Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty is an non-fiction novel written by Dr. Nancy Etcoff. Etcoff is a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and a practicing psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. This book was published in 2000 and is her first and only published book. This book has been presented as a response to Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth.
Etcoff presents a simple yet compelling thesis: appreciating beauty is not learned, but rather is a biological adaptation. It debunks the myth that beauty is a learned social construct and presents the idea that beauty is part of our biology. ”To tell people not to take pleasure in beauty is like telling them to stop enjoying food or sex or novelty or love.” The book is broken down into eight chapters ranging in topics from the history of fashion and clothing to examining the evolutionary preferences of beauty. The effect beauty and physical appearance has on men is discussed alongside how beauty influences women. Across cultures men have been attracted to similar traits in women: long luscious hair, delicate bone structure, big eyes, plump lips, large waist and narrow hips. This is because all of these traits biologically signal youth and fertility. Women on the other hand are attracted to different traits such as large muscles, broad shoulders and square jaws. These traits are desirable because they signal high testosterone and the capability to protect and feed a family.
Many of the statistics and ideas Etcoff uses are old news. We know that women like taller men and men like luscious hair. In this book Etcoff brings them all together as a great resource, as well as including many new facts and observations, to beautifully support her thesis. She shows us the effects of beauty in the workplace and how it can be a hindrance or a helper depending on the situation. We are encouraged to embrace our beauty and be aware of the effect it has on us. Once we accept the reality that beauty does play a crucial biological role in reproduction and desire we are better armed to deal with its affects. This book is a great resource for a feminist as a biological perspective on beauty. Read alongside The Beauty Myth our awareness of beauty comes full circle by seeing beauty through societal, historical, cultural,v psychological and biological lenses.