Unhappy about your looks? You should be

Jamie Whyte
IVIAN Sarcos from Venezuela was crowned Miss World on Saturday. Outside the event, protesters waved placards condemning the event. “Look... what society expects from young women,” protester Jo Robinson beseeched a journalist. “There is terrible pressure put on them to look a certain way. I wear make-up, I want to look nice, but to go to such an extent as to have operations performed on yourself?”

Nor is it only young women who are apparently tormented by society’s twisted values. A 2006 study conducted by Tracy Tylka of Ohio State University revealed that, on a scale from “never” to “always”, American undergraduates “often” or “usually” think of themselves as insufficiently muscular. According to Tylka, “Men see these idealised, muscular men and feel their own bodies do not measure up . . . Instead of pressuring men to be more muscular we need to accept men’s bodies for what they are and instead focus on internal characteristics.”

This analysis is familiar but absurd. The dissatisfaction people feel about their looks is not a consequence of twisted values, and it cannot be cured by reforming society. It is a simple consequence of scarcity.

Consider another common disappointment. Why don’t you live in a mansion bordering on Hampstead Heath? Some will say it is the exorbitant price of such homes that explains this disappointing fact. They are mistaken.

Suppose a law set the price of London mansions at zero. You still wouldn’t live in one, because reducing the price of something does not increase the quantity of it. If they were made free, there would still be only a handful of London mansions and millions of Brits wanting to live in one. Why suppose that you would be at the front of the queue for mansions?

That most people do not live in mansions, or more generally do not have everything they would like, is not a consequence of “the system” but of scarcity. Since reality will always contain less than the sum of what everyone would like to have, disappointment is unavoidable. The serious question is how scarce resources should be allocated.

Return to the bodily dissatisfaction suffered by so many. Why do they want bigger muscles, smoother skin and so on? It is because beauty is one of the bases on which certain desirable scarce resources are allocated. Among other things, more beauty will improve your job prospects, increase the quantity or quality of your sex partners and, ultimately, attract a more desirable spouse.

Suppose society instead followed Tylka’s advice and focused on “internal qualities”. That would not solve the underlying problem of scarcity. It would not increase the number of attractive sex partners, desirable spouses or good jobs. So it would not change the number of people who are disappointed. It would merely shift their feelings of inadequacy – perhaps from their physiques to their intelligence. Pretty soon do-gooders would be complaining about the suffering caused by society’s unhealthy obsession with brains.

Scarcity and disappointment are unavoidable facts of life. And so is our obsession with physical appearance. Which makes those who complain about it not merely foolish but alarming. How do they plan to stop me finding beautiful women attractive? I cross my legs and hope they never get their hands on the levers of power.

Jamie Whyte is a senior fellow of the Cobden Centre and author of Crimes Against Logic (McGraw Hill 2004).