There was once a man who got attacked by a lion and a leopard on two separate occasions. Who ís, actually, the man is still alive. He’s sitting with me around a campfire right this moment, explaining the different killing strategies of the two big cats by showing me the scars on his body. “See, Laura, what a lion does is hang onto a limp and not let go, to eventually suffocate you or crush your spine.” Yikes. “The leopard, on the hand, rips off pieces of your flesh, by turning it in small circles.” Jeepers... “This leopard even tore the skin of my forehead, blocking my eyes, which is why I didn’t know where to shoot.” If it wasn’t for the darkness of the African bush surrounding us, he could’ve seen my eyes widening and skin slowly turning pale. “So Gerrie, why is it that you keep being attacked by all these predators?” “It’s human-wildlife conflict Laura. Sometimes you gotta protect the people from the predators and the predators from the people. So I’m on the frontline to catch these animals and move them to a safer place.”

“You know”, Gerrie continues, “it’s better to just give these animals some space and let them move away naturally. Drag some guts down a trail, lure them out you know?” “Some whats?” “Some antelope guts.” I can feel my mouth dry out. “Oh yeah, I mean, I know.” He carries on talking about the time a decomposing zebra stomach exploded all over his shirt, and about a student who accidently stepped in a bucket full of wildebeest guts during one of his night counts. “We can count some hyenas tomorrow night if you like?” he asks. “Yeah, sure,” I reply, while struggling to swallow. The next day I help him carry half an impala on the back of his truck. It’s like a whole impala, but then cut in half. Apparently hyenas go wild over it if you hang one up in a tree. After about two hours of counting, Gerrie suddenly opens the door of his of car and gets out. “No Gerrie, no!” I shout. “Relax Laura, it’s fine. Hyenas hardly ever attack. I’m just gonna pull the impala up a bit higher.” I hear bushes move in the darkness, either from Gerrie walking away from, or hyenas walking towards, the car. “Hardly ever, that’s good...”

As we drive back we get a call through the walkie talkie, with the request to pick up a guy on the way, in seemingly the middle of nowhere. Not much later, a big guy in khaki outfit gets in the car with us. “It’s been quite a day Gerrie. We dehorned three rhinos this morning,” the big guy says. “You did what?!” I stumble from the backseat. “Oh we do it all the time. Leave the poachers hanging, suits them right.” “H-how?” “Some tranquilizers and chainsaws, that’s all you need really,” he replies. I try to imagine a world in which another animal species, say red foxes, kill us just to get hold of our earlobes, for no sensible reason, and that gray foxes then notice that there’s hardly any humans left, because we only got two small earlobes each, whereas foxes can eat wáy more than that. And that the gray foxes then catch us, sedate us, and cut our earlobes off, to keep us safe from the red foxes, and sometimes even fight till death to protect us. “So how did your evening go?”, the guy asks. I snap out of my thoughts. “It was fine, we dragged some guts down a trail, you know,” I say nonchalantly. I don’t mention that I practically almost died when Gerrie opened the car door, just moments earlier.

Another time when I practically almost died was in Zimbabwe, when I joined a guy named Johnnie for a little trip. After about three hours of bouncing in his car on a bumpy road, one of his back wheels started making a metally sound. Johnnie pulled the break, hung out of his window, swore a bit, and concluded that we were stuck with a flat tire. After digging up his tools, he gazed at me: “Can you quickly hold the shot gun while I change the tire, there are lions everywhere.” “Lions? Everywhere?” I stuttered. “Just aim and pull the trigger if you have to alright?” he continued. Before I could answer, he shoved the gun in my hands and walked to the back of the car. “Alright. Well, good luck then Johnnie. Johnnie? Johnnie!” I see blood, funerals, and grieving mothers flash in front of my eyes. “Laura, I’m right here, just changing the tire remember?” It probably didn’t help that before our trip he was talking about a ranger that got chowed by lions. “I’m sure these lions would love a little Dutch treat Laura,” Johnnie said. That same evening I was lying horizontal in a tent, while listening to his stories. Apparently, hyenas once dragged a friend of his out of the tent, with sleeping bag and all. But he left the tent open, he reasoned, that was the problem. “They hardly ever break through a tent’s zipper, so we should be fine.” It was about 30 degrees in the tent, but I quietly zipped my sleeping bag all the way up to my chin. “Should be fine, that’s a relief...”

So what these men, and women just the same, are actually doing is better understand the animals they love and desperately want to keep around for future generations to enjoy. Because who can really imagine a world without wild animals, and the possibility of leopards and hyenas creeping up on us? Some people don’t want to imagine, which is why they dedicate their lives to avoid it ever having to come that far. “You know Laura”, Gerrie says, “I just want to share the joys of nature with people. Have them experience what I get to experience.” I smile in full appreciation. “Let me get a bit more braai bread while the fire is still hot,” he continues. I lean back in my camping chair, until I hear plates shattering on the kitchen floor. “No worries Laura, it was just a snake. Just a mamba of some sort.” “Holy shit Gerrie, are you okay?” “Sure thing, snakes are hardly a problem. They seldom bite. I only had it a couple of times.” Holy shit. “You know Laura, I once had this friend of mine who had a cobra spit in his face, and he blew up like a balloon. He looked awful I tell ya, like my neighbour when he got attacked by a swarm of giant savannah wasps.” I can feel my pupils dilate. “Gerrie, can we just enjoy the sound of bush crickets for a moment?” “Sure Laura, not a problem. Let me quickly get some more fire wood.” As the fire light dims and sound of crickets intensifies, he walks off into the darkness. “You know what Gerrie, maybe uhm... I actually think we have enough fire wood. Gerrie? Gerrie!”   

I went to my first speed dating event, for the sole reason that you have to try everything in life once (yes dad, as long as it don’t involve needles). Because of my poor German, I probably wouldn’t be able to understand half of what my opponents were saying, nor verbalize my general resentment towards men, which I believed would significantly favour the evening. I don’t dress up, to make a point, and head out. My first date is a tall guy with thin blond hair. He appears to be shy, but I have no doubt that a fair share of toxic masculinity is hidden behind that seemingly harmless grin on his face. I’d give him two beers and a fishcake before he starts throwing subtle insults my way. The first toilet visit will be fake, to secretly speed date someone behind my back. If he’d be my boyfriend, he’d be interfering with my social life. If he’d be my colleague, he'd be interfering with my career. If he’d be higher up in the corporate ladder, he’d be fondling his secretaries. And if he’d be my across-the-street neighbour, he’d be having a wank in front of the window. Men, they’re all the... “Hallo, my name is Heinrich.” I almost bounce off my chair. “Right, of course. Hi.”

The welcoming drink goes down pretty smoothly, without any inappropriate comments, yet. He’s probably just scared, seeing as people are being cancelled left right and centre these days. Holland has hardly got any television show hosts and judges left it seems: all made to retire to the couch. In summary, there were a bunch of men who misused their power to have a go at young girls who were hoping for an opportunity in life. There was even a tv-host who openly shared his story about molesting a woman who passed out on his couch, as a response to a news item about another tv-host who was accused of molesting a woman after he drugged her. “It’s what boys do when they’re young” he said, while other grown men around him were laughing loudly to his story. The television show was taken off air, by the way. Although it’s a legit reason to cancel these people, I wonder how many men would be left in their function if we would take this woke policy all the way? I can tell from experience that universities would count some serious losses. Internships, conferences, field work: there is gender and age inappropriate behaviour all over the show. Might as well cancel the whole lot and take over power at once. Zero tolerance, we had enough! I’m tapped on the shoulder and kindly reminded to move to the next table. “Tschusch Heinrich.”

The second date is a chubby guy with excessive facial hair, Ernst. We order wine, and I make sure to cover my glass with a coaster at all times. You never know what could end up in there these days. After we order starters, he asks me about my hobbies. I rush through the answers, so I can eat my food in silence. While still busy removing pieces of lettuce from my teeth with my tongue, I ask what keeps him busy in life. His story sounds amiable, and some aspects are suspiciously similar to mine. I don’t believe a word of it. It also hasn’t gone unnoticed that Ernst ordered nachos for starters. Glorifying unhealthy habits and avoiding vegetables is a classical sign of toxic masculinity. Nachos for machos. And do you know what another sign is? Dick pics. The director of football club Ajax has been sending them too, to his female co-workers. He got fired, by the way. I wonder whether Ernst had ever sent dick pics. He surely looks like he’d be capable. The pig. Soon after he swallows his last nacho, the waiter hints us to round things up. “Tschusch Ernst.”

The third date is with Salim, who not only sounds foreign, but looks that way too. This is just trouble in a bucket. The disrespect of women is mainly driven by cultural pressures, and wherever Salim is from, I’m guessing he’d been under quite a lot of pressure. I nervously agree to his every word, to not trigger anything, without blinking once. While giggling to what may, or may not, have been a joke, I order myself Mediterranean couscous. Or should I have led him order it for me instead? He gives me an endearing smile and orders pizza. I’ll be counting my blessings if I don’t have to hand-feed him the slices while rubbing his shoulders. In some countries, we’re not even allowed to eat at the same time. How strange, isn’t it, a rage against women, even though we are raised by them? It’s not just social and political settings, but the media too that fuels misogyny. If all that rappers sing about is bitch-slapping and wife-trashing, how are we ever to grow up respecting women? Luckily, Germany ranks pretty high on gender equality. In retrospect, this evening could’ve been a lot worse. The waiter empties our plates out, thank heavens. “Tschusch Salim”

“Hallo, I’m Günter. I also like animals.”

    Yeah right, I see straight through you.

“Hallo, I’m Hermann. Would you like me to buy you a drink?”

    Did you just patronize me?

“Hallo, I’m Wilhelm. Where do you normally go out?”

    That’s none of your business, you stalker!

“Hallo, I’m Tobias. You look very nice tonight.”

     How dare you objectify me!

“Hallo, ich bin Karl, swasch zu hatz fronzem beite am hutschige gunz?“

    How dáre… wait, what?

Date number nine. I swipe the sweat of my forehead, scratch my neck, and skittishly scan the room from left to right. For what exactly, I’m not entirely sure. I mumble “Tschuss Klaus” to a high-school teacher who plays the guitar and mansplained to me why Xavi isn’t ready to coach Barcelona yet. Klaus didn’t hide his discomfort during our date very well. The last date, time for coffee. His name is Friedrich and he seems anxious too. The poor guy, it can’t be easy for them either. Always expected to be the charmer and make the first move, and when they do, chances are 9 out of 10 that they get a cold shoulder or snappy comment in return. And whatever the magnitude of their life-long rejection, they aren’t even allowed to express their pain and sorrow. Perhaps it’s all a myth anyway, that men have this uncontrollable hunter instinct, but society instead that expects it of them. Even us women, caregivers of boys and lovers of men, are subconsciously feeding into the ego of the hulking and dominant male. Perhaps we should start changing things around ourselves, by allowing men to be more vulnerable, sorting out our own shit, and start paying for our drinks? Friedrich looks up from his empty coffee cup. “Could I perhaps get your number?” I accidently swallow my chocolate biscuit whole. “Sorry (coughs loudly), my German ist nicht so gut.” I move uncomfortably in my seat and try to reach for my bag without losing eye contact. “Anyway, it’s getting late. I better go. I presume the drinks were on you? Tschuss Friedrich!”


Although natural disasters can cause death and despair, they hardly leave us with trauma the way we, ourselves, do. We are at the mercy of us, human beings who show no remorse. It’s almost as if God skipped a few while handing out empathy. Notoriously known are narcissists, with a self-image so great and self-esteem so fragile that even the slightest criticism can cause damage, which is why they constantly look for attention and admiration, achieved by manipulative and vindictive acts. They are quick to turn to the use and abuse of other people, including, or at the costs of, their own children. As a result, their children grow up hurt and having such a low self-esteem that they are easily damaged, look for attention and admiration, and turn to the use and abuse of other people. These people, as a consequence, are so hurt that they turn to the use and abuse of… well, I think you get the point. It’s almost as if trauma gets passed down, like a little train that stops at every generation.

Because we originally evolved to become a nurturing and empathic social species, the use and abuse by others doesn’t sit very well with us. It’s mainly the limbic system in the central part of our brain that takes the punch, where emotions are registered. In children, the limbic brain is still developing, which is why experiences, whether good or bad, create an emotional map of the world. And a narcissistic (or traumatized) parent can be a pretty bad experience. They often shift, perhaps unknowingly, between wounding and soothing, sometimes being cruel and sometimes being kind. This creates extreme confusion in children and leads to cognitive dissonance, causing stress in their developing brains. Without an internal sense of security, children find it difficult to distinguish between safety and danger, which is why their little brains quite literally get wired differently.

Children will go through any length to feel seen and loved. If they are denied of such, they will try to draw attention by crying, yelling or breaking stuff. Good children with bad parents seem to have concluded that unless they give a spectacle, nobody is going to pay attention to them. But they will find that their pleading and crying don’t always register with their caregiver. And if the person to whom they naturally turn for love and protection rejects them, children will learn to shut down and ignore emotions. They may even conclude that they are worthless, deserved it for some reason, and start expecting that other people will treat them horribly too. Why else would their own parent treat them that way? An attitude like this makes easy prey for other narcissists, which means they are pretty much set up for more trauma later down the line.

And trauma is quite the brain bummer, let me tell you. The left frontal lobe, called the Broca area, stops functioning almost completely after a traumatic event, which is the speech centre of the brain. Without a functioning Broca, you quite literally can’t put your thoughts and feelings into words. That’s why trauma victims often sit frozen in emergency and court rooms, seemingly having “lost their tongue” when asked what happened. And it’s not only the left frontal lobe, but sometimes the whole left part of the brain that is deactivated after trauma. It goes without saying (sense the irony) that the left part of our brain is pretty vital, particularly for language, problem solving, memory, judgement and impulse control. Without it, we can’t identify cause and effect, grasp long-term effects, or create coherent actions. That’s why traumatized people often make irrational decisions, while quoting that they have “lost their mind”. They have in fact! Or rather, they have “lost executive functioning of the left brain hemisphere.”

Simultaneously, the amygdala is activated during trauma, which is a cluster of brain cells that determines whether stimuli are relaxed or threatening. When threatening, it triggers a cascade of hormones, preparing the body for fright or flight. Adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure, while cortisol increases blood sugar and metabolism. The body normally returns to baseline, but in traumatized people stress hormones are being secreted long after the perceived threat. With the passing of time, this will be expressed by agitation and panic, memory loss and attention problems, irritability and sleep disorders. Quite the bummer, like I said. And if that isn’t enough, a traumatized brain also lowers serotonin production, which is a natural remedy for dealing with stress. It makes for quite a nice comeback from “Are you out of your mind!” “No actually, I’m out of serotonin.” (hits the drum: pa dum tss).

When troubled children grow into teenagers with malfunctioning amygdalas and Brocas, they can’t calmly hover over their thoughts the way others do. As a result, they may overlook red flags and get involved with toxic people, who then start using and abu... Whoops, they have just hopped on the trauma train. Final station: PTSD. Because their rational brains were wired to disassociate and ignore messages from the emotional brain, they often don’t take actions when faced with another unsafe environment. Their conscious minds carry on as if nothing is wrong. As the situation progresses, the rational brain may need more heavy tools, such as alcohol and prescription drugs, to dull emotions and drown memories. After all, we not only use our minds to discover facts, but also to hide them. The emotional brain isn’t very good at denial, however, and keeps sending off stress hormones in a desperate attempt to be taken away from the threat. The quite visible end result of that will be a highly emotional, impulsive and aggressive human being.

Animals too don’t always respond to stress in the best of ways. Studies including rats, monkeys, cats and elephants showed that when researchers played a load and intrusive sound, animals ran off home immediately. However, one group was raised in a safe and nurturing nest, whereas the other one in a cold and noisy nest where they were deprived of food. Yet animals of the latter group also rushed home, even after having spent time in more pleasant surroundings where food was plentiful. Are traumatized people perhaps also condemned to seek refuge in what is familiar, no matter how frightening? Terror might even increase the need for attachment and comfort, regardless of whether the source of comfort is also the source of terror. So once you are on the trauma train, getting off isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Trauma can even be passed down generations via our DNA. Methylation patterns, which affect gene expression, are heavily impacted by stress factors such as smoking and chemicals. And trauma, as you may have guessed, is quite a heavy stress factor. It was recently illustrated that the structure of methyl groups can be passed on to offspring. In rats, babies with a caring mother had the brain chemicals that respond to stress be affected differently than babies with a neglecting mother. And these chemicals modified the expression of over a thousand genes. Nurtured rats turned out to be braver, smarter and more resilient to stress than unnurtured rats, which was still apparent in the next generation.

Because trauma has such a cascading effect, it can lead to local jam-packed trains. The United States has become one of those traumatized nations, after generations of military veterans, high school shootings, and discriminated youth. At war with themselves, victims often turn to physical violence, most commonly directed at their partner and children. It was calculated that eradicating child abuse alone would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, drugs use, and domestic violence by three-quarters. In South Africa, another traumatized nation after the apartheid, violent school teachers, and ongoing inequality, one in three women have experienced domestic or sexual violence. That’s thirty percent of all women trying to be good mothers or compete with men on the work floor with deactivated frontal lobes, spiked cortisol and depleted serotonin.

The expression of traumatic stress is strongly shaped by culture as well, as moral values are a direct response to what is acceptable in a society. This is part of the reason why domestic violence varies so greatly between countries, from 10% in the Philippines to 80% in Egypt. But does this mean that it is almost like a default setting, which men automatically turn to unless they were taught differently? Is the use and abuse of women simply part of human nature? I can’t find it in my heart to accept this theory. I rather believe that it’s the other way around, that abuse is a result of their own trauma. That some men unwittingly hopped on the train and were simply never taught how to get off.

Could this also explain where narcissism comes from? Bad role models, neglect and the inability to express emotions could be the very root causes of non-empathic behaviour. After all, a child’s sense of proper and improper ways to behave, and their moral perceptions of right and wrong are brought to them. Simply put: assholes aren’t born, they are made. If a lack of empathy is indeed the result of poor nurture, instead of our dark nature, it might be easier to lend forgiveness to these people as well, which is the first step to getting off the trauma train yourself. In the end, we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how to respond to it, with a little bit more love, and a little bit more compassion.



*1 Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma

*2 António R. Damásio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain

*3 Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

That time never came, one day you’ll see, where we could all be friends. Perhaps it’s a good thing Freddy Mercury ain’t around no more to witness that. And not quite have we given peace a chance, so it’s probably for the best John Lennon ain't with us anymore either. Genocide in Myanmar, concentration camps in China, terrorism in Syria, and bombings in Ukraine – it’s all happening today. It almost feels as if War is an inescapable part of human civilisation, like a dark passenger. Some even go as far as saying that War has been a driving force behind human evolution, referred to as the Killer Ape theory. This theory proclaims that our tendency towards violence and thirst for blood are fundamental parts of human psychology. Easiest would be to just come into terms with ourselves.

But even though this theory may seem plausible when looking at what’s happening in Ukraine, the truth is a little bit more nuanced than that. First of all, humans remain to be pretty peaceful in comparison to other species. In fact, we're practically domesticated apes, after thousands of years of favouring the smartest and friendliest people during baby-making. Based on fossil evidence, it also appears that War is a relatively new phenomenon. Although personal feuds and a bit of retaliatory killing have always occurred, humans naturally have a strong aversion against violence. Simple proof of that would be our response to seeing blood or lifeless bodies, and the severe trauma that veterans are left with. Yet, after the Ice Age something strange happened, when human evolution suddenly turned from a ‘snuggle for survival’ to a ‘struggle for survival’.

It started when we exchanged our existence as nomadic hunter-gatherers for a life in sedentary settlements. Suddenly, we had something called property, which was worth defending and fighting for. And as humans slowly established self-sufficiency, by cultivating crops and domesticating animals, we depended less on outside communities. Our focus became to keep intruders out, instead letting strangers in, which was easier done with large numbers of people. But as tribes grew into empires, we were no longer able to recognize all faces in our community, due which we became increasingly suspicious of people who looked and behaved different to us. This evolved into something we now call group affiliation, and later on patriotism. Xenophobia is basically the flipside of that same coin.

To manage large groups of people who don’t even know each other, the need suddenly grew to have someone in charge to overlook the whole bunch. A leader, if you will. Captains and lieutenant colonels were put in place, who were particularly good at handing out orders and weaponry. They played into soldier’s moral compass, their longing for group affiliation, and devotion to comradeship. Because even though the War in Ukraine makes us doubt whether there is any decency left in this vile world, people are inherently good. We have a build-in sense of empathy, aversion to inequality, and desire to do the right thing. A good captain lieutenant knows how to use these traits to his advantage, by applying just the right amount of mind control.

When people gain power, it does something strange to their personality. Throughout history, there has been a clear trend in which people with certain societal privileges start exploiting or oppressing others, to reinforce these privileges. Although leaders are originally chosen for their great social skills, such as empathy, collaboration, generosity and interest in others, those very same skills seem to vanish once they are put into power. There is actually a name for it, called acquired sociopathy. Suddenly, the once charismatic leader starts to show some serious authority issues and empathy deficits, leaving his followers vulnerable to impulsive and self-serving acts. Like Lord Acton said: power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Once sociopaths have reached the top, it ain’t easy to shake them off. They will start applying five basic steps to dictatorship, in order to stay in control. Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Fidel Castro: they all swore by them. First, censorship is used to regulate the information people have access to. If they accidently read uncensored articles anyway, you can simply write it off as ‘fake news’. Second, indoctrination convinces the common people of your ideology. For example, training camps can be helpful to reinforce your beliefs without anyone daring to question it. Third, propaganda assists in further spreading your message. You could, for instance, consider taking ownership of all media outlets. Fourth, scapegoating may be necessary to justify your bad deeds towards the outside world. Easiest would be to create a common enemy, such as Jews, Nazis, fascists, or communists. Finally, creating a terror state. You have to make sure that when people dare to protest, they will simply disappear.

In a stable society where people are well-off, dictators normally don’t stand a chance. They’re only allowed a stage when people face soaring poverty, corruption and inequality, which is why mini Putins have popped up in Turkey, Iran, Brazil and the Philippines. In such places, discontent voters are easier to fall for smooth talkers who promise them a world of change. Even civil unrest can be pretty efficient in drastically changing the tables around. Although War clearly doesn’t favour the majority of people, it does benefit certain individuals. Because it’s impossible to reach full equality in a society, there will always be people at the bottom of the social ladder, with meaningless jobs and zero social status. When civil unrest breaks out, these former ‘nobodies’ will step out of the shadow and take the lead. With a gun in their hand, it’s gonna be very hard for people to reject them any longer, or deny them of the wealth they feel entitled to.

Luckily, economic wealth is rising globally, with an evident decrease in deadly combat as a result. And to avoid history from repeating itself, we have invented UN security councils, Geneva conventions, NATO agreements, nuclear deals, and Declarations of Human rights. But whatever international peace treaties we come up with, they mean substantially little when another dictator loses his marbles. To a Russian dictator, moral rules are only for the obedience of Western fools. And that Ukraine, once part of the great Soviet Union, wanted to sign an association treaty with the EU was simply too much for Putin to bare. He accused NATO of threatening Russian’s future, or history as a nation, and got so worked up about it that he send-off fully-geared murdering troops. That the Soviet Union is long gone, and Ukraine’s people democratically voted in favour of joining the NATO don’t matter. He won’t have it.

Whatever triggers a War, on average 487.550 people die for its cause, based on the number of casualties per armed conflict that broke out since the Second World War. That has been sixty-five armed conflicts, which lasted on average 20 years. Just before the War in Ukraine broke out, there were already 24 active conflicts spread across the globe. My goodness, will we ever learn? Unless we go back to our hunter-gatherer days, we probably won’t. But at least, when it comes to dictators, we don’t put up with them forever. Whatever their desperate attempts to protect their wealth and influence, we shall not be fooled indefinitely. Most dictators do fall, one hard way or another. Mussolini was shot, Hitler shot himself, Saddam Hussein was hanged, and Gaddafi got tortured to death. Let’s hope for Ukrainians as well as Russians that Putin awaits a similar faith soon.



1. Yuval Noah Harari, 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random house 

2. Rutger Bregman, 2020. Humankind: A hopeful history. Bloomsbury Publishing

3. Dacher Keltner, 2016. The power paradox: How we gain and lose influence. Penguin

I always get suspicious when people compliment me, and especially when it’s on my looks. It can only mean that they want something from me... I’m not insecure or anything, but I don’t consider myself to be remarkably attractive. And I’m not arrogant into saying I’m not hideously unattractive either. I just am, dangling somewhere in between pretty and ugly. But what’s pretty and what’s ugly, we can rightfully ask ourselves? As for pretty, a simplistic answer would be pointing at People Magazine or TV shows like The Next Top Model. But although we clearly can’t take our eyes off these people, it wouldn’t be realistic to compare ourselves to them. With regards to ugly, any answer will be wrong. We are all beautiful in our own way. Although, in all honesty, there’s no denying that some people are primarily beautiful from the inside. Let’s just say that the outside packaging isn’t everyone’s best selling point. But what seems ugly to me might be pretty to someone else, and the other way around. So what’s the correct answer then? Quantitative predictions and testable explanations is what we need. 

Scientists aren’t known for being the prettiest of people, but they were the ones who dared tackling the topic first. While fashion models were standing in front of the camera, they were secretly making notes in the background. They observed thousands of pretty people who never bothered looking back, but it didn’t harm them. They instead satisfied themselves with the statistics they got out of it. When data were summed up and total means got compared for significance values, things got interesting. The main result was that symmetric faces score highest. The discussion material explained that it might be because we relate asymmetric faces to weak facial muscles, premature aging and womb-related trauma. Results also showed a positive bias towards lush-coloured cheeks and well-nourished faces. Scientists theorised that it’s because we correlate colourful and full cheeks to a healthy lifestyle. That’s one point for us and zero points for The Next Top Model: skinny ain’t so pretty after all.

But there’s way more to it. Of significant importance to the conception of beauty is the size and arrangement of facial features. As an explanatory example: beautiful eyes are overlooked when a hawk shaped nose is blocking the view, and having a delicate nose becomes irrelevant when eyes are way too far apart. Deep set eyes, hanging eye lids, outlandishly large teeth and unusually thin lips aren’t very favourable either, case studies have shown. Data analyses also demonstrated that the distance between the eyes should preferably be under half of the width of the face, and that the length of the nose mustn’t be longer than the total width of the face. Equally significant, the distance between the eyes and mouth should preferably be one-third of the height of the head. The forehead is a problem on its own, or statistical value rather to say. Too long ain’t good, and too short definitely ain’t. The same goes for chins. Cheeks are a bit easier on the statistics, as long as they aren’t too chubby. In contrast, high cheekbones, small ears and strong eye brows significantly favour the face. So essentially, although we shouldn’t judge people on their looks, we do it anyway, for reasons that are now scientifically known.

The scientists published impressive papers on their fascinating findings, but received little attention over it. Which leads us straight to the next issue: people seem to care more about looks than about knowledge. We don’t need science to tell us what facial features are pretty, make-up is what we need! Likewise, we know more about Kim Kardashian than about Yuval Noah Harari, and spend more money on fashion than on literature. Scientists weren’t sulking over it though, but instead saw it as an opportunity. Their next obvious research topic was on the origin of shallowness, and data became numerous. The discussions of peer-reviewed articles based on significant correlations drawn from the results of their data, explained that people unwittingly presume that pretty people are kinder, happier, and more successful than not so pretty people. Teachers rate their assays higher, bosses forgive their poor performances more easily, and friends show a higher threshold towards their unethical behaviour. It’s why handsome men get away with cheating and how pretty women talk their way out of speeding tickets. Juries and judges even tend to give pretty people lighter sentences. Although unjust, we treat them differently because we are simply impressed by their beauty.

Nevertheless, we cannot measure all pretty people by the same standard. Studies show that there are significant differences in the perception of beauty between cultures and races. For instance, white people favour skinny bodies whereas black people like curvy bodies, and Asian people prefer white skin whereas European people admire tanned skin. It’s because beauty often relates to wealth. Being tanned historically meant that we were poor peasants working the land (which is still the case in Asia), but nowadays means that we can afford lengthy holidays on sunny beaches. Likewise, African men idolize voluptuous women because it’s considered a sign of prosperity. In Europe, however, food is unlimited and skinny became trendy because it shows the discipline to go to the gym and the luxury to afford organic food. And it’s not only wealth, but status as well that influences beauty. For instance, people traditionally fancied stretched necks in Thailand, feather decorations in Papua New Guinea, and lip plates in Ethiopia, because it represented their hierarchy. These days, we like suits, diamonds and fancy cars. So in the end, all perceptions of beauty are based on what culture has indoctrinated us with. It might not be a bad thing: when you’re perceived as ugly in one country you can try your luck in the next.

One last issue needs to be clarified, which scientists haven't yet managed to proof statistically. It’s that being pretty is different from being attractive. The most stunning looking people can be unattractive, and the oddest looking people can be attractive. Beauty can appear or disappear in an instant, as soon as people open their mouth. Because ultimately, looks don’t show kindness or empathy in people, or give away their sense of humour. What we also find attractive is confidence, passion and intelligence, which might mean that we aren’t so shallow after all. People even get prettier over time once we start to take a liking to their personality. Someone that would’ve never caught our eye on the street can suddenly become  beautiful, just by getting to know the person. Finding an ugly person attractive has its advantages as well, considering that rejection is unlikely and competition will be minimal. That’s actually why I prefer my boyfriends not to talk in public; I wouldn’t want to risk other ladies falling for their spectacular personality. It’s why I don’t obsess about my own looks either; they must clearly be dating me for other reasons. See, I don’t need to be pretty, I rather be spectacular.