Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bad News Good News

Bad news: You're uglier than you think. A recent study employed modern graphics techniques with photos of generically ugly faces and of handsome/beautiful faces. Each participant was photographed and his or her facial image was morphed slowly from the generically ugly image, to his/her own real image, and then to the very attractive face. Participants then were asked to pick out their actual images from the series. Uniformly, they chose images morphed some distance toward the attractive face as being the accurate ones. This may explain why people typically dislike most photos of themselves. We are sure we look better than that. No, we don't.

Good News: Despite these self-flattering delusions, we still underestimate how attractive we are to other people. Subjects generally scored themselves on a 1-10 scale significantly lower than others scored them. Yes, I'm afraid I said "generally" this time rather than "uniformly." A few of us think we’re pretty hot.

I’m not one of those few. Why else would I just have updated my Photoshop?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Rubens Blanched

Despite a theory that has gained currency in some circles, the ever-expanding waistlines of Americans are not the fault of Ronald McDonald. This is as silly as blaming La-Z-Boy for making sofas so soft and cushy that we sit on them too much. No one plants our butts in sofas but ourselves, and no one force-feeds us French fries either.

If we are looking for folks other than ourselves to blame, it makes more sense to point at our prehistoric ancestors for not being better hunter-gatherers. Until the past 100 years, calories have been in short supply for most of the people most of the time – there are still too many places where this is the case even today. Feast and famine were routine. In 27,000 BC it could be a very long stretch between bagging mammoths. The instinct to store up fat to carry us through hungry days was bred into us deeply. It remains bred into us, even though, for most First-Worlders, hungry days now are just an unpleasant choice.

We know that fat people are rare among modern hunter-gatherers – almost, if not quite, nonexistent. There is no reason to think it was different thousands of years ago. Yet, there are rather shocking statuettes from pre-agricultural times, such as the limestone Venus of Willendorf, which is about 26,000 years old.

This was not a one-off figurine. Others of similar proportions have turned up. It isn’t likely that this was a common look among real people, and perhaps that was the whole point. Archaeologists typically suggest “fertility symbols” when asked about the carvings. They probably are at least partly right in the interpretation, though the artists’ fantasies of being so well fed may have had more to do with the proportions than did caveman notions of female pulchritude. We’ll never really know.

Nowadays, “a lean and hungry look” is fashionable precisely because it is more difficult to achieve than the other kind. A “healthy appetite” is not a weakness but an inheritance. Scapegoating Ronald and his cohorts doesn’t help. Counting calories is a grim necessity, but, in truth, it beats the alternative.