Calculating Beauty

The myths and math behind attraction

   One look at the grocery store glossies these days and it's easy to see little girls aren't the only ones obsessed with Barbies. The face of beauty surrounds us, yet remains as elusive as the holy gorgeous grail, a thing to be coveted, searched for, fantasized about - especially if your DNA is stacked a little differently than, say, Tyra Banks or George "clone him" Clooney.

   For centuries the search for what exactly makes someone a "Betty" or a Brad Pitt - and how to measure it - has fascinated mere mortals, annually leaving a money trail in the millions worldwide.

  The fact that humans hunger for beauty is old news to those in the field of interpersonal communications. Still, a scientific definition of what makes Jane plain or Jack hot - a mathematical constant to comeliness - has remained somewhat of a mystery. Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? Or is it just a matter of proper alignment?

   That's what researchers at University College Hospital in London intended to find out when they analyzed the faces of fashion models, measuring their features from the tops of their foreheads to the tips of their chiseled chin-chins. Dr. Alfred Linney and his team at the Maxillofacial Unit found the models' mugs were just as varied as those of "normal" females. "Some had teeth that stick out, some had a long face, and others a jutting jaw line," Linney reported. "There was no one ideal of beauty that they were all a bit closer to."

   Then what exactly does make a face that could launch a thousand YouTube hits? Experts say it's a clever combination of both structural components (the goods one is born with) and changeable features, such as grooming and facial expressions, that make one pleasing to the discerning human eye.

   In fact, one of the most potent "pretty" ingredients a person can have is found in his or her behavior. "If you want to be more attractive, present yourself as more attractive," contends Dr. Michael Cunningham, designer of the "facialmetrics" model and a leading expert on interpersonal attraction. The communication professor at the University of Louisville is quick to add that while confidence alone can't turn a frog into a prince, a bit of bravado can be enticing, sending an "I'm brave and worthy" signal to potential partners, as irresistible as it was back in the cave days.

   So go ahead, show a little confidence with that cleavage, then read on to see what else science has to say about the myths and math of beauty.

   MYTH: There is one universal mathematical formula to define the picture-perfect human face.

   BUSTED: Science says? Nope. Although the ancient Greeks certainly gave it a good try with their geometric equations for good looks – which, in a high-five for androgyny, they considered to be the same for both sexes – there is yet to be a single agreed upon standard of angles and ratios to define human attractiveness. Add in the variables of cultural bias and preferences, plus what’s popular in prettiness for any given time in history, and you’ve got a veritable mix of what’s considered hot or not.

   There are, however, facial features consistently accepted as pleasing.

   "Everyone across the globe recognizes that a smile is attractive while a frown is seen as a negative thing," Cunningham says. Caveat: culture determines to what degree. "Wide, generous smiles are definitely more popular in the West than the East," he explains. "In Japan, for example, geishas used to hide their smiles because of their white makeup which made their teeth looked yellow. Even today it's not uncommon to see a Japanese woman hiding her smile behind her hand."

   And here in the West?

   "Just look at Julia Roberts," notes Cunningham. "Her dental work made her famous."

   MYTH: People are locked into their DNA. Surgery aside, there is nothing one can do to change one’s looks.

   BUSTED: Not true. “Remember, in addition to the structural components, there are changeable facets of the face such as hygiene, and hair style,” Cunningham says, adding that at least half of how we’re perceived by others falls within that creative changeable category. Enhancements to make individuals appear youthful yet mature, healthy and self-assured, all serve to increase their desirability ratings. For women, wearing their hair down and of a lighter shade indicates they are in a youthful time of their lives. Red, full lips are perceived as promising passion while cooler, frosted lip tones spell “Cool it, buddy.”

   For men, sporting a mustache, in some studies, has proven to be an indicator of tell-tale testosterone, again a possible signal to those looking for potent, protective partners. For both guys and gals, proper grooming and cleanliness symbolizes a fit state of mind and body. Jewelry and other accessories also add a sparkle of come-hither, but again as defined by the bling bearer’s background.

   “Jewelry, piercings, and tattoos culturally determine whether you’re seen as compatible,” Cunningham notes. “If you’re seen as ‘from my tribe’ and the right status, you’ll be viewed as attractive.”

   And even those seemingly set-in-stone structural features can be enhanced with a little makeup magic and, more for the guys, some fun with facial hair.

   For the ladies, enhance those wide eyes, glowing cheekbones and full lips; for the gents, choose a combination of hair style, beard and mustache to accentuate your best masculine features. Good news for Sean Connery types: bald is beautiful. Interpersonal attraction studies show a lack of hair on top is a sign of wisdom, maturity and senior status since baldness is achieved only be men “of a certain age.”

   MYTH: Blondes have more fun. 

   TRUE: If by more fun, one means blondes are considered highly attractive and, as a result, have more party invites, then, yes, there is scientific evidence to support that, no disrespect to Brunette Barbie. 

   “Blonde hair is a neonatal cue and, therefore, aesthetically pleasing to the eye,” Cunningham explains. 


   “Often babies are born blonde or their hair stays light then comes in dark during puberty. It’s like spots on a fawn. Perceiving babies as being cute is a common human response, and blonde hair echoes that response. We see a blonde woman – especially one with other neonatal cues such as wide eyes and a small nose and think them useful and vulnerable,” Cunningham contends. 

   But, the good scientist cautions, blonde locks can be a double-edge sword: “Useful and vulnerable also portrays, ‘Don’t take me seriously.’” The traditional blonde bombshell would have to do other appearance tricks to counteract the fawn effect, he says. “Fortunately, a woman has the ability to change how she presents herself. If she wants to appear more mature, she wears her hair up. Of course,” he quips, “a blonde with a gun would have to be taken seriously.”

   MYTH: Why one individual finds another attractive is as mysterious as the stars in her eyes. 

   BUSTED: Actually, social scientists have long known reasons for why human-types are wired to admire that nose, those eyes, that classic Clint Eastwood cleft chin. It dates back to prehistoric preferences, as most human knee-jerk reactions do. Individuals instinctually respond to signs of sexual maturity or the advent of estrogen in women, testosterone in men. (The better to procreate with you, my dear.) For males, that means thicker eyebrows, mustaches and muscles are seen as sexy. For women, hormone-made higher cheekbones, narrow cheeks and fuller lips are winning ingredients. 

   An even more subtle facial sign, experts say, is dilated pupils. When someone has affection or liking for another, the pupils tend to expand, a sign of interest and sociability. The receiver senses the subliminal signal and somewhere deep in his brain a message board blinks: “Woo hoo! She likes me, she really likes me!” Bingo. 

   “We’re drawn to people who have the excellent taste and discretion to recognize our good merit,” says Cunningham, a little tongue in cheek. 

   In fact, in terms of beauty, the eyes have it. Studies show people’s peepers are not only the fabled windows to their soul but are the number one favorite feature for both sexes, followed by smiles for females and those size-does-matter chins for males.

   MYTH: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

   TRUE: On a beauty scale of one to ten, most individuals would agree who the lucky tens are, but opinions vary widely for the majority crowding the middle, especially the fives through sevens. That’s because culture, life’s experiences, family traits – a true hodge-podge of variables come into play. “Someone might be influenced by a long nose and rate them a five, for example,” Cunningham says. “But others give them a seven because they don’t notice it – maybe large noses run in their family.” (Five is the new seven; especially if the pupils are dilated.)

   Another supportive finding for the beholder’s point of view is the country that folks hail from. In some corners of the world where women hold higher political and social status, the population prefers a more “rugged”-looking woman, one the West would consider to have mannish traits.

   History also adds to the equation. Cunningham quotes one study that looked at the perception of attractiveness over the history of the U.S. During times of hardship, Americans have preferred more masculine women (remember Katherine Hepburn?) and more baby-faced beauties (the unforgettable Marilyn Monroe) during robust economic and political years.

   Ironically, Dr. Cunningham’s latest research shows that beauty is also found in the eyes of other interested parties. “We are easily influenced by others’ opinions,” he says. “In other words, if people around you find someone attractive, odds are you will, too. Hollywood knows this best. If you want to have your attractiveness rating go up, have an entourage of people fawning all over you.”

   It would seem, then, that ultimately what science says about beauty is that it’s more than just connecting the pretty dots. “There are always folks who want to reduce it to a mathematical formula but it’s more complicated than that – if anything, it’s the sum total,” says Cunningham. “Again, if you want to be more attractive, present yourself as more attractive. Beauty is as beauty does.”

   A little teeth whitening wouldn’t hurt either.

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