The Western media has long been blamed for putting forth an unattainable standard of beauty. From nearly every movie screen, billboard, magazine cover and television commercial, we are presented with a young face with round eyes, small nose, full lips and smooth skin. The backlash against manufactured beauty angrily asks, “Who is to say what is beautiful?” But study after study has confirmed the answer – nature.
We like to say that beauty is on the inside, but when we are told that someone is beautiful, we immediately think of her outward appearance, and more specifically, we think of her face. And it turns out that regardless of race, culture, ethnicity or time period, facial beauty comes down to symmetry. In fact, even babies as young as one week old prefer to look at faces that are symmetrical, which proves that not only is beauty defined by nature, our recognition of it is innate.
A woman’s face and what makes it beautiful has been a popular topic of research for decades (sure beats swamp algae research!), and evidence has been repeatedly put forth that physical attractiveness leads to more attention from teachers in childhood and better opportunities and more money in adulthood. In doing this research, one fascinating fact has continued to emerge. A woman’s facial beauty is mathematically quantifiable.
In the 1980s, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky named Dr. Michael Cunningham asked participants to rank women’s facial beauty. The rankings were so consistent and precise that Dr. Cunningham was able to formulate the actual perceived “ideal” measurements that most closely represent a beautiful face.
Those measurements include, “eye width that is three-tenths the width of the face at the eyes’ level; chin length, one-fifth the height of the face; distance from the center of the eye to the bottom of the eyebrow, one-tenth the height of the face; the height of the visible eyeball, one-fourteenth the height of the face; the width of the pupil, one-fourteenth the distance between the cheekbones; and the total area for the nose, less than 5 percent of the area of the face.”
Of course, these numbers represent a standardized ideal and not an actual face, but Dr. Cunningham found that even a small difference in ratios could throw off the perceived beauty significantly. For example, the ideal mouth is 50 percent of the width of the face. If that percentage varied by even a few points, the woman was perceived as much less attractive.
While it’s evident that facial symmetry is regarded as most desirable among all people everywhere, beauty is enhanced and adorned in very different ways around the world. Different cultures each have their own unique preferences for how to “dress up” a beautiful face. A few examples:
- Kayan Tribe (between Burma and Thailand) – Wear heavy gold rings starting in childhood to elongate their necks. As they age in adulthood, rings are removed and long, slender necks are revealed.
- India – Experts at adornments, Indian women rely on dramatic eyeliner, brightly colored saris, glittering jewels and a bindi dot on the forehead to enhance their facial beauty.
- Karo Tribe (Ethiopia) – Women inflict scars on their stomachs to attract a husband.
- Polynesia – Women who wear traditional tattoos on their chins and lips are seen as more beautiful.
- Asia – Very light, pale skin that is perfectly smooth and without spots or blemish is seen as ideal in Asia.
- America – Earrings and necklaces are widely used to frame the face, which should be smooth and wrinkle-free, but also tan.
As we now know, the perception of beauty is not learned, but rather innate. But what does beauty signal to our unconscious minds? As usual, it all comes down to sex and reproduction.
It’s perhaps not surprising that physical attractiveness in a mate is more important to men than women (women value money and the ability to provide), but it’s what physical attraction actually means to the male brain that may be unexpected.
Facial symmetry decreases with exposure to things like parasites, disease, toxins and pathogens during development and with genetic factors such as mutations and inbreeding. Genetically and developmentally healthy people have greater symmetry and thus are seen as more attractive because they are more likely to produce and sustain healthy offspring.
So while a man’s brain might be thinking, “Wow, she is beautiful,” his primitive brain is thinking, “Wow, she is parasite free. We should make babies.”
The other strong features related to a male’s primitive attraction are youth, waist to hip ratio and breast size, which are all evolutionarily important factors to creating and sustaining children.
Achieving Facial Beauty
Luckily, we live in a day and age that allows for all sorts of procedures, products, treatments and cosmetics that help us to enhance our symmetry, and therefore, beauty. In other words, we no longer have to live with the hand or face we were dealt. As Helena Rubenstein, the cosmetics tycoon, famously said, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”
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