animated porn that's been rendered in 3D and strives to be photorealistic, though, you find that at a certain point, it becomes very, very creepy. There's a certain threshold that gets reached where our brains start interpreting the characters as people...but people who are, somehow, wrong.

We're very, very good at looking at people. We have a part of the brain just dedicated to parsing faces. Even tiny, almost unnoticable inconsistences in the way photorealistic characters move look off to us. A character that is nowhere near a real human being is fun to watch; a character that is rendered almost perfectly, but not quite, is creepy. If there are tiny flaws in the way the characters move and the way the characters look, we notice. (i had this problem withthe "Final Fantasy" movies--the characters looked great as long as they were standing still, but whenever they moved, it just looked all kinds of weird.)

On another forum I read, there's a conversation about how significant a person's physical appearance is to a relationship. There seem to be two basic camps; the "I could never date someone if he isn't gorgeous" camp (which tends to resent being called 'shallow,' even though that is in fact a shallow attitude; the word 'shallow' merely means 'penetrating only the easily or quickly perceived' in this context, or so says my dictionary; and if people want to base their relationships on the surface or easily perceived, hey, more power to 'em. Nothing wrong with that, as long as they're up front about it...but again, I digress); and the "If I love someone, I can see past their flaws and imperfections and be attracted to them in spite of the way they look" camp.

Me, I don't belong to either camp. And i think the hyenas are beautiful.

You see, the people who don't like the heyenas are to some extent, I think, judging the heyenas on the characteristics of a dog. And a hyena does not look like a dog. If one looks at a hyena and tries to impose the shape of a dog on it, the heyena doesn't fit very well. Heyenas are damn ugly dogs, especially if your idea of what a dog should look like is informed by, say, a wolf.

But a hyena is not a wolf, nor a domestic dog; and as an example of an animal viewed in its own light, it's gorgeous. If you look at a heyena without trying to impose the shape of a dog on it, it's a beautiful, powerful, graceful animal. I love hyenas.

For me, a hyena is beautiful because I appreciate it for what it is, not for what it isn't. And the same is true for people.

If you look at my past and current partners, they are physically all over the map. And every one of them has been beautiful--not because I have a standard of beauty that is flexible, but because my appreciation of what someone looks like is shaped by my experience with that person. A person to whom I am deeply connected always looks attractive to me; a person to whom I am not, does not. I don't fully understand "Well, if I love someone I'm attracted to her in spite of what she looks like;" when I love someone, I am attracted to her because of what she looks like. Everything about that person is attractive to me; it's not a question of "getting past" or "looking beyond" whatever perceived 'flaws' she has. All of these things make her who she is.

I think what happens is that people try to impose an idealized model of "woman" onto their partners, rather like the people at Busch Gardens try to impose an idealized abstraction of what a dog looks like onto a hyena. A hyena is not a domesticated dog, and an individual is not an abstraction. I don't think I was born with the gene that causes me to try to impose shapes on things, at least not that way; certainly, I don't try to impose an aesthetic shape onto the things around me.

It's taken me a while to understand why people even talk about what physical traits they require in their partners, or even have those requirements in the first place, and I'm not sure if I'm quite there yet. But the hyena is helping.

Edited to fix broken HTML that garbled the last couple paragraphs.


( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 1st, 2006 09:12 pm (UTC)
the hyena picture is gorgeous! i particularly like that you've caught it in motion.

most people look different to me as i get to know them better; somehow my impression of their personality changes how i interpret their looks. and watching someone move gracefully can change their appearance completely. but even apart from that, i think people focus on different features to judge appearance. i've had enough "i'm fat-- look at this belly!" "er, maybe, but i mostly look at your curvy waist, which is to die for..." etc conversations to think that, when i look at a woman i'm attracted to, i focus on different things that when the same woman looks in a mirror...
Feb. 2nd, 2006 12:18 am (UTC)
Hyenas have a very interesting walk. They're quite graceful animals, in a strange kind of way.

Definitely people start looking different to me as I get to know them as well; and the extent to which I know someone has a great deal to do with how attractive I find them.
Feb. 1st, 2006 09:54 pm (UTC)
I've always loved the way hyenas walk :)

and yeah, I know what you mean in the last paragraph. I am absolutely shockingly bad at recognising people, and most of the people I don't know very well merge into a sort of indistinguishable blur (well... vaguely by race... I mean I'm not saying I can't tell a blonde-haired-blue-eyed Englishman from my Nigerian classmate. But short of such obvious things, I couldn't tell you what half the people I interact with on a daily basis look like).

When I get to know someone well, and when I start feeling affection for them - not necessarily in a sexual way - this becomes very deeply connected to the way they look, the way they hold themselves, the way they walk... the things that makes their appearance mean THEM, so to speak. And I absolutely fall in love with it. I could stare at all of my close friends for an hour. Some of them may not be 'beautiful' by most people's standards - I honestly haven't a clue - but I don't enjoy them in spite of that. What relevance do the preferences of strangers have, anyway? I enjoy it because everything they do is so utterly them. And that's what I'm actually enamoured of.
Feb. 1st, 2006 09:56 pm (UTC)
incidentally... minor HTML typo in the last few lines.
(no subject) - tacit - Feb. 2nd, 2006 12:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - violet_tigress1 - Feb. 1st, 2006 10:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 1st, 2006 10:11 pm (UTC)
it doesnt just look like an ugly dog. it looks like a cross between an ugly dog and an ugly cat. but thats my opinion. nothing wrong with it, thats just the way i think it looks
Feb. 2nd, 2006 12:58 am (UTC)
Me, I don't belong to either camp. And i think the hyenas are beautiful.

I don't belong, either, but I do like camping - but only real camping where you make your own fire and atuff...

And hyenas? Very cute. Especially with their little mugs. And they laugh.

I'm a huge elephant fan and think they are just beautiful. Wonderfully beautiful indeed. Could look at 'em all day long kinda beautiful. ears, tails, trunk, skin, eyes - all beautiful. Did you know there are loads of people who don't agree? I know, it's hard to believe!

I also think you and Shelly are beautiful, too, so there. You keep posting. Me? I'll spam Vogon poetry in my LJ and read along in yours. :)
Feb. 2nd, 2006 01:05 am (UTC)
So is this like some passive aggresive attempt to suggest that I look and/or laugh like a hyena??? ;)

I concur however (on your point, not that I laugh like a hyena). I am absolutely baffled when people ask me that I like in a person. They don't seem to get that I don't have physical requirements and that I'm really more interested in things like personality, non-possesiveness, poly-mindedness, intelligence, communication skills, creativity and the like.

Feb. 2nd, 2006 03:09 pm (UTC)
I completely agree. It's what's inside that counts, and makes a person truly beautiful. *grin*
Feb. 2nd, 2006 01:21 am (UTC)
Brilliant, and I concur totally.
I love your writing style. I love the way you write three sections that seem unrelated, then tie them all together in a way that makes my brain go "Eureka!"

I could only think of one way to celebrate and endorse this beautiful post: a vicious personal attack.
Feb. 2nd, 2006 03:40 am (UTC)
Hyenas are creepy dude. That wierd laugh & all....

Sure they're cute in a way but they kinda creep me out in the same way buzzards do.
Feb. 2nd, 2006 05:19 am (UTC)
i love their cute little bear ears.

my mother used to tell me that i laughed like a hyena, which was before i even ever saw one or knew what the hell they were.

people become beautiful to me as i get to know them. people who are "beautiful" become ugly if they are icky people.

one of my partners is scrawny-limbed, balding and pot-bellied, but i love him to death and think he's the hottest thing evar. like, seriously, can't keep my hands to myself. go figure.
Feb. 2nd, 2006 05:42 am (UTC)
Good point. Ever since I saw a hyena as a kid, I've looked at all dogs as somehow lacking. Something about the appropriateness of the hyena skulk, the low-headed creep, even when not really hunting. It brought me to the conclusion that dogs were just malformed hyena wannabees.

Not surprisingly, I prefer cats. They seem to at least attempt a hyena's stalk. If only they could do the laugh. . . .

Also, who couldn't love the female hyena mock penis? Never mind the strap-on, it's always ready!
Feb. 2nd, 2006 06:48 am (UTC)
Yeah, though I've read it's pretty awful for the female hyena to give birth through.
(no subject) - peristaltor - Feb. 4th, 2006 08:32 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 2nd, 2006 06:42 am (UTC)
There was an interesting study a few years back about people's reaction to computer-generated faces. It seems there was a curve of attraction vs. realisticness that reminds me a bit of a bond energy curve: as the faces became more realistic, people were more attracted to them, up to a point where they became so realistic that they were hard to distinguish from human faces, at which point people became more and more repelled by them. It was a curious result.
Feb. 2nd, 2006 09:42 am (UTC)
WRT 3D hentai characters: I believe the name you're looking to hang off the concept you described above is the Uncanny Valley .
Feb. 2nd, 2006 02:45 pm (UTC)
I never thought men were beautiful until I loved one.

Pleasing in their functionality, perhaps; there is a certain aesthetic appreciation to be had for any creature's evolutionary uniqueness, and suitability to purpose.

But beautiful... not until I began to make familiar as my native sex this subtly different sort of person, map the similarities and differences, recognize them individually.

The bf is coarsely furred all over. Very different from women's sleekness, somewhat different from the more modest amount and texture of body hair on other men I know; if I judged it against a standard set by those, it might be undesirable. But I do not. It signifies him to me. This person is reaches for me for our comfort and listens patiently to my disordered words, this one makes the bad puns, and gives me beard burn from fierce kisses, this one. I would not want him to be any other way,cannot imagine the beloved spirit except as congruent with the flesh.

I admire the hyena.
And I don't have a type.

(Although... green or blue-eyed brunettes account for slightly more of my crushes than can reasonably be attributed to coincidence. ;-)

Feb. 7th, 2006 07:21 pm (UTC)
Tacit, I read you often on polyamory and I have yet to read something that you have written that I don't agree with one way or the other.
All flattery aside, may I friend you? I would love to be able to keep up with your thoughts. My life is pretty vanilla (aside from poly, and the work required to get through our first poly relationship), but you are welcome to read.
I will wait to friend you until I recieve an OK.
Feb. 8th, 2006 11:52 pm (UTC)
Welcome aboard! :)
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 28th, 2006 01:01 am (UTC)
Not at all! :)
(no subject) - farasche - May. 8th, 2006 05:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - klabonte - May. 10th, 2006 07:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 5th, 2007 08:30 pm (UTC)
This is just lovely. I totally agree. Would you mind if I liked this in my journal? I want to show my friends. :)
Apr. 5th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC)
Not at all...and thanks! :)
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