Beauty of the Human Face
Beauty of the Human Face
Rebecca DonatelliLong before there was any form of written history, men and women were already going to elaborate and often painful lengths to change and beautify their natural naked bodies in their quest for a mate, to gain tribal passage, to protect themselves from spirits, or to appease their gods."
People fry their skin in tanning beds and go through risky and painful
surgeries all to be beautiful. What makes someone beautiful? Many
theories attempt to explain what people find attractive in others but
few are universally convincing. When embarking on this paper, I
considered creating a survey and having a number of different people
around the Bryn Mawr campus take it. The survey was to have pictures of
several different women with different facial characteristics and
people were to rate them on a scale from very beautiful to not
beautiful at all. The problem was, for every beautiful face there is
not just one trait that makes it attractive but rather a combination of
traits. Also, there are different combinations of traits that can make
faces beautiful. Therefore, within my means, it was impossible to
design a survey in which all of the variables that could affect the
perceived beauty of the human face were controlled for. There are many
theories that identify trends in attractive faces but there is no
ultimate theory that determines which faces are beautiful and which are
ugly. Rather it is a combination of cultural and biological factors
combined that make some people more beautiful than others.
The work of Dr. Marquadt, a former plastic surgeon, was originally to be the subject of the survey. Dr. Marquadt has proposed that the most beautiful face is one that is based on the golden ratio or divine proportion. This proportion comes from the number phi, named after the Greek sculptor Phidias, and has been associated with beauty for over two thousand years. Dr. Marquadt has designed a mask made up of golden rectangles, triangles and decagons of different sizes. The closer a face's proportions are to those of the mask, the more beautiful the person is. Dr. Marquadt's theory is that beauty is what allows human beings to recognize other members of our species. "The most beautiful faces, he claims, are the ones most easily recognizable as human. 'Beauty is just humanness,' he says" (Jones).
From a biological standpoint, this is very logical because according to the theory of evolution an organism is successful if it passes its genes on to the next generation. However, this is all working under the assumption that attractiveness is determined by a person's desirability as a mate.
Figure from http://www.beautyanalysis.com/index2_mba.htm
The pictures above were to be the basis of the survey. The mask fits the face on the far left the best and as the range progresses from left to right, the mask fits less and less well. According to Marquadt's theory the face on the left would be the most beautiful because it is the most human. If the survey was carried out it is a fair assumption to say that the results would have been in accord with those of Dr. Marquadt. However, with this particular sample of faces the golden proportion argument is not a convincing one. There are several other characteristics that could explain this spectrum. For example as the line progresses the faces gradually get fuller. Their faces become less symmetrical and their complexions become less clear with the final woman having a large mole on her right cheek. In order to have been credible the survey would have needed a much larger collection of faces that all had the same complexion, etc.
Another theory that attempts to explain what makes a face beautiful is
the averageness hypothesis. A study was conducted in Germany at the
University of Regensberg where advanced computer technology was used to
morph faces together. The faces of sixty four women and thirty two
males of different levels of attractiveness were blended together to
form an "average" female face and an "average" male face.
The diagram above shows the result of blending just two female faces together.
The average faces and the faces they were constructed from were then
shown to a group of people who rated them on a scale of one to seven,
seven being the most attractive and one being the least attractive. The
mean scores showed that the computer faces were found more attractive
than the original ones (Greundl).
The averageness hypothesis is another theory based on biological evidence. The reasoning behind this theory is that the average faces are more beautiful because they indicate genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is important evolutionarily because organisms that come from a diverse gene pool are usually healthier and less susceptible to diseases. According to this hypothesis when looking for a healthy mate, the one with the most average face is the best choice.
This study of blending faces also explored the relationship between symmetry and attractiveness. As the faces were being blended together they also became more symmetrical. This could also be indicative of a healthy mate because a symmetrical face could be a sign that a person had stress free development (Valentine 482). Averageness and symmetry are not exclusive from one another so it is difficult to assess why the morphed faces were found more attractive. Experiments were done where half of a person's face was taken and mirrored. The picture below on the right was made symmetrical using computer morphing software and the picture on the left is the original.
"The results from (their) experiment regarding 'symmetry' show that facial symmetry affects the perceived attractiveness. However, the effect is rather small and by far not as influential as it has been reported in the media. To sum up our findings: Very asymmetric faces are judged rather unattractive, but very unattractive faces are not necessarily asymmetric. And vice versa: very symmetrical faces need not necessarily be judged attractive and very attractive faces often show deviations from perfect symmetry" (Greundl).
Another biological factor that contributes to a person's perceived beauty is youth. The word youth in this context is not meant to mean child but rather being of reproductive age. Having a youthful appearance is a sign of healthiness and fertility so from an evolutionary standpoint choosing a mate with a youthful face is an advantage. Features that are indicative of youth include fullness of lips, a thinner jaw, large round eyes, large forehead, small short nose, round cheeks, and short distance between nose and mouth.
The third and final part of the studies performed in Germany was called the "Babyface hypothesis" and explored the relationship between youthfulness and attractiveness. Again morphing software was used to create a sample of faces to be rated on a scale of attractiveness. This time pictures of young girls between the ages of 4 and 6.5 were blended with the face of an adult woman. An average child face was created and then pictures were created of various ratios of the average child face to the adult woman face. The results showed that a combination of youthful and mature
characteristics was preferred because only 9.5% of those surveyed preferred the photo that was 100% woman (Greundl).
Most studies of attractiveness are focused on women; however, perceived
male attractiveness might also be influenced by biological factors. A
study performed in Spain explored the relationship between
attractiveness and sperm quality. A group of women were given pictures
of sixty-six men and asked to rate their attractiveness. The semen
quality was then rated according to the standards of the World Health
Organization. The sperm of the more attractive men were better quality
having better motility and morphology. The opposite was true for the
sperm of the lower rated men. In the second part of the study the sperm
was first evaluated and pictures of men from the good, normal, and bad
semen group were rated by a different set of women. Again the more
attractive men had higher quality sperm. "Although other factors like
social and economic status influence women's final choice of a partner,
say the researchers, they do seek attractive partners who are healthy
and able to father children (Battacharya).
Only biological theories have been addressed up to this point, however, societal factors also influence a person's perceived attractiveness. Weight is a particularly interesting factor because people in the United States are obsessed with it and it is debatable whether weight is a societal or biological influence. From a biological standpoint it would appear beneficial for women to have a fuller figure with large hips and breasts. This is a sign of health and ability to carry children. However, in the United States and much of the western world extremely thin figures are considered more attractive (Marlowe).
This discrepancy brings societal influence on attractiveness into
question. Research was done with Hazda hunter-gatherers in Tanzania and
a preference was shown for larger females. According to the study, "the
more subsistence-oriented a society is, and the more energetically
expansive women's work, the more men will find fatter women attractive.
Among foragers, thinness probably indicates poorer health" (Marlowe).
Most people in the United States do not need to struggle for food from
day to day so being thin does not make a woman less attractive. In the
United States obesity is a problem and heart disease is the number two
killer. Perhaps having a thin figure is more attractive in the United
States because it is indicative that a person is in better health and
therefore would make a better mate. Whether weight is a biological or
social influence is arguable because in both cultures there is a desire
to choose a good mate, however, the ideal mates are different because
of the societal differences.
The relationship between skin condition and attractiveness could also be considered either a biological or societal factor. A face is more attractive if the skin has a smooth texture and even coloring. Skin free from rashes and acne is a sign that a person is free from diseases and skin without wrinkles is a sign of youth. This is a possible explanation of the averageness hypothesis because the more faces blended together, the smoother the skin becomes and thus the more attractive. While people may think healthy skin is a sign of a good mate; subconsciously they also might associate unhealthy skin with people of bad morality.
In movies and television bad characters are constantly being distinguished from good ones because they have unhealthy looking skin. Skin imperfections can be a spectrum of things such as acne, paleness, tattoos and the most popular sign of bad character, scars. Dr. Vail Reese is a dermatologist and movie buff who studies the relationship between skin conditions and character type in movies. The characters in the Oliver Stone movie Platoon are an excellent example of using skin texture to indicate someone's moral character. William Dafoe's character (left) is good so he has good skin
texture. This is juxtaposed against the complexion of Tom Berenger's evil character that
Pictures from: http://itsb.ucsf.edu/~vcr/Evil1.html
was given facial scars. Even in children's movies skin imperfections
are associated with evilness. For example in Disney's The Lion King the
evil uncle has a scar over one of his eyes (Reese).
Evil characters are often distinguished from good characters in movies because they have pale skin. After the release of the Matrix reloaded, there was an outcry in the albino community because of the negative portrayal of albinos in movies. The movie featured twins with white hair and skin and red eyes as Keanu Reaves's enemies. While the producers of the movie deny that the evil twins were meant to be albinos, one thing is clear: their paleness did make them scary. Another example of paleness being associated with evil would be the children in the classic horror film The Village of the Dammed with their white skin, transparent hair, and glowing red eyes. Evil characters that are portrayed as albino are often bald as well because baldness is also commonly used to indicate evilness is cinema. An example would be Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series who is both bald and pale (Reese).
It is interesting how these stereotypes created by the media affect our perceived attractiveness. Baldness and albinism are usually considered unattractive, but from a biological standpoint neither serves as a large evolutionary disadvantage. It is possible that subconsciously people are uncomfortable around people with skin imperfections. It seems unlikely that the portrayal of people with skin disorders in the media is what makes people find them unattractive. It is much more likely that people's discomfort with skin disorders has manifested itself in these stereotypes that people with skin disorders are evil. However, the media reinforces these stereotypes by continuing to portray people with skin imperfections in a negative light on screen.
All these theories of beauty have credibility but none of them can be entirely separated from the others. When looking at the diagram of the range of faces (on page 2), it is possible to apply all of theories. The less attractive faces are fuller and asymmetrical. The more attractive faces have smoother complexions and the least attractive of the woman has a skin imperfection, a mole! If a survey had been created using those pictures, the results would have agreed with the range that Dr. Marquadt had created. However, it is impossible to prove that any one theory is the cause of that. Rather the beauty of someone's face is determined by a mix of social and biological factors that come together in the mind of the perceiver.
Battacharya, Shaoni. "Handsome Men have the Best Sperm." May 29, 2003. New
Scientist. May 15, 2005. http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn3777
Greundl, Martin. "Beauty Check." 25 June 2002. University of Regensberg. May 13, 2005. http://www.uni-regensburg.de/Fakultaeten/phil_ Fak_II/Psychologie /Psy_II/beautycheck/english/index.htm
Jones, Rafe. "Doctor May have Beauty's Number." 2005 TLC. May 13, 2005 http://tlc.discovery.com/convergence/humanface/articles/mask.html
Marlowe, F. and Westman, A. (2001) "Preferred waist-hip-ratio and ecology" Personality and Individual Differences. May 15, 2005. http://evolution.massey.ac.nz/lecture5/docs/facial.htm
Reese, Dr. Vail, md. "Dermatology in the Cinema Website." 2005 Skinema. May 15, 2005. http://itsb.ucsf.edu/~vcr/Lobby.html
Valentine, Tim., Stephen Darling, and Mary Donnely. "Why are average faces attractive?
The effect of view and averageness on the attractiveness of female faces."
Pscyhonomic Bulletin and Review. London England: Goldsmiths College,
University of London, 2004.
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)
06/18/2005, from a Reader on the Web
Great work! Thanks for Rebecca Donatelli's concise and perceptive summary of certain aspects of the skinema website in her piece on beauty. Dr. Evil, by the way, is not only pale and bald, but also scarred, and tattooed. He is shown to have the tattoo "E. Diddy" on his rear end in the third Austin Powers movie. Again, great job... --Dr. Vail Reese (www.skinema.com)