Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Whether we choose to accept it or not the power of beauty trickles into all breaths of society even if a lot of the time it may be subconsciously. In a world more self-indulged than ever, life may just be a little rosier if you are beautiful – more matches on dating apps, a free biscuit with your coffee, or even help you secure that dream job. It’s undeniable this ‘pretty privilege’ exists but how do we decide what defines beauty? Are we born knowing who is blessed with a beautiful face or our judgments shaped by our unique experiences and environment?

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An attractive face serves a purpose greater than simply being easy on the eye, it is an indicator of genetic strength. It must produce an evolutionary advantage such that the chance of producing offspring who can overcome environmental threats is greater. For this purpose, what we deem attractive results from a mental template that has arisen through selection pressures to find healthy, reproductively fit sexual partners. Cunningham et al’s study (1995) is just one of many to show the cross-cultural agreement of attractiveness. Male attractiveness ratings of images of women who were either of the same or different race to themselves corresponded to an impressive degree. This suggests there could be something inherent about how humans as a species collectively define beauty. If this is the case, you’re probably wondering what some of these traits may be.

Well, it seems that having a symmetrical face may bump you up the attractiveness scale since asymmetry reflects reduced reproductive fitness and increased susceptibility to disease. Perrett et al (1999) did a study where the attractiveness of more natural-looking symmetrical faces was taken thanks to the use of computer-generated images. Whilst participants rated the symmetrical faces more attractive 58% of the time, most admitted they were unaware that symmetry had had an influence. It seems whilst we have these high standards of beauty, many of us will struggle to actually describe what it is that makes a face attractive. Perhaps this favors the existence of an innate mental representation of beauty that lies in the subconscious and is not easily expressed.

Have you ever been described as vanilla, plain Jane, or the girl next door? Whilst that might not seem a compliment, you may actually be in luck as evidence suggests that ‘average’ faces are more attractive. The average face seems to be favored because it reflects the prototypical face of a population. This considers the average of everyone’s facial features which is well-liked as there is greater familiarity with such a face. When confronted with new faces, comparisons are made to a mental representation of this type of face to determine their level of beauty (Tsao and Livingstone, 2008). Averageness may also reflect adaptability as a typical face like a symmetrical face indicates resistance to disease in the environment. It is something therefore that we will intrinsically favor as it will have been of benefit along our evolutionary journey.

Whilst this seems good news for the majority of us, unfortunately, it may not strictly be the averageness of the face that is preferred. Langlois & Roggman (1990) showed that the more faces that were averaged together the more attractive the resulting face were rated. However, this is likely to be a result of a ‘smoothing out’ effect whereby any imperfections are canceled out through a loss in face definition from the averaging process (Alley & Cunningham, 1991). This surely makes sense as when have you ever looked at insanely beautiful supermodels and thought they had an average face? They clearly have quite the opposite. Their lacking of averageness is what literally lands them that career where their exquisite beauty can be admired by the more average-looking general population.

David Hume, a philosopher, conflictingly said beauty ‘is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind contemplates a different beauty’ (Hume, 1757, p.208–209). Unlike our primates, even if humans do have some sort of a hardwired template of beauty, it is by no means complete. What makes us the complex species we are in our different cultures and social experiences which shape our learning of what it is that makes beauty beautiful. A template may exist but importantly if so with the ability to be molded by what we are exposed to.

A study by Germine et al (2015) showed the role someone’s unique environment plays in developing attractiveness preferences. Identical and non-identical twins rated images of faces on attractiveness and these were then correlated to the average rating each image received. Interestingly, the pattern of ratings was similar across both twin types. Even though identical twins share 50% more genes than non-identical, genetics didn’t explain a greater degree of their attractiveness preferences. Within the field of psychology, this is an exceptional finding whereby preferences have been driven by variations in surroundings exclusively.

As a child develops their exposure to faces becomes heavily weighted towards those close to them. Therefore, what we find attractive in a potential partner may result from our opposite-sex parent. This is known as sexual imprinting and even it is beyond conscious awareness, it could explain individual beauty preferences. In a study looking at the partner choices of adopted women, participants rated a woman’s husband and her adoptive dad as the most similar looks-wise. This was in comparison to resemblances between the woman and her husband or adoptive mum (Bereczkei, Gyuris & Weisfeld, 2004). Considering an imprinting mechanism has been shown between family members who are not biologically related confirms that genes can’t explain this effect. Personal experience of an opposite-sex parent’s traits is central to what a child will value and seek out in a partner in later life. This is why you may end up with someone others would describe as a ‘mum or dad-alike” – how that sits with you is a different matter.

At the end of the day, we must remember beauty is all relative. You’re only as good-looking as the ugliest person next to you. Despite your granny telling you again and again how gorgeous you are, we can only truly determine our attractiveness value through comparison to all other faces we have been and are exposed to. This allows a tactical approach to dating to be taken; simply approach those on par with yourself to avoid rejection and embarrassment. Little et al (2001) showed that women who thought of themselves as more attractive showed a greater preference for more masculine features in a potential partner. This was particularly the case when they were told to judge the images in the context of a long-term relationship. Perhaps our preferences develop to reflect how we see ourselves and what our intentions are. In this case, a strong jaw and prominent cheekbones are indicative of the male’s strong genes, ones that a woman will want to secure over her competition and pass onto her future children. If someone is not so blessed in the looks department, they equally learn their value in the dating world and adjust their preferences to reflect this. Finding the “one” can be a long old game so why waste time on someone who will most likely turn you down?

So, it’s fair to say that unsurprisingly beauty is and isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Just like pretty much everything else in psychology, facial attractiveness preferences are no different in that they emerge from a contribution of both our genes and the environment. Without some innate mechanism, we would be unable to explain cross-cultural agreements in attractiveness ratings. We have evolved to take a fancy to certain facial traits over others for the benefit of our own and our children’s reproductive fitness. However, the story doesn’t just stop there. Our diverse individual preferences extend beyond an inherent representation of beauty. No two people’s upbringing is the same and so it is our unique experiences that sculpt our ‘type’. The short-lived nature of society’s beauty standards can only reflect our environment altering what is considered attractive.

Now more than ever, our obsession with the way we look has been fuelled further by social media as we find ourselves comparing each other and ourselves to more and more people. This explains why beauty trends are evolving quicker than ever before as the virtual world has granted us greater exposure to different faces. Ultimately, this could release society from a narrow-minded perspective of beauty to a more inclusive outlook. If you want to delve a little deeper into how the Internet has rocketed changes in our beauty standards then give this a read:

If you’re left feeling a little deflated after reading all this, just remember that even if 99% of the world’s population think you’re unattractive, roughly 75,000,000 people think otherwise. If that’s not reassuring, I don’t know what is.      

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