#3: Some Thoughts on Beauty

One of my partners and I used to have season passes to Busch Gardens, an amusement-park-cum-animal-exhibit in Florida. On weekends, we would 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.

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 movies, you start to notice something. Most animated features have characters that aren't photorealistic by any stretch of the imagination. Many animated characters tend to be completey disproportionate to real human beings--larger eyes, smaller mouths, longer torsos, 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."

If you watch animated movies that are been rendered in 3D and strive 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 with the "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.)

There's a name for this phenomenon. It's called the Uncanny Valley--that point at which animated characters look realistic enough to be disturbing, but not realistic enough to look natural.

On an online forum I read, I was once engaged in a conversation about how significant a person's physical appearance is to a relationship. There seem to be two basic camps. The first is 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 I digress). The second goes more like "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 hyenas are to some extent, I think, judging the hyenas 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. hyenas 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.