Beauty - Science or Art?

Sep 22 2016

“When I was a little girl no one ever told me I was pretty. All little girls should be told they are pretty, even if they are not.”

Marilyn Monroe

“Natural beauty takes at least two hours in front of a mirror.”

Pamela Anderson

Asked why people desire physical beauty, Aristotle said, “No one that is not blind could ask that question”. Is there more to what we find beautiful than just our individual preferences and prejudices? In Survival of the Prettiest, Nancy Etcoff reviews the evidence that beauty is more science than art. In particular, she discusses the role of evolution and natural selection versus culture in shaping what makes someone beautiful.

All human cultures are beauty cultures, placing beauty on a pedestal (rather than “putting your ass on a pedestal” as model Veronica Webb said about wearing high heels). Beauty is pursued at enormous cost, as I have seen across Asia in some of the work I have conducted this year on the topic of female beauty in Asia. While there is a relentless pursuit of beauty (by some women), and the rewards it is believed it can bring, there is also a deep cultural dissatisfaction with this pursuit.

To some, beauty is purely a social construct and Naomi Wolf wrote that, “Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.”

Many of the images we see around us are based on myths: for women there is Aphrodite, Venus, Bai Mudan (White Peony) and Rati, while for men there is Eros, Cupid, Yue-Lao and Kama (along with many more). The urge for beauty, love or lust has always had a powerful hold on humans, and is one of the seven basic emotional drives found in other animals by Jaak Panksepp.

But is there a science behind what we find beautiful and what can it tell us about our evolutionary priorities and our current beauty behaviours? Nancy Etcoff believes that evolution can explain much of what we sometimes find baffling about beauty, and argues that while there is some truth in the old adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, there may be some more universal truths lurking behind our individual tastes.

Experiments have shown that we can rate beauty after seeing a face for a fraction of a second (as little as 150 milliseconds), giving it the same rating as we would do on a much longer inspection. That is, we know what we like, and we know this very intuitively. But are there any factors that can predict perceived beauty?

In general, symmetry, proportion and ratio of waist to hip size are better determinants of beauty than absolute measures such as height, size and weight. So perhaps beauty is relative after all! And it’s not just adults that have instant views, babies have been shown to look longer at “attractive” faces, having a particular liking for eyes which they spend as much time looking at as the rest of the face.

In many tests, a waist-hip ratio of around 0.7 has been found to be the most attractive. Both Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe had ratios around 0.7, and Barbie’s is (or used to be) 0.54. The Science of the Prettiest reports that narrow waists and full hips signify higher fertility in women.

Does this demonstrate a universal set of aesthetic and sensual preferences, in the same way that we prefer consonant music over dissonant music, symmetrical shapes over asymmetrical shapes and soft surfaces over rough surfaces?

The proportions of the face are generally more important than any individual feature, and most cultures tend to like a more youthful appearance, delicate jaws, small chins and relatively large eyes (back to the baby effect). However, attractiveness ratings can changes very drastically when there are even very minor alterations to features (i.e., moving something 1/25th of an inch on the face).

Rather than the eye of the beholder, it has been said that, “beauty is in the adaptations of the beholder”. Many studies show that attractiveness is dependent on “typical” features and that cultural differences reflect norms. This means that attractiveness is based on similarity of perceived features and not geographical distance or language and, encouragingly, there is strong evidence that norms are gradually being recalibrated to more of a cross-cultural synthesis as the world globalizes.

Looks matter more to some than others, and it’s also been shown that men value them more than women, and this is true across cultures (more than 200 were investigated in one study). As a manager of a dating service once said sagely, “Men just look at the pictures, women actually read the things.

That’s not to say that women don’t have their own preferences. Women generally prefer slightly older men (even though they live longer). A typical marriage has a 2 to 3 years difference in age (in favour of men), rising to 8 years for third marriages. This is something that is regularly demonstrated in the sometimes unrealistic age differences that we see in Hollywood movies (and not just Woody Allen films)!

So what are some of the preferences that men have for women, apart from symmetrical and proportional faces? On average, women have less hemoglobin in the blood and less melanin in the skin so they look paler. Marilyn Monroe and others deliberately wore (and wear) pale makeup and blonde hair to exaggerate their sexual appeal (like babies). It is also true that women are lighter when ovulating and that light skin is a more transparent window to human health, age and sexual interest than dark skin. The reason is simple, as fair skin makes it easier to detect signs of disease, sexual arousal and ageing.

Sexual arousal causes “flushing and blushing”, and Charles Darwin wrote that, “Blushing is the most peculiar and most human of all expressions”. V.S. Ramachandran has written that blushing suggests sexual excitement and when coloring gets vivid, the skin is moist, the lips swell and the skin generally signals the “likelihood that courtship gestures will be reciprocated and consummated”.

Pale skin itself is an adaptation to low light, allowing sunlight to penetrate the skin more easily so typical of colder climates. Having said that, Inuit have darker skin because their diet is already strong in Vitamin D. However, pale skin wrinkles earlier, has more freckles and is more prone to acne and skin cancer. And as for blonde hair, one speculation is that this just happens to be more commonly associated with fair skin, hence the preference for blondes? And red lips? Until recently anemia was a common condition, often accompanied by pale lips, so darker and redder lips could also be a signal of health.

While such aesthetic preferences may have an underlying reason and are relatively easier to fix by adding lip stick, The Science of the Prettiest also discusses some of the more extreme beauty treatments now being sought.

Nancy Etcoff quotes Jay McInerny saying that, “by the year 2000 cosmetic surgery may well be viewed as no more than a technological extension of makeup”. While this sounds somewhat scary to me, she reports that even by 1996, there were 600,000 cosmetic procedures every year in the USA, and it’s true that acceptance is now very high in some Asian countries (although there are some cultural barriers in others).

I can recommend this book as a fascinating read on human beauty for anyone interested in the topic. Whatever this book or the science says, there is far more to beauty than physical appearance and I’m very happy to confirm that this is true across Asia. I’ll leave the final word with Audrey Hepburn, who despite her perfect waist-hip ratio of 0.7, said simply that “Happy girls are the prettiest”.


Survival Of The Prettiest: The science of beauty by Nancy Etcoff

The Archaeology Of Mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotion by Panksepp & Biven

The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women by Naomi Wolf

“Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?” by V.S. Ramachandran in Medical Hypotheses, 48, 1997, 19-20

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin

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