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Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty [Paperback]

Nancy Etcoff
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 11 2000
In this provocative, witty, and thoroughly researched inquiry into what we find beautiful and why, Nancy Etcoff skewers one of our culture's most enduring myths, that the pursuit of beauty is a learned behavior. Etcoff, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and a practicing psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, skewers the enduring myth that the pursuit of beauty is a learned behavior.

Etcoff puts forth that beauty is neither a cultural construction, an invention of the fashion industry, nor a backlash against feminism, but instead is in our biology. It's an essential and ineradicable part of human nature that is revered and ferociously pursued in nearly every civilizatoin--and for good reason. Those features to which we are most attracted are often signals of fertility and fecundity. When seen in the context of a Darwinian struggle for survival, our sometimes extreme attempts to attain beauty--both to become beautiful ourselves and to acquire an attractive partner--become understandable. Moreover, if we come to understand how the desire for beauty is innate, then we can begin to work in our interests, and not soley for the interests of our genetic tendencies.

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Product Description

From Amazon

In the latter part of the 20th century, the adage "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" has evolved far beyond its original intent as an admonition against false vanity to become a cultural manifesto used to explain phenomena as diverse as the art of Andy Warhol and the rise of a multi-billion-dollar cosmetics industry. But is there something more to human reaction to beauty than a conditioned response to social cues? Yes, says Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff. Survival of the Prettiest argues persuasively that looking good has survival value, and that sensitivity to beauty is a biological adaptation governed by brain circuits shaped by natural selection.

Etcoff synthesizes a fascinating array of scientific research and cultural analysis in support of her thesis. Psychologists find that babies stare significantly longer at the faces adults find appealing, while the mothers of "attractive" babies display more intense bonding behaviors. The symmetrical face of average proportions may have become the optimal design because of evolutionary pressures operating against population extremes. Gentlemen may prefer blondes not so much for their hair color as for the fairness of their skin--which makes it easier to detect the flush of sexual excitement. And high heels accentuate a woman's breasts and buttocks, signaling fertility. Is beauty programmed into our brain circuits as a proxy for health and youth? In marked contrast to other writers like Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth), Etcoff argues that it is, noting, "Rather than denigrate one source of women's power, it would seem far more useful for feminists to attempt to elevate all sources of women's power." --Patrizia DiLucchio --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In riveting style, Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, demolishes the belief that beauty is a cultural construct, arguing instead "that beauty is a universal part of human experience, and that it provokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes." By drawing widely from anthropological, psychological, biological and archeological literature, Etcoff discerns surprising similarities in the ways humans have perceived and responded to beauty across diverse cultures throughout the millennia. For example, cross-cultural research comparing two isolated Indian tribes in Venezuela and Paraguay to people in three Western cultures demonstrated a remarkable similarity in what is considered beautiful. And evidence that red pigments were used as lipstick as long ago as 5000 B.C. suggests that media images are not the sole reason that "in the United States more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services." The most important message in this book is that we cannot ignore our evolutionary past when attempting to understand our current behavior, even as we should recognize that we need not be slaves to our genes. Topics as wide-ranging as penis- or breast-enlargement surgery and the basics of haute couture are treated with wit and insight. Etcoff's arguments are certain to initiate a great deal of discussion. Photos and illustrations. Author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting although not necessarily original. Dec 4 2002
After reading "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf and writing for that book a nasty review I felt relieved by reading Nancy Etcoff's "Survival of The Prettiest". My original outrage in reading Wolf's book and my reaction to Etcoff's book weren't fortuitous as the following excerpt from "Survival of the Prettiest" shows:
"The idea that beauty is unimportant or a cultural construct is the real beauty myth. We have to understand beauty, or we will always be enslaved by it."
"Survival of the Prettiest" is not necessarily an original book. Most of what's on the book was previously published on Desmond Morris' "The Naked Ape" and "Intimate Behavior" and Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", among others. Etcoff's most original contribution is to put the more hardcore scientific views in a cultural context by extensively referencing from Plato to "Sleepless in Seattle".
The book is short (maybe too short) and to the point. It includes the biological context of beauty with the idea of sexually selected handicaps such as the peacock's tail or the deer antlers (explained in much more detail in Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene"); the historical context of beauty from the Greek and Renaissance canons to high fashion; extremely short sections on the beauty of the human voice and the attractiveness of smells; and results from several studies showing how beauty is perceived and rewarded in our society.
It's a very well written book by an author with exceptional credentials. Male and female attractiveness is discussed though with more emphasis on female beauty. I wish the small sub-sections on human voice and smell were entire chapters. There's even a short and funny dustjacket praise by no one less than Cindy Crawford herself!!
It's worthwhile reading it but if you want a more comprehensive study you'll have to check the originals such as the ones mentioned above.
Leonardo Alves - Houghton, Michigan - December 2002
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5.0 out of 5 stars Pretty Good (pun intended) July 2 2004
By A Customer
A readable book on one of those things that is constant in our lives. I can testify to the "attractive people are given more personal space" phenomenon Etcoff points out. I was staying in New York for a couple weeks. For the first week I was enjoying seeing all the beautiful women in the city, of which New York has plenty since it's both a fashion and entertainment capitol. And then I was taking the elevator down from my room in the Waldorf Towers, a middle floor of which holds an exercise room guests can use, as well as local residents who pay a monthly fee. The elevator was fairly crowded, and then stopped at the exercise-room floor. On to the elevator stepped an absolutely stunningly beautiful girl. One of those so beautiful you forget how beautiful a beautiful girl can be. She had a gym bag and her hair was loose. She set her gym bag on the floor and bent over to bind her hair. The thing is everyone OVERTLY moved back to give her room, struck by her beauty, and she didn't have to signal "please give me space while I bend over" as most other people would require. Everyone just automatically stepped back, deferring to her beauty, and she automatically EXPECTED everyone to move back. She didn't even think about it, nor was haughty at all. She was just so used to being given instant "status" in any situation, she wasn't even conscious of it. In that small moment, I realized how powerful beauty can be.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting collection of studies. Jan. 26 2004
By A Customer
Coming from a background in psychology, I found the results of many of the studies Ms. Etcoff references to be very interesting and for the most part, ringing true with my own personal experiences. Yes, it is DOES matter and we are all swayed by it in some form or another. That being said, two things about this book really annoyed me. First, Ms. Etcoff really needs to double check some of her facts. Especially near the last few chapters where she begins to talk about the body measurements of supermodels and actresses! Performing a quick search on the internet does not yield the measurements she often cites for this elite cadre of women. In fact, many of the *famous* supermodels and actresses had (or have) hip measurements falling between the 34 and 36 (heck, Marilyn Monroe alone varied within and above these measurements during her time) inch mark. Sorry, but depending on her bone structure and muscular tone, a 5'7" woman with measurements in this range is hardly what I would consider as food deprived. It is not as rare and unachievable as Ms. Etcoff would have us believe - provided you can remember a time without *supersizing* any food group, double cheese pizza, and all those chocolates... And, please...the measurements for Audrey Hepburn ....I have several books on this woman's life...never have I seen measurements so tiny attributed to Ms. Hepburn (excepting her infamous 19 inch waist). My point is that this really lends doubt to how Ms. Etcoff has *interpreted* the other studies she cites in this book. Secondly, Ms. Etcoff points out all these interesting studies in her book and attempts to explain the reasons for these results as being a remnant trait built into the fabric of our existence - for breeding purposes, survival of the fittest, etc... Read more ›
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5.0 out of 5 stars Readable, exciting, persuasive Sept. 20 2002
The Survival of the Prettiest is an eminently readable, wisdom-filled, witty and very well-documented report on the human concept and experience of beauty and its utility, especially human beauty, or the perceived lack thereof. It is an example of a way of looking at ourselves that is becoming increasingly of value, both in terms of the insights it affords, and in the way it frees us from the muddled delusions of the past. This point of view is from the fledgling science of evolutionary psychology of which Professor Etcoff is a very persuasive spokesperson and practitioner.
"Pretty is as pretty does" and "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (Keats) are two widely differing attitudes toward beauty, but each in its way contains an essence of truth. However, rather than bring these or other presuppositions to what Etcoff has to say (as some readers have), I suggest we actually read what she has to say, and then draw our conclusions. What I predict will happen is that even the most ardent beauty-phobe will find something of value and enlightenment here.
Unfortunately (and understandably) not all readers have been able to approach the subject with an open mind. I noticed that an anonymous "reader" brought anorexia and bulimia into the discussion and blamed the rise in their instance on "media images" of beauty. No doubt media images are partly to blame (if indeed these disorders have become more prevalent). But it is more likely that the apparent rise in anorexia and bulimia is the result of the fact that the counseling professions now recognize that these eating disorders exist. In the past the symptoms had no commonly agreed upon locus such as "anorexia" or "bulimia" to adhere to, so we really do not know how prevalent they were.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Really Interesting Read
I am really enjoying this book. I am taking it in small doses every now and then and pausing to see what I agree or disagree with but am thoroughly enjoying the analysis. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Seema
3.0 out of 5 stars Nothing really new and exciting.
Not very cutting-edge, as the author likes to claim. Try Mean Genes instead; it's a lot more readable and less full of air.
Published on Aug. 4 2008 by R
5.0 out of 5 stars BUY IT!
I checked it out from the library, read it, and decided it belonged on my bookshelf. *If this topic interests you, this book is a must-have.* Dr. Read more
Published on June 18 2004 by Alesia
4.0 out of 5 stars more intriguing evolutionary psychology fare
"Survival of the Prettiest", to me was yet more fascinating evolutionary psychology fare. I just love this stuff. Don't be turned off by the introduction. Read more
Published on Feb. 15 2004 by Margaret Armstrong
4.0 out of 5 stars Do not listen to overly negative reviews
If you are open minded and are more interested in the truth than a idealogical\politcal agenda, then this book will provide very invaluable insights. Read more
Published on Nov. 29 2003 by Jaewoo Kim
5.0 out of 5 stars ugly people are mulitplying exponentially as you read this
An entertaining conjecture in this informative book is formed when the notion that beautiful couples beget further generations of beauties, is followed by the statistic that an... Read more
Published on Sept. 22 2003 by F. Ng
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, diverse, informative
"Survival of the Prettiest" collects together hundreds of points of research on beauty, linking them into a cohesive, well-written whole. Read more
Published on Aug. 4 2003 by Richard Soderberg
1.0 out of 5 stars history repeats
the "objective" beauty posited by this author rearticulates the kitsch aesthetic of the nazi's aryan ideal. Read more
Published on July 3 2003 by girlsix
2.0 out of 5 stars Meh....
Firstly, Dr. Etcoff opens her book with a reference to Naomi Wolf; however, her interpretation of The Beauty Myth is deeply flawed, as is much of the book. Read more
Published on May 8 2003 by "southernsnowe"
1.0 out of 5 stars If I could give it 0, I would.
Let me sum it up for you. Women are objects. Women should be insecure. Women should buy all the garbage the author's magazine(Cosmo) advertises. Read more
Published on May 6 2003
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