Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Beauty and the Depths of Skin

{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 5.1MB; 7.5min} One very much like this picture above forms my initial, nacent childhood memory of something called "science." I probably saw it in an encyclopedia somewhere along the line. It's a deeply ingrained mental image. I really must take a moment to contemplate what this image means to me now that I have put away childish things.

Skin is more than just a coating, of course. In college, my girlfiend -- now my wife, thank you -- wrote a paper which purported to show that people with natural physical charisma are, on average, healthier, wealthier, and happier than those otherwise lacking that attribute. Common sense would dictate this be so, but the impact of my life-love's paper was in reviewing studies which showed just how much influence physical charisma commands. I'd like to give some commentary that goes from remote parts skin-deep, and then upwards.

Fatty tissue

Obesity is a worrisome epidemic, since the national healthcare system and associated industries (as in medical insurance) must devote an increasing amount of labor and money in managing the problem. And it is a b-i-g problem, for 65% of the US citenzenry falls in the "overweight" or "obese" category. Adipose tissue, the technical name for "fat," is a collection of special cells. There are two types of fat, white fat and brown fat, because there are two types of fat cells. And the fat cells that we have are there from birth, becoming fully formed at puberity.

The reason we get fatter is because these cells get loaded up with more volume. It is not strictly a matter of will-power (or character flaw) that we are fatter/thinner.

"Many people think your brain controls your fat," said Gokhan S. Hotamisligil, a professor of genetics and metabolism at the Harvard School of Public Health. "We promote the idea that your fat controls your brain."[1]

Fat, it turns out, does not sit around functioning like an extra gas tank:

"fat cells continuously dispatch dozens of potent chemical signals to myriad tissues throughout the body, including the brain, liver, muscles, reproductive organs and immune system, orchestrating a host of activities."[2]

Psychologists since Freud have worried just how much our will is in control, since there are thought processes in our brains which influence us without our being consciously aware of them. But now we have to worry whether our very fat is messing with our minds. (Fortunately, this does open up a host of new excuses for failing in one's dieting ventures.)

Sweat Glands

It turns out that there are two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. The eccrine variety are the kind you see explicitly shown in the diagram above; they are located deeply in the dermis and with a coiled, secretory gland at the base. We have well over two million excretory ducts that wind upwards onto the surface of our skin. Eccrine glands are mostly under thermal control, though some (on arm pits, palms, soles, and forehead) can be activated by intense psychological conditions, as poker players know all too well. The apocrine variety are larger and open into hair follicles, being a remnant of the mammalian sexual scent gland. Fortunately for the anti-persperant industry, our skin's bacteria acts upon the apocrine sweat after just a short while, and causes the otherwise oderless substance to make your date gag, unless or course you've donned the appropriate chemical armor.[3]

I have friends who are vietnamese, and during heavy physical activity there is a clear difference between us: sweat. I sweat buckets; they sweat -- and I really mean this -- not at all. Many asians of northeastern descent are within a cold-climate gene pool. It turns out that most will also have dry earwax (as opposed to wet ear wax, common to most Europeans). Sadly for me, as a group of Japaneese researchers report, "earwax type and armpit odor are correlated, since populations with dry earwax, such as those of East Asia, tend to sweat less and have little or no body odor, while the wet earwax populations of Africa and Europe sweat more and so may have more body odor." These researchers also suspect that some asians' lack of sweating is yet another adaptation to the cold in which the ancestors of these East Asian peoples are thought to have lived.[4]


Hair follicles are just old cells packed together. As more pack together, hair grows. Surrounding the follicle are sebaceous glands, a tiny oil- (i.e. fat) producing gland. The more sebaceous glands you have, the thicker your hair. Hair is tough stuff. Once I saw two of the allegedly meanest girls in High School get into a fight, and they the hair-pulling torque they put on each other's head was spectacular to behold. Of course the theoretical limits are even stranger: "Hair is incredibly strong. Each hair can withstand the strain of 100 grams, meaning that an average head of 120,000 hairs could cope with 12 tons, if the scalp were strong enough!"[5]

The Beauty of Epidermis

Sometimes it is said that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." The optimistic interpretation of this standby proverb is that there is no standard for beauty, and that beauty is assessed by subjective convention, even personal quirk. However, a more pessimistic assessment is that people recognize beauty when they see it, and what they see is objectively describable. German investigators, Braun, Gruendl, Marberger, & Scherber, did a study on facial evaluation (using both actual and virtual faces) along 20 different observer-imparted personality traits. Here is what they found:

"The results are alarmingly clear. We found an enormously influencing attractiveness-stereotype: The more attractive the presented faces were, the more successful, content, friendly, intelligent, socialble, accessible, exciting, creative and busy the persons were estimated. The opposite applies to unattractive faces: The more unattractive the faces were the more negative characteristics were attributed to the person.... It remains that beautiful people have an enormous advantage. Especially in situations where a good first impression is decisive, beautiful people benefit from their attractivity. And this is just because we are trapped by the simple false conclusion: 'what is beautiful is also good.'"[6]
In this world, there are difficult times in life, and being judged "not beautiful" is perhaps tolerable. But to be judged "ugly" or even "hideous" can move one's life status from beyond difficult into being truly dreadful. Imagine trying to find a meaningful life when you are trapped in a truly hideous shell.[7] The piles upon piles of flesh -- indeed literally the depths of skin in such cases -- remind us why physical beauty is so highly valued in all societies: skin is more than just a coating, of course.


[1] Rob Stein "Decoding the Surprisingly Active Life Of Fat Cells" The Washington Post (Monday, July 12, 2004)

[2] Ibid.

[3] [ "Sweat Glands" Molson Medical Informatics (Accessed 9/30/2006)

[4] Nicholas Wade "Scientists Find Gene That Controls Type of Earwax in People" NY Times January 30, 2006.

[5] "Keratine: Superb Chemestry of the Hair" LoReal: (Accessed 9/30/2006)

[6] Braun, C., Gruendl, M., Marberger, C. & Scherber, C. "Beautycheck - Social Perception" (Accessed 10/17/2006)

[7] "Elephant Man" to receive surgery" (Accessed 10/17/2006)



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