Beauty : Making sense of sex appeal
By Jerome Burne (*)
We all recognise beauty when we see it, but what makes a beautiful face is something that few can agree on. Is there some mathematical combination of angles, ratios and proportions that produce an equation for beauty , making one face more beautiful than another? Or is beauty like a work of art a matter of opinion, taste and culture?
These questions were familiar to the Greek philosophers 2,500 years ago, when the face of Helen launched a thousand ships, just as they are pondered today when Princess Diana launches a thousand magazines.
In the last year a flurry of research has provided new insights into the origins of beauty. At University College Hospital, London, Dr Alfred Linney from the Maxillo Facial Unit has been using lasers to make precise measurements of the faces of top fashion models women generally accepted as beautiful.
The most controversial finding in the research is that there is no such thing as the beautiful face. Instead, Linney and his team have found that the features of models are just as varied as those of everyone else. "Some have teeth that stick out, some have a long face, and others a jutting chin.There was no one ideal of beauty that they were all a bit closer to," he says.
One of Linney's co-workers,orthodontist Mark Lowey, even considered that some of the models' features might have required surgery if found on a ''normal'' face .One type of problem people often seek help for is teeth that stick out," he says ," As a general rule we'd consider operating on cases where the teeth project more than five millimetres, but one of the models we measured had teeth that were eight millimetres out and she still looked gorgeous".
Although the UCH study suggests that the criteria for beauty are rather less rigid than previously believed, it still leaves one question unanswered: if one woman goes to an orthodontist to have her teeth straightened, how come another earns a fortune modelling them?
Interestingly, the Greeks had the same ideal of beauty for men and women - at least as far as their statues went - but that is unusual.Generally, male beauty has been considered less important,since male attractiveness is measured in terms of power and social standing rather than by facial features.However, when women hold economic power,such as among the Nigerian Wodaabees, then it is the males who become preoccupied with beauty and who dress up and hold beauty competitions.
Recent findings from UCH undermine one of the most influential scientific ideas of beauty - that the composite features of several ordinary faces can result in one beautiful face.
The theory dates back to the last century and is the work of Sir Francis Galton, who made his name both as a psychologist and geneticist In 1878 he discovered that if photographs of a number of faces were superimposed, most people considered the resulting composite to be more beautiful than the individuals who made them.
But this theory has taken a knock in a recent report from the science magazine Nature. Dr David Perrett, of the University of St Andrews, compiled some composite photographs of European and Japanese faces and asked people to judge them.
"We found that not only were individual attractive faces preferred to the composites, but that when we used the computer to exaggerate the composite features away from the average,that too was preferred," he said. This would account for the popularity of actresses such as Brigitte Nielsen and Daryl Hannah, who have features that are far from average.
The research also gives scientific respectability to another old idea. As the philosopher Francis Bacon put it more than three centuries ago: "There is no excellent beauty which hath not some strangeness in the proportion".
Dr Perrett claims that his beautiful faces have something in common. "The more attractive ones had higher cheek bones, a thinner jaw, and larger eyes relative to the size of the face than the average ones did," he says He also found that beauty can transcend culture: the Japanese found the same European faces beautiful as the Europeans did, and vice versa.
So it seems there is something fundamental to beauty.Many people agree on who's got it and different cultures find the same faces attractive - although obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Even three-month-old babies, according to Dr Judith Langlois, of the University of Texas, prefer beautiful faces to plainer ones. All of which suggests there must be an evolutionary advantage to being beautiful.
Could it be that beauty is an indication of a woman's fertility? Until recently, evolutionary theories concerning beauty and fertility opted for the "law of averageness" Anthropologists proposed that. beauty represented no more than the average value of faces in a human population. They argued that; evolutionary pressures operate against extreme features: people with average physical properties should stand the best chance of surviving to pass their genes on to the next generation. Average features serve above all as an indication that their possessor is likely to be fertile. The quest for a fertile mate also explains why glossy hair and good skin are sought after because they showed that someone is healthy and free of parasites.
Yet another theory said that women with baby faces, such as the model Kate Moss, who has big eyes, a small, full mouth and small nose, were attractive because they triggered the warm protective feelings we have towards small children.
Then last year Professor Victor Johnstone, of the University of New Mexico, published results of a fascinating series of experiments that linked perceptions of beauty to the effects of oestrogen on the bodies of adolescent girls His results bore the idea of childish features being attractive, but the explanation he gives has turned the original theory on its head.
"We found that that there definitely was a type of adult female face that men found attractive and that it was different from the average face," says Johnston. "The two key measurements are the distance from the eyes to the chin, which is shorter - in fact it is the length normally found in a girl aged eleven and a half; and the size of the lips, which are fatter - the size normally found on a fourteen-year-old girl". The Kate Moss view seems to be confirmed, but where does that leave actress Sigourney Weaver as an example of an attractive mature face, for instance?
Johnstone came to these conclusions by running a computer program that tried to mimic the process of evolution. Faces randomly selected by the computer were rated according to attractiveness by volunteers, and the most attractive were combined to breed a second generation of faces, continuing the process on to third and fourth generation,and so on. Gradually a shorter,full - lipped face took over. But Johnstone doesn't believe that the reason for its success was that it triggered protective feelings. "Although the features are juvenile, the face wasn't seen as being babyish," he says. The ideal face turned out to be that of a woman of 24.8 years.
The proportions seem to point to fertility, specifically the effect of the hormone oestrogen on the female face. "Up until puberty the faces of boys and girls are similar," says Johnstone. "But then the rise in oestrogen in girls gives them fuller lips, while testosterone in boys gives them a fuller jaw . So what people are picking out as beauty is really a sign of fertility brought on by oestrogen. Interestingly, 24.8 years - the age when most women achieve ideal facial proportions, according to the study - is the time when oestrogen levels are highest and women are at their most fertile".
In cultures where male beauty is valued, the features that are considered attractive are generally the mature ones - the small eyes, large nose, thin lips and prominent chin, rather than the big eyes and small mouth and jaw of the attractive female baby-face. Of course, there are beautiful male faces , Michaelangelo's David is a classic example,but generally men have more freedom to stray further from the rules of strict proportion and still be regarded as attractive -Sean Connery or Gerard Depardieu come to mind.
The oestrogen-beauty-fertility connection rears its head again in studies where men decide if a woman's body is sexy or not. Dr Devendra Singh from the University of Texas, points out that while testosterone encourages weight to be put on around the stomach, oestrogen lays it down around the buttocks and thighs, so full buttocks and a narrow waist send out the same message as the ideal face: ''I'm full of oestrogen and fertile."
When Singh got male students to rate pictures of women according to whether they had an attractive figure, he found that the most popular proportions for the ratio of a woman's waist to her hips were between 0.67 and 0.8. Women with these ratios were also seen as being humorous, healthy and intelligent .Those women whose waists are thicker were viewed as being faithful and kind, while women who are too thin were seen as aggressive and ambitious.
When men adopt a more traditionally feminine role of being judged solely in terms of their looks, such as the Chippendales today , they begin to show such traditional feminine anxieties as being worried that people only want them for their bodies and not for who they "really are".
There is no doubt that the fertile baby-face that emerged from many computer-based studies is attractive - Nell Gwyn fits it just as well as Cindy Crawford - but it doesn't by any means describe all beauties.
Why hasn't evolution produced a race of small-nosed, pouty-lipped clones?
Evolution hasn't produced a race of small-nosed, pouty-lipped clones. What about Glen Close or Susan Sarandon, with their strong, even slightly hooked noses and definite chins? Another beauty researcher, Dr Michael Cunningham of Elmhurst College, Illinois, has been looking at the effect of individual features in a beautiful face and has discovered that some features may or may not be desirable, depending on what the judge is looking for.
When male interviewers are selecting a woman for a job, for instance, arched expressive eyebrows and dilated pupils are seen as desirable, but they were less important on a potential date.On the other hand, men contemplating partners with a view to settling down and starting a family, found a wide smile more important than expressive eyes and eyebrows. Is the secret of Julia Robert's appeal that she would be good with children?
Cunningham also found that attractive women with mature features, such as small eyes and a large nose, received more respect ."It could be that societies where women have more power and autonomy idealise women with more mature features," he says, "while those which value submissive females may prefer baby faces". But is beauty really just a matter of sending out a message saying: ''I am ready to conceive?'' So far all the studies are limited to photos that capture some types of beauty.Yet we all know people who are attractive in the flesh, but lousy in photos.
Why? Is it to do with how fertile they look? No one knows.But the search for a better definition of beauty will continue, driven by the billion-pound beauty industry's desire to find new ways of closing the gap between the actual and the ideal. In politics and business, personal looks are increasingly important;one estimate says that American professional women now spend up to one-third of their income on appearance.Maybe the 19th-century writer Stendhal got it right when he said: "Beauty is no more than the promise of happiness." Jerome Burne .
(*) Jerome Burne is a freelance science writer specialising in psychology and medicine. Last year he contributed several sections to BrainPower, the Sunday Times six-week supplement on the brain. For the last eight years he has written regularly for most of the broadsheets as well as for magazines including New Scientist, Focus and Harpers & Queen. Current interests include new brain research on phantom limbs and hallucinations, evolutionary psychiatry, gene therapies, the role of bacteria in chronic diseases and clinical nutrition for the treatment of long-term ailments.
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