Introduction to the Siren Paradox

Beyonce Knowles has already become a star for the ages. She’s the most popular solo female artist of this decade, a member of the most successful female group of all-time, the wife of rap mogul Jay-Z, and is probably considered one of the most beautiful women alive. Like any such star, she is not without her critics. In this post, I will discuss what I call “the siren paradox,” which is the simultaneous societal appreciation of an ideal and the revulsion at its consequences and costs.

The term “siren paradox” alludes first to those mythical creatures encountered by Ulysses who had top halves of women and bottom halves of birds. Although it doesn’t sound entirely appetizing today, the term “siren” retains its essence: a beautiful and unavoidable, yet dangerous woman. Beyonce Knowles can be considered thus in light of her relationship with society. We perceive her radiant beauty and value it as an ideal deserving of female aspiration. But the consequences of the aspirations engendered from these perceptions may be minimized, though they are many. Generally speaking, in order for any random woman to become more like Beyonce on a superficial level (that which is mostly perceived), she must buy certain hair care products, make-up, possibly hair extensions, fake eye lashes, and fake boobs, to say nothing of short sexy dresses and four inch platform heels. No, the image of Beyonce is not a cheap one to produce, even though she is naturally endowed with extraordinary beauty.

Klein vs. Postrel

Indeed, some, like Naomi Klein, believe that the consumer culture of the West uses Beyonce for its ruthless ends: profits. That is, they hire a respected, beautiful person like Beyonce and imply that if you buy their products you can be more like her. And isn’t that what you want? The underlying thesis is that without advertisements constantly telling you that you need this hair product and that eyeliner to really be beautiful, you would be healthier, wealthier, and happier. Unfortunately for the persons who believe this, they are only looking at a very narrow part of the picture, with almost no basis in real cause and effect. As Virginia Postrel shows in her excellent book The Substance of Style, absent advertisements, the freed women and men of Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 quickly learned to appreciate beard shaving, haircuts, less strict clothing, and beauty products. In Iran, Tehran was and remains a haven for skirts and lipstick. The best argument Postrel wields is her discussion of the marginal. In absolute terms, yes, certain people might be better off pursuing needs according to Maslow’s hierarchy. But consumers face decisions on the margin, and if someone in Afghanistan has the equivalent of $3 USD to spend, they’re well fed for the time being, the possibility of being able to get security with the $3 USD is very low, the possibility of getting insurance for this season’s crop is even lower, then that $3 USD might be better spent according to the consumer on a deeply personally satisfying beauty product.

True, at this point, we have not entirely refuted Klein. The beauty products still likely have some prestige qualities attached to them that stems from their use in the West. Even the uneducated of modern Kabul or especially Tehran are not strangers to the idea of our customs. The evidence goes deeper, though: every society has some standards of beauty as well as accoutrements that facilitate transmission of certain qualities of beauty. Whether it is some primitive type of piercing through the ear, some tattoo, a particular garment, or even a dance, there is always some thing whose purpose is to signify or augment beauty. Furthermore, beauty goes beyond even social constructions, for it is biologically rooted in us as we search for mates. It has been often claimed that we prize symmetrical faces, certain hip sizes, and other physical qualities. It should come as no surprise that many of the instruments used to improve beauty as seen in the eye of most beholders cater to those biological tastes in some way.

At this point, we can proudly proclaim that Klein’s main points have been vanquished. Beauty is an inextricable part of the human equation, and a big part of our relationship to it, for most of us, is appreciating it in the physical qualities of other human beings. Now just because something is an instinct doesn’t mean that it cannot be fought if necessary. It has been said, though it has also been recently challenged, that we humans are savages with the blood of a million years on our hands, but that we have a choice to kill and all we have to do is choose not to kill today. The same could be said about using beauty products. There’s just one little problem. Killing imposes costs on others without their choice. When someone chooses to use beauty products, that person imposes no cost on others without their choice. And the women and men who do choose to do so are not all brainwashed. They value improving their appearance by society’s standards. Absent any form of advertising, humans still have perception and will always distinguish differing degrees of beauty. We can no sooner stop doing so than we can tear a limb off our body.

Markets in Beauty

When you see someone look at a stranger from head to toe, or for a very long time, there is a significant chance that person is determining that stranger’s “price.” Assessing the stranger’s physical qualities is an excellent, though not perfect, method for determining the price. Other factors include personality, compatibility, and to some degree an independent evaluation of wealth, but the physical qualities are an easy threshold measure and proxy for overall price. What do I mean by this? A woman analyzing a man’s body, size, weight, height, hair, eyes, shirt, shoes, muscles, and posture will be able to determine the mating market demand for that man to a fairly close degree. When that woman then proceeds to analyze the girlfriend of that man, she can determine all kinds of useful information. For example, does the girlfriend represent an “underbid?” If so, the woman’s qualities might enable her to bid higher for his services. Looking at a lot of other price signals helps determine the demand for yourself, too.

When used in taste generally accepted by large portions of the market, beauty products raise one’s price signals. One’s use of these products, whether it’s more expensive dress shirts (signaling precisely nothing to Klein, but everything to many others), cologne/perfume, nice shoes, or earrings, may be revealing about both underlying asset value and internal motivations. But there’s nothing sinister in the process, for we would not possibly begrudge someone wanting to trade up in a market that has been biologically determined to be important for us. ( On a side note: websites like eharmony and reduce our search costs, making it easier for us to match based on interests as well as threshold physical qualities. It may even reduce relationship costs! )

There’s actually some rather significant evidence that we have these markets. The first important thing to understand is that markets can exist absent a formal currency issued by a bank or government. All you need to be able to do is trade one thing for another. Currencies are only useful for quantifying to a more precise level the demand for something. The subject of markets in beauty has been a popular topic lately in some corners of the economics blogosphere, notably Marginal Revolution and one of my must-reads, The Perfect Substitute. In “Theories of Beautiful Women,” Indiana University professor Justin Ross argues that there is an inverse relationship between economic freedom and success at the Miss Universe pageant, meaning that the less free a country is, all things being equal, the better it generally performs in the pageant. A quick and dirty econometric model by Ross and Auburn’s Bob Lawson shows that this inverse relationship likely exists, though it lacks significance at the ten percent confidence level, indicating a weak finding.

Much more interesting, with much more direct impact on the thesis here, is the relationship between male-to-female sex ratio and “sociosexuality.” According to GMU economist Alex Tabarrok:

Sociosexuality is a concept in social psychology that refers to how favorable people are to sex outside of commitment. It can be measured by answers to questions such as “I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying “casual” sex with different partners” (agree strongly to disagree strongly) or “Sex without love is ok,” as well as with objective measures such as the number of sexual partners a person has had. A low score indicates subjects who favor monogamous, long-term, high-investment relationships. [...] Why might female sociosexuality scores vary? One hypothesis is that in cultures with low operational sex ratios (the number of marriageable men/number of marriageable women) female sociosexuality will be higher. The argument is that when the relative supply of males is low, competition for mates encourages females to shift towards the male ideal, i.e. when supply is scarce the demanders must pay more. (Note that this theory can also explain trends over time, e.g. Pedersen 1991).

Enter Brian Schmitt, whose “Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating” in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2005) tests this hypothesis. You can see that the relationship between a country’s sex ratio and “sociosexuality” is fairly robust:

As you can see in the chart, countries with many more females to males, such as the eastern European countries, have a much higher sociosexuality. Physical beauty matters primarily as a biological imperative, secondarily as a social imperative, and finally as a personal one. Competition and attempts to improve one’s signaling have always been present, suggesting that those who use beauty products are just as natural and authentic as those who choose not to use them. Society merely abhors excess: when one uses too much, it is indicative of an attempt to mask very weak intrinsic value. This is not the worry with Beyonce Knowles.

The Market for Beyonce

Although she can hardly be criticized for the power of her voice, or her talent, virtually anything used to excess will challenge good taste. Accordingly, she is occasionally accused of “oversinging.” She is also accused of being fake. One friend of mine laments that we have never even see her real hair. I have already addressed the “authenticity” argument. As to the content of her singing, and the authenticity there, that is for another post.

It seems to me possible that Beyonce, and some other women with a similar skin tone, be they black, white, Indian, mixes, or what have you, were simply blessed as a matter of phenotype to have physical attributes so close to her society’s ideal. There are large markets for a firm that is able to design a product catering to the so-called “least common denominator.” One can make more money from that market than by catering to small, niche markets in the absence of many substitutes. Beyonce has a skin color that may represent a composite of all U.S. skin colors averaged. As such, it is a color desired by most communities in the United States. Whites typically prefer to be darker. Blacks typically prefer to be lighter. Her body has a definite American sensibility to it: not too slight, not too large, but in many other countries she might be considered a little big in the hips. Not in the United States. The rest of the enhancements simply cater to cross-cultural biological tastes: redder lips, longer hair, higher heels, shorter skirts, suggestive dances (see: “Sweet Dreams” video at 1:30, 3:18) longer eyelashes all serve to distinguish from others while alluding to various instinctive preferences in mates thereby increasing their price. The intrinsic Beyonce is what pushes her to the top, even though she remains assiduous in maintaining all facets of her image.

Fighting against the beauty of Beyonce is akin to banning certain financial assets or derivatives. If someone wants to hedge against credit risk by purchasing credit default swaps, they should be able to, and such swaps have proved indispensable for many responsible institutions. If someone wants to dress or look more like Beyonce thereby increasing their price in social markets, not only including mating markets, they should be able to do that as well. Although it costs those persons income to do so, it is a decision that they find personally satisfying and brings them happiness. To do otherwise would cost them more in terms of anxiety, possibly lost opportunities, and certainly happiness. This is not to say that those who don’t use them suffer from those negative aspects — it is all a matter of personal preference and choice. Indeed, natural self-confidence, charisma, or legendary deeds often may account for much more, overwhelming benefits even brought by make-up.

Perhaps there is more to the siren paradox here than meets the eye. Like the mythical sirens of The Odyssey, Beyonce has a certain mystery about her. Her image was as carefully crafted as it has been maintained. Her privacy has been inviolable, even after marriage to fellow superstar Jay-Z. Sirens were not friendly to sailors, for the sailors were lured into their death by the sirens’ song. Of course, we never found out just what Ulysses heard as he was tied to the mast, that is, until Margaret Atwood revealed it in “Siren song“:

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who had heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Possibly some women because of Beyonce, and some men because of male models, fall into this trap like the sailors did for the sirens. Led on by promises of better lives and better mates, they fatefully discover that all was for naught. The antidote to the siren paradox, unlike the siren song, is not restricting one’s free will. It’s prudent execution and healthy moderation.