Symmetry? Could This be the Answer to the Age Old Question; "What is Beauty?"
Symmetry? Could This be the Answer to the Age Old Question; "What is Beauty?"
What attracts one person to another? The question is crucial as we consider the values of our society, the emphasis we put on physical beauty and beauty products, the new resurgence of weight loss wonder drugs and popular fad diets, not to mention a new reality TV show devoted to placing a new person under the knife for plastic surgery every week. All of these carry the same message: beauty is nearly synonymous with happiness. So then is the nature of "beauty" a philosophical conundrum, a biological issue, a psychological mind set, or a cultural problem? What are we attracted to, why are we attracted to it, and is there a ratio or specific definition of this beauty we are looking to attain?
Variations of this question are timeless, and without ever defining beauty, we are constantly attempting to achieve it. Hundreds of years ago the essence of beauty was a philosophical question. Plato was one of the first to conjecture that beauty may be due to what he called the "golden proportions." Plato went on to describe that the "width of an ideal face would be two-thirds its length, while a nose would be no longer than the distance between the eyes." (3) Although all of Plato's ideas were not entirely defendable, it was the first recognition that symmetry might play a part in what humans deem attractive.
Today we have taken on the task of beauty quite seriously. From a biological and psychological standpoint, we do believe that there are certain determinant factors in a person's attractiveness. Studies focusing on the effects of beauty are growing in number and recognition. For example, human infants prefer images of symmetrical patterns rather than nonsymmetrical ones. (5) Furthermore, babies also prefer looking at pictures of symmetrical people over pictures of those who were measured to be asymmetrical. (4) As people, we may not grow out of this preference to symmetry. When several faces are arranged to create a composite that is more symmetrical than the individual faces on their own, people find the composite to be more attractive than the individuals' pictures. (4) Studies such as these led to the production of a program known as FacePrints, "which shows viewers facial images of variable attractiveness. The viewers then rate the beauty pictures on a scale from one to nine. In what is akin to digital Darwinism, the pictures with the best ratings are merged together, while the less attractive photos are weeded out. Each trial ends when the viewer deems the composite a 10 – yes, beyond the normal scale." This program found that all photos voted Perfect 10's were super-symmetric. As Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty explains that our sensitivity to beauty is hard-wired and shaped by natural selection. "We love to look at smooth skin, shiny hair, curved waists and symmetrical bodies because, over the course of evolution, people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success." (4) This is not only a principle that is true for humans. Animals are more attracted to the most symmetrical of their species. For example, scientists discovered that by clipping the tail feathers of male swallows with symmetrical tail feathers, (making them unsymmetrical,) they were able to reduce their attractiveness to female swallows (reduce their sex life.) (2) The consensus seems to be that symmetric individuals have a "higher mate-value." (4) One study concerning symmetrical and a symmetrical men found that women who made love to the most symmetrical men orgasm 75% of the time during intercourse, while women who made love to the least symmetrical men had orgasms only 30% of the time during intercourse. Furthermore, the most symmetrical men were more likely to ejaculate at the same time that their female partner was orgasming! In line with this study, symmetry may also indicate a higher chance of pregnancy during "symmetrical" sex. (2)
What began as the philosophical "golden proportions," has today been further investigated to such a wild extent that Stephen Marquardt, a retired California plastic surgeon has moved away from the medical aspects of beauty in order to study the mathematical. He feels that there is a common ratio that can be found among things that are commonly considered "beautiful" or attractive in nature (flowers, pine cones, seashells) and in human works (the Parthenon, Mozart's music, da Vinci's paintings) His research brought him to the mathematical finding of the "golden ratio," which is 1:1.618! (1) From this, Marquardt created a mask that applies his golden ratio to the face! The ration between the width of the mouth and the width of the nose all fit his ratio, and the mask can be used to allow plastic surgery to come as close to these proportions as possible. (1) Marquardt explains that, "A lot of this is Biology. It's necessary for us to recognize our species. Humans are visually oriented, and the mask screams, 'Human!'" (1) So than the question now is; can your looks be measured by a mathematical ratio? Could we all be our most attractive if our features fit this mask? Other aspects of science say NO.
Other arenas of science, as well as cross cultural studies caution us not to over generalize. John Manning of the University of Liverpool would explain that, "Darwin thought that there were few universals of physical beauty because there was much variance in appearance and preference across human groups." (4) For instance, we must consider that the rules of symmetry can be outweighed by many unique cultural preferences; Chinese men prefer women with disproportionately smaller feet, while many African tribal cultures prefer women with large discs inserted into their lips. For instance, similar studies to the "symmetry = beauty" theory argue that men are pre-disposed to desire a low waist-to-hip ratio. (WHR) From a Darwinian perspective, this may be because women with high WHRs are more likely to suffer from "health maladies, including infertility and diabetes." However, people who have little contact with the Western World, in southeast Peru, actually have a preference for high WHRs. (4) Other quantitative studies also show that symmetry may not be the most important factor in what others view as beautiful. In one study, 70% of college students deemed an instructor physically attractive when he acted in a friendly manner, while only 30% found him physically attractive when he was cold and distant. (4) It seems as if a person's personality, and the frequency with which they smile, has a lot to do how physically attractive they appear to others.
It is understandable that physical symmetry is subconsciously, as well as consciously, perceived as a sign of better health and even better strength and fertility. From a Darwinian approach, one must consider that a woman may be in search of a protector and one with great health to support the survival of her offspring, while a man may be in search of the healthiest women to carry and support his offspring. Symmetry may also meet our innate desire to find order. We find order in nature, order in our own man-made works, and order in symbols. We may be looking to mate with, what we innately see as the closest image to order, since our own existence is built on such a delicate principle or order and perfect balance. However, it can not be ignored, even in the midst of science, that many studies also show the need for human compassion and personality in order for a person to make the determination that they have found an appropriate mate. This also holds true from a Darwinian stand-point, as humans, along with many other creatures, conceive offspring in pairs, and then raise those offspring together. Qualities such as personality, kindness, generosity and emotional stability are not just afterthoughts in the quest for a mate, but they may need to fight for their place, next to the enormous power that physical beauty and symmetry may have on our choice of a mate.
1) USA Weekend.Com, The Beauty of Symmetry
2) Great Moments in Science , Beauty- Part One
3) Symbol of Beauty, An article on symmetry in nature and our relationship with it.
4) Looking Good: The Psychology and Biology of Beauty, An article on different on the approaches to beauty.
5) Beauty: Form and Symmetry
Comments made prior to 2007
Marquardt did not discovered de golden ratio. The Fibonacci number was discovered by Leonardo Fibonacci(born in 1175). (5^(1/2)+1)/2 ... Zei Chen, 3 November 2004