Ugly animals and our obsession with Beauty

The first impression counts! Be it in a job interview, on a first date or just while meeting people in general, humans are quick to form an opinion, based on looks and fashion. Bad luck for ugly people?


Have you ever seen a naked mole rat?
Hairless, blind creatures with enormous front teeth. Certainly not the most pleasant sight. Ugly, disgusting, repulsive. The naked mole rat will certainly struggle to find love among humans. A similar fate beholds rats, naked cats, goblin sharks and blob fish. Also, all the “regular” cats and dogs and other animals deformed by fate of birth or accident, that struggle to find a new owner. And lastly, humans that drew the shorter stick (often quite literally) in the big lottery of genetics. Looking sub-par, judged by societies ridiculous standards, can have various downsides be it in romantic endeavours, getting through the social battleground of school or even vying to get a job that requires some sort of, as it is called, “presentability”.

Where does this obsession with aesthetics and beauty come from?
Now, intuitively it might seem that it is all natural, part of our evolutionary programming, telling us to fancy someone who looks strong and healthy or who has a different set of genes to ours. But this seems to not quite fit the reality of people relating to each other. Beauty standards vary quite considerably across time and cultures indicating that to some extent it has to be a social construction. Also, “ugly” people might often struggle initially with people being shy to get to know them, but once they are able to show their personality the image (quite literally) changes.

A useful concept to look at here, is primary and secondary attraction. While it refers mostly to sexual attraction it can be used analogous for how we react to other people in general.

animal-bed-breed-991831Primary attraction refers to outer features, looks, clothes and possibly displays of money, strength etc. For most people this is what initially attracts them in another person, and their first guide in forming an opinion. As the old saying goes, the first impression counts. Humans are quick to judge and slow to change their opinions. This is where secondary attraction comes into play. It refers to everything about a person that is not obvious from the outside. Their personality, thoughts, likes and dislikes, dreams, ideas and values. It is, at least to some extent, what makes people stay with a person, be it as friends or in a relationship. And it can change the perception of primary attraction. When we are impassioned for someone, they suddenly appear much more lovely and beautiful to us than to others, and all the superficial differences disappear into thin air.

This perception of others by primary and secondary attraction appears to be true for most people, but of course there is some variety. Some people are mostly attracted to secondary features and only desire someone if they have a deep emotional bond with them (for more information on that research: demisexual). However, this is not only about sexual attraction, it can also apply to whether we find someone to be nice, trustworthy, relatable etc.

But we can only let secondary attraction do its thing when we give room for it. If we already like someone’s primary features, it’s easy. We get to know them and discover whether they are an idiot or not. But what if we are repelled by someone’s physical features? Why don’t we give people a chance that appear unusual to us.

One aspect seems to be the fear of the unknown. In my personal experience I was always a bit insecure, when I met someone for the first time who looks a bit different. Be it someone who is differently abled, with a different cultural background or someone who looks different. The first thing I saw was the difference, and that made me insecure whether I can act with them the same way I can with the type of people I was used to before.

Of course I can, most of the time. And after breaking the ice and getting to know each other, the difference vanishes and I don’t notice their skin colour or their wheelchair or any other feature any more. In a slightly other way this can also happen to people who are considered extremely beautiful, they may receive a lot of attention, but only for their physical appearance, while they might rather be seen and praised for their mathematical or language skills or for their drawings or their juggling.

This reduction to outside looks often forces people who are looked at as different, to break said ice, to approach people. Sometimes that can become a little exhausting. So I encourage everyone to try and get over the initial insecurity and engage with people of all kinds. Try to rephrase your idea of ugly as just being different. Look at your feelings of insecurity and maybe even disgust, tell yourself that that is based on superficial impressions only, set them aside and get to know the other person.

Get behind the mask of beauty or ugliness and uncover the hidden beauty of a person (given there’s one to discover).

And just as much as with humans, think about the hidden beauty of a mole rat.

Mathis Gilsbach

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