Who are your role models? Who are the people you try to emulate in some aspect or other of life? Maybe parents? Maybe celebrities? Maybe fictional characters? What are they like as people?

Who are your celebrity crushes? Who are the people you like to look at or watch? Maybe film stars? Maybe athletes or models? What are they like as people?

Did anyone come up in both lists?

I guess that most people would answer no. I guess also that for most people, the second list is longer. Probably a lot longer. And that’s unfortunate.

I read an interesting piece recently about advertising in the age of the Renaissance. I haven’t been able to verify all the details, but the central ideas were familiar to an art historian friend of mine. Here’s the gist.

Marcilio Ficino, an Italian Renaissance Philosopher under the employ of the Medici family, wanted art to educate. Art triggers contemplation if it engenders a desire to understand. We desire to understand when we feel the engagement of love. And the quickest path to love is to appeal at a sexual level.

In short, sexy advertising is a quick means to capturing attention which we can then steer towards high aims.

The closest direct quote of Ficino’s I’ve found refers to beauty rather than sex appeal, but the idea still merits conversation.

Whereas Renaissance art would depict idealized human forms, often nude, to convey grace, harmony, and compassion, these days the idealized human forms portrayed convey little more than material and physical notions. That’s a lost opportunity. We have sex appeal down to a science. What if we could harness that power to improve society?

At a smaller scale, I think we might do our communities a service by attempting to perform as sexy/beautiful role models ourselves. We could collectively decide to be the best people we can be, and through charisma and style inspire others to emulate us. I definitely don’t mean all others. I’m certainly one who can only ever hope to appeal to a small subslice of the general population. But for the people who find something attractive about the way I carry myself, I want them to discover other virtues as they learn more about me. Those who have more charm and good looks can hope to positively influence more people.

Most of us already try to be good people, and most of us also already try to present well. What’s novel in this mindset is in the motivation of the latter. You might style your hair, dress of a fashion, or apply your makeup with the aim of being respectable to colleagues, comfortable for a setting, or simply to feel attractive. Seldom do we do so with the aim of inspiring others. With this mindset, an otherwise vain concern gains a measure of nobility.

I like this idea so far, but I see two major pitfalls to consider. I’d love to hear of others.

First, this is a wholly different proposition for men and women. The standards of beauty/sexiness are vastly unequal. This argument can easily be interpreted as an elaborate way of telling women to ‘smile’, a detestably common occurrence resulting from many men’s misguided belief that women are supposed to make them feel good. I am not encouraging anyone to diminish herself or himself.

Be sexy in whatever way you wish to be (sexy doesn’t have to be sexual) and beautiful in the ways that you know you are. Embody the virtues you wish for the world to celebrate. Let these two efforts support and motivate each other. I want us to celebrate the best of ourselves. Not to objectify or dehumanize ourselves.

Second, to the last point, serving as a role model can be interpreted as only communicating the happy, positive, strong, successful sides of ourselves. I think this is a damaging pattern, and I think we should be allowed to share our darker, weaker selves. Let’s not pretend to be perfect. Everyone faces some degree of adversity. Let’s demonstrate ways to face it with poise, compassion, and humility.

One’s quality as a human being and one’s fitness as a role model should have nothing to do with your attractiveness, but human nature isn’t so egalitarian. Instead of lamenting this flaw in our wiring, let’s exploit it to better society.

(footnote: there are psychological studies that support many of the claims and observations here, but as an outsider to the domain, I don’t know which are well established and which have yet to be replicated. So I decided not to reference literature whose quality I don’t understand.)

postscript 2016-05-28: After a couple months letting this stew, I think the call to action here shouldn’t be to pretty ourselves up. Not everyone wants to be the object of attention. We should try to embody the virtues we admire anyway. I don’t have a problem with that part. So the real call to action is just to notice those who choose to combine physical appeal with other virtues and not see it as distracting from those virtues. It’s ok for a professor to be hot in more ways than one.