1 The Pencil Test Quantifying the Unquantifiable
It should be a long story as to why I found myself standing with nickels between my upper thighs, knees, calves, and ankles. But the story isn’t long at all: I’d read that the ability to hold coins at these juncture points (and not, of course, at any other place along your shapely gams) was a way to determine whether you had nice legs. I’ve also lain a ruler from my rib cage to my pelvic bone to see if the ruler touches my belly flesh (if it does, your middle could supposedly use some slimming), measured the distance between my eyes (it “should” be equidistant to the length of one eye), walked in wet sand to see how close together my right and left footsteps fall (“try walking with your feet closer together for a sexy sway!”), and placed a pencil underneath my breast to determine whether I was sagging yet (ahem). I’d collected these tidbits pretty much unintentionally, through reading magazines and books primarily aimed at women. I knew none of these algorithms were definitive, and that some were downright capricious (didn’t the thigh gap controversy indicate that having nice legs meant not being able to hold a coin between your thighs?), but seeing an unambiguous measure of beauty written down in black and white immediately made me want to test what I was made of. I’d like to be able to report that I tested myself in these ways to prove their folly—I mean, what
grown woman actually lies down with a ruler across her hips just because a magazine told her to? It wasn’t that, though. I wanted to see if I passed.
Perhaps it seems like inverted logic to try to objectively measure qualities based in sensory appreciation, not facts and figures. In a way, though, that was exactly the point. Regardless of whatever truth it might contain, there’s something unsatisfactory about that whole “eye of the beholder” bit. It’s so assuring, so nice, so subjective. But beauty as a lived experience doesn’t always feel subjective, particularly when you suspect you’re lacking in it. A strictly subjective approach—eye of the beholder, whatever floats your boat, to each her own, and so on—can feel pat, even dismissive. The term beautiful woman may conjure a thousand different women, but who hasn’t been curious to know whether the average person would place her among those ranks? A yes/no answer to beauty, which all my little tests purported to issue, was both reassuring and provocative. With a test, the question was out of my hands, as well as the hands of those who might be favorably biased or dubious about my allure. It now belonged to an objective third party, one that didn’t care about aesthetics or the beholder but rather just the facts, ma’am. Beauty was now in the hands of science.
In 2013 alone, researchers conducted thousands of studies involving personal appearance. Whether in the “hard” sciences (“
Influence on Smile Attractiveness of the Smile Arc in Conjunction with Gingival Display”), the “soft” sciences (“The Effects of
Facial Beauty in Personnel Selection”), or somewhere in between (“Middle Temporal Gyrus Encodes
Individual Differences in Perceived Facial Attractiveness”), few aspects of beauty have escaped researchers’ investigations. While some of these studies have a distinctly contemporary feel, inquiries into the aesthetics of us Homo sapiens are hardly new. From the Aristotelian concept of the golden mean and its role in human beauty to the supposedly ideal human proportions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man to the “Anthropometric Laboratory” of Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton, researchers have longed to pair rationality with beauty.
It’s not that scientists are any more intrigued by beauty than the rest of us; the discipline’s fascination with appearance echoes that of the population at large. What separates the scientist from the layperson is, ironically,
the very thing that might help us reconcile the science of beauty with our lived experience: an understanding that science is conditional. Scientists tend to position their work as one contribution to a larger body of knowledge, as opposed to establishing a pure fact in and of itself—and as research in any one area develops, so too must our baseline understanding of that field. After all, the brightest scientific minds on earth once believed in spontaneous generation (the idea that, say, flies grew from rotting meat or moths from neglected clothes). It was observable fact. Today, of course, we understand this to be an example of how the “facts” of science can shift with our knowledge—but we might still be loath to apply that understanding to the “facts” of today. Yet when it comes to something as loaded and intensely personal as beauty, that’s an understanding we must keep in mind if we’re to make any sense out of the sea of data that’s been collected on the way we look. At its best, the science of beauty may be able to illuminate why we find beauty where we do. But its lingering contribution may be the mere fact of its existence: The enormous pool of data tells us that we’re eager—verging on desperate—to understand
beauty and its draws. The fact that we keep searching for answers within the sciences indicates that we’re unwilling to settle for easy, clichéd answers about the human drive for beauty.
Numbers Don’t Lie (Right?)
Beauty is a concept, not a fact. But unlike with other concepts such as justice, truth, and honor, we believe that if we just investigate beauty thoroughly enough, we can come up with an objective measure of it. And in some ways, these measures can actually help us relieve beauty of some of its weight. The idea that beauty is an ineffable mystery is in many ways a misogynist trap, a way of circumscribing women to the realm of the mystical instead of allowing them to roam on terra firma, warts and all. This matter-of-fact approach characterizes the work of psychologist Nancy Etcoff, who probably didn’t intend to drive legions of women to their tape measures and calculators with her work. Her 1999 book,
Survival of the Prettiest, published eight years after The Beauty Myth, served as a
response to Naomi Wolf’s claim that the beauty imperative was a social construct meant to curb
women’s growing power in the world. Etcoff, an award-winning researcher and Harvard instructor, took a different tack, attempting to demonstrate that our conception of beauty is hardwired within us. The human eye, she argues, is drawn to physical characteristics that supposedly signal prime ability to propagate the species. Symmetrical bodies and facial features, the female waist-hip ratio of the classic hourglass figure, clear skin: All these, Etcoff explains, are tied to health and fertility. The entire human race finds these attributes beautiful not because anyone tells us to but because our Darwinian drive to reproduce propels us toward them. “
[O]ur thoughts and our behaviors are ultimately under our control,” Etcoff takes pains to make clear, but we simply can’t help what our eye is drawn to.
The book made a splash, garnering favorable reviews from leading news outlets and going through several printings. It also gave women a scale they could use to measure aspects of their own beauty. When I asked around, I wasn’t surprised to find that I wasn’t the only woman who, upon learning the evolutionarily preferred waist-hip ratio (an hourglassy 0.70, for the record), did a few quick calculations. Turns out my hips are a hint too small for me to propagate the species (one could also say my waist is a hint too thick, but I’m happy to play my own spin doctor here), leaving me feeling somewhat as thirty-eight-year-old Cara did upon doing the same thing: “
Not only was I not close to the ideal, but I wasn’t even sure I was doing the math right! I felt more stereotypically stupid than evolutionarily beautiful.”
But for every woman whose waistline theoretically destines her to dateless Saturday nights, there’s another who learns
she’s been blessed with the perfect proportions. “
I calculated my ratio in college after I read about it in a magazine, and it turns out my ratio was damn near perfect,” reports Aliyah, thirty-five, a math teacher in the Pacific Northwest. “It was the first concrete reason I could find to help explain to myself why on earth men suddenly seemed to find me more attractive than I’d ever found myself, having grown up far from any beauty ideal. It was the beginning of a slow, decade-long shift in my perception about my physical self. And I think I allowed myself to believe it because it wasn’t subjective. It was math.”
The biological basis of beauty has, in the public mind, become fact. And why wouldn’t it? Unlike The Beauty Myth, there were ostensibly no political underpinnings to Survival of the Prettiest; this is science, people, entirely based on facts and figures, arrived at by people whose worldview is shaped around impartiality and objectivity. I mean, you can’t argue with the data, right?
Yet plenty of researchers have done just that, with data of their own, bringing into question the supposed facts about beauty that we’ve come to accept as truth. Let’s look at one of the most oft-repeated claims about beauty: that facial symmetry is integral to good looks. In 1994 university researchers—including Judith Langlois, one of the field’s preeminent scholars—found that while a degree of symmetry is a component of attractiveness, “
symmetry does not solely determine perceived attractiveness in a range of normal faces with no craniofacial deformities.” So if you’re noticeably lopsided, your chances of stopping traffic dwindle, but the rest of us are doing all right even if our right eye is a couple of millimeters higher than our left. Langlois and her colleagues were hardly alone; at least two other studies the same year reached similar conclusions.
Another given of female beauty—the much-vaunted 0.70 waist-to-hip ratio (WHR)—turns out not to be such a given after all, once the data is examined more closely. The pioneering study on WHR, Devendra Singh’s 1993 longitudinal survey of the measurements of Playboy centerfolds and Miss Americas, found that the overwhelming majority of the women’s WHR fell within .02 points of 0.70.
The study was widely reported, including in outlets such as Newsweek, Time, and even the Weekly World News,
opposite a piece about blood banks for vampires.
Yet according to researchers Jeremy Freese and Sheri Meland, the study is an “
academic urban legend.” Upon examining Singh’s data in 2002, Freese and Meland found that the 1993 study omitted nearly a third of all Playboy centerfolds from the years studied (1955 to 1965 and 1976 to 1990). Singh attributed this to unavailability of data; indeed, Freese and Meland found access to the missing measurements on the Internet, which was in its infancy at the time of Singh’s research. As for the pageant contestants, the data had been rounded to the nearest half inch by Singh’s
primary source—insignificant when buying a pair of jeans, but quite significant when calculating specific waist-hip ratios to within 1/100 of an inch and drawing conclusions from the data. When all the measurements were accounted for and recorded accurately, the results didn’t match those of the initial study. Only nine of the fifty-nine pageant winners had the WHR Singh claimed dominated the pool; similarly, only 31.4 percent of the centerfolds fell between the WHR of .68 and .71. Moreover, Singh had claimed that WHRs remained constant over time, even if the actual measurements themselves changed due to fluctuating fashions in women’s body size. Freese and Meland found that the measurements and the ratio changed: The classic girdled 1950s look was reflected in the lower WHR of the measurements from the mid-twentieth century; as the years passed, the ratio increased. (Think the undulating Jayne Mansfield versus the willowy Gwyneth Paltrow.) Other researchers
also found results contrary to the original report. And despite interpretations of Singh’s research that claimed female WHR was more important than the overall size of a woman’s body in attracting men, in 1998 psychologists at Texas A&M University found that weight and relative body size
mattered more to men than waist-hip ratio, findings echoed in numerous other studies—including cross-cultural studies that skewer the notion that there’s such a thing as a universally attractive WHR.
Let’s also not forget that some of the data
may have been artificially manipulated: Measurements of the Playboy centerfolds were self-reported. As Freese and Meland point out, this theoretically works in favor of Singh’s conclusion, since centerfolds would have incentive to fudge their measurements to fit a preconceived ideal (36-24-36, anyone?). But that’s just it: If the models are reporting dimensions to conform to a predetermined ideal, so too would the conclusion drawn from that data.
And yet the idea that there’s a perfect waist-to-hip ratio has filtered into women’s own beauty preconceptions—I’ve seen it referenced again and again, with little regard for these counterarguments. (
A headline from Glamour’s website: “Dressing for Men? Avoid the Empire Waist,” the idea being that “At all times, they want to see your 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio a la Cindy Crawford.”)
The list of popular beauty maxims challenged by various researchers doesn’t stop at WHR, of course. Have you heard that babies gaze longer at faces rated attractive by adults? This doesn’t necessarily imply that children are born with innate knowledge of attractiveness per se—it could be that conventionally attractive faces are just
more face-like because of their regularity, so babies seize onto them more readily. Or how about the one that says that the average face is considered the most attractive? Scientists in 1999 found that actual faces, as opposed to computer-generated composite faces, with
features close to the mean size of populations studied were usually rated as average in attractiveness, not highly attractive. The “average is beautiful” effect applies only to generated composite faces, in which one person’s flaws are canceled out by another’s; in truth, the average face is, well, average. Then there’s the study that ostensibly proves most people are attracted to faces that exemplify stereotypically masculine or feminine traits—that we prefer girlie girls and manly men. In truth, the relationship remains unclear at best: Clinically speaking, a woman who prefers a jaw of stone when she’s at her most fertile
might gravitate toward a more baby-faced man once she’s past that stage of her menstrual cycle. Underneath many of these studies is a fact that’s problematic for all sciences: The majority of people who participate in studies about appearance preferences are undergraduate students at the universities hosting the research—students who are disproportionately educated and middle-class. It’s like studying a campus on Saturday night and determining that North America’s favorite recreational activity involves beer bongs.
The social sciences get even murkier. Economist Daniel Hamermesh made waves in 2011 by
analyzing five earlier studies measuring the impact of looks on life satisfaction and happiness. Of the five studies used, four relied on attractiveness ratings furnished by one person. That is, the bulk of the data about what constitutes beauty in this widely reported aggregate study was decided by one person alone. In one of them, the people doing the rating were elementary schoolteachers rating their own seven- and eleven-year-old students. In the lone study that had multiple people rating subjects’ attractiveness, a panel of twelve people based their assessments on high school graduation photos taken thirty-five years prior.
It’s troubling that a major study proclaiming the connection between beauty and happiness boils down to the opinion of only a handful of people, so a logical solution would appear to be to follow the scientific model and have beauty quantified by a larger pool of respondents. Surely if forty people rate a number of faces, we can trust that we’re getting an accurate opinion by consensus, right? Perhaps, but that solution also presents a paradox of beauty research: When a large number of people rate beauty, the prevailing result is going to be what we as a culture have agreed is beautiful, not necessarily beauty as we experience it individually. At best it captures the average of beauty, not beauty itself. These studies are of conventional attractiveness, which may be related to beauty but doesn’t constitute the fascination, intrigue, and sheer pleasure of the latter. Even the truth behind the “average is beautiful” fallacy of beauty—that computerized composite images made of several individual faces are consistently found more attractive than most individual faces—supports this. A
composite face may be appealing because it is familiar, not because it is riveting.
And let’s not forget that our perception of good looks may be more fickle than we’d like to believe. A 2011 report in Psychological Science demonstrated that men who had rated pictures of women on their looks were apt to
change their ratings after seeing what they believed to be their peers’ estimation of the women’s beauty. And no, the men weren’t just caving to peer pressure; MRI scans showed that the responses of their brains’ pleasure centers were neurologically altered upon seeing other men’s assessments. We may all have our preferences that stay level throughout our lives, but the fact that other people can so directly influence our brains’ recognition of beauty makes it seem ever more like a construct, not a biological given.
At day’s end, beauty is all about what gives us a visceral pleasure and fascination—so to a degree, what we collectively determine is beautiful really is beautiful. And it’s not like we should look at the conflicting evidence about physical appeal and decide to throw it all out wholesale. (If anything, the contradictions contained within the science of beauty can serve as a guide to being appropriately skeptical of any science that attempts to classify human behavior by sex and gender.) Much of this research has its place in helping us understand why we humans do what we do—an
endeavor that becomes all the more intriguing when investigating something as intangible as beauty. In fact, the enormous number of studies on attractiveness makes me wonder if the shroud of mystery that surrounds beauty is exactly what makes us want to decode it. Is it possible that beauty is seen as so genuinely powerful that we’re willing to spend enormous resources on its investigation? Or is it that we’re hungry to figure out whether beauty is as meritocratic as the beauty industry would have us believe (try hard enough, buy enough products, and you can be beautiful too!)—or if Mother Nature has retained her aristocracy by doling it out unevenly, and we’ve just got to learn to accept the facts?
Monkey See, Monkey Want: Attraction, Feminism, and Evolutionary Psychology
If Mother Nature has been doling out beauty unequally, evolutionary psychologists believe there’s a pattern in the cards. As applied to beauty and attractiveness, the ev-psych theory goes something like this: In order to ensure that the human species stays strong, evolution has given us an innate preference for traits that indicate fertility and a strong likelihood of health and longevity. Those traits are the ones that have remained more or less steadily seen as appealing through time and across cultures—curvy hips on women, height in men, thick hair on everyone. The idea is that these attributes function as advertisements for reproductive fitness, and we can’t help but be attracted to them.
Let’s leave aside for the moment the potential shakiness of some of those findings due to research flaws, as described earlier. And let’s also assume that the fact that narrow-hipped women and acne-prone men are able to reproduce just fine simply means that evolution is forgiving. Instead, let’s look at the base premise here: that certain facets of beauty reliably advertise health. As with other scientific findings on beauty, this isn’t necessarily airtight. In fact, a 1998 study reveals that while there is a modest correlation between people’s health and health as perceived through attractiveness scoring, the relationship between
perceived health and attractiveness far outweighed the actual connection between the two. That is, we think beautiful
people are healthier than they are. It’s a perfect example of how we retrofit ev-psych theories to conform to what we already believe, regardless of how much the grain of truth within might actually shape our mating choices. We may take comfort in the findings of evolutionary psychology because they confirm what we already believe.
Plenty of feminists would argue that whatever comfort stems from evolutionary psychology is a masquerade for comfort with the status quo. Indeed, evolutionary psychology at its worst has put forth theories that, even generously interpreted, aren’t so friendly to the ladies—for example, the idea that rape is an unfortunate but natural behavior (man needs to spread his seed, after all). But even less loaded research, such as that surrounding beauty, is sometimes hardly satisfactory.
Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics caused a bona fide shitstorm in 2011 when he published a blog post on Psychology Today’s website about his findings that women of African descent were objectively less attractive than white and Asian women. Kanazawa had published plenty of controversial research before—for example, a study indicating that attractive parents were likelier to produce female offspring than unattractive parents were—but it wasn’t until the subject of race was introduced that protests began. And begin they did:
The student union called for his dismissal, thousands signed a petition demanding that Psychology Today cease publishing that sort of article, and sixty-eight of his colleagues published an open letter distancing the field of evolutionary psychology from Kanazawa’s work.
He was let go from Psychology Today,
temporarily banned by his employer from publishing in non-peer-reviewed outlets, and, perhaps most important, made to publicly acknowledge that this particular bit of research “may have been flawed,” though he continues to evoke “political correctness” as the motivation behind those questioning his research. (Kanazawa declined to be interviewed for this book.)
The fiasco was a heightened example of the clash between feminism and evolutionary psychology. To a degree, this clash is inevitable. Feminists have worked for decades to show that sexism is a learned trait, and therefore a malleable one; introducing Darwin into the mix offers little more than a shoulder shrug to sexism, because, hey, it’s in our genes, whatcha gonna do?
At an even more basic level, evolutionary psychology is concerned with accounting for what exists—like sex-based power imbalances—while feminism is concerned with both accounting for what exists and finding ways within the existing system to deepen women’s perceived value and power. Put a shade antagonistically, feminism has an agenda. That agenda may at times include questioning or even dismissing evolutionary psychology, at least when it comes to the public’s understanding of it. The public at large is already fairly entrenched in centuries of sexist attitudes and behaviors, so offering a biological explanation for those attitudes—especially when much of the public lacks a nuanced understanding of the sciences and may take research as more black-and-white than the researchers intended—can appear to justify malevolent attitudes toward women.
Yet just as with politicians and televangelists, it’s the extremists among evolutionary psychologists who garner the most attention, while more moderate practitioners simply continue doing work that may lead to a synthesis of feminism, sociology, biological anthropology, and evolutionary psychology in understanding beauty. “
At one point, evolutionary psychologists were sort of putting these controversial theories out there, but the field has [started] reining that in, and most practitioners have a more moderate stance,” says Dr. David Perrett, a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, whose research has focused on facial attributes, including attractiveness (
his own book on the science of attraction, In Your Face, isn’t entirely based in evolutionary psychology, but it touches on the field). “Attraction is enormously complex. [Evolutionary psychologists] aim to better understand one particular aspect of attraction, but our lived experience tells us that it’s only one part of the whole. Sociology comes into play, culture comes into play, our learned behaviors come into play.”
In fact, there is a growing number of practitioners who are aiming to show that a scientific approach to questions surrounding gender—including attraction and appearance—needn’t be incompatible with feminism. Dr. Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois is an anthropologist, not an evolutionary psychologist, but she studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology. She’s quick to point out that there’s evolutionary psychology, and then there’s bad evolutionary
psychology—and that it’s the latter that’s problematic. “The reason that bad ev-psych is more likely to ignore human variables—like flexibility of environment, social behavior—is because the field’s principle is to look for universality. If you’re looking for ways in which all humans are the same, culture is going to really screw that up. Yet at the same time, people who do pay attention to those perspectives come up with these really beautiful, rich perspectives on how humans came to be. Culture is also biology.” A comprehensive view of human evolution would encompass our lives as social creatures and a potential mate’s suitability in areas that will help us not only propagate the species but make it thrive—communication skills, say, or intelligence. The wealth of factors that make a person appealing to us, not just physically beautiful, have a place in the ev-psych conversation.
What’s more, bad evolutionary psychology sometimes—ironically enough—overlooks some aspects of evolution. “When we have just one perspective on one behavior of the suite of behaviors known to humans in a particular population, and we identify that behavior as the dominant one—the one most supported by evidence to give the most reproductive success—that crowds out the fact that that’s not how evolution works,” Dr. Clancy says. “There are always multiple, competing strategies, and this constellation of strategies is how we understand the richness of human behaviors. It’s a lot easier to understand the richness of female responses to male strategies and vice versa when we understand that there are a lot of different phenotypes [observable traits resulting from genetics as well as environmental factors] instead of just the ones that women get lumped into.” Evolutionary psychology can make for some glamorous conclusions, but like any discipline, it can be narrow in scope. Were women’s waist-hip ratios definitively found to be an evolutionary boon to the species, that would be only one pixel in the larger picture that explains why we are the way we are.
Still, even when looking at ways that a more comprehensive view of ev-psych can comfortably exist alongside feminism, there’s something deflating about this particular discipline. As a feminist who came of age in a nascent era of girl power, one of the core tenets of my upbringing was that
I could do anything I put my mind to. Put aside, for the moment, the more insidious aspects of ev-psych: Being told that there’s just not that much we can do to be more beautiful—well, it’s a passive, painful thought, and one with few antidotes.
So it’s interesting to peruse some of the offshoot studies that stem from evolutionary psychology that might—might—offer, if not solace, at least the knowledge that some of the findings on beauty indicate it’s not necessarily all out of our hands. Etcoff herself led a 2011 study on people’s perception of varying makeup styles, showing that, among other findings,
moderate cosmetics use makes women appear more likable and trustworthy. At first glance this is in the realm of neither feminism nor evolutionary psychology—not least because it spurs on the idea that women “should” wear makeup—but it pertains to both. The study’s authors position makeup as an “extended phenotype,” or genetic properties that extend beyond an organism’s body (like the shell of a hermit crab or a spiderweb). Seen this way, makeup becomes an emblem not of vanity but of survival. That may seem like a dramatic term to describe swiping on some lipstick, but it goes some way toward explaining the fraught relationship many women have with cosmetics. Same thing with a 2008 study on how women’s eyes and lips are darker than men’s in contrast with skin tone; by using cosmetics on the eyes and lips, perhaps women aren’t just passively embodying patriarchal notions of femininity but amplifying traits that signal their supposed femaleness.
I’m not about to argue that it’s fair, or feminist, that today’s artificial manipulation of the face and body is largely left to women, regardless of how loudly our Neolithic selves may be asking for just a hint of lipstick. Nor am I about to argue that makeup worn for biological reasons should somehow get a pass that it wouldn’t if it were merely a creation of the Maybelline marketing department. But I will argue that studies that touch on the role of human agency within the confines of evolutionary biology may blaze a path toward potential compatibility between varying disciplines. The better our understanding of the complex matrix of attraction and beauty—incorporating biological drive, psychological incentives, cultural
preferences, personal eccentricities and desires, popular imagery, and social and political mores—the better all of us will be able to critique, and eventually dismantle, the more troublesome parts of the beauty puzzle.
“Tell Us a Story”: The Pitfalls of Science Journalism
Can Being Attractive Make You Bad at Math?” blazed a 2011 headline at NewBeauty. The story was the same one heralded by Psych Central as “
Are Good Looks Problematic for Women?” The answer, according to the pieces, was yes. But the study detailed in these pieces had literally nothing to do with how good-looking women are. It measured the effects of objectification: Study participants took a math quiz, and some of the female participants had been intentionally gawked at by a male “study partner” before taking it. Unsurprisingly, the women who had been subject to a leering gaze didn’t do as well as women who were allowed to take the test in peace. But nowhere in the study were participants’ looks measured. The entire premise of the two headlines simply didn’t exist.
So here’s a study that takes a stab at understanding the day-to-day impact of the male gaze, a classic feminist issue—yet the outcome was misrepresented in ways that reinforce stereotypes about women. And plenty of other studies examine biological, cultural, psychological, anthropological, and sociological factors in an attempt to form a holistic view of beauty—so why is that bounty frequently absent from the journalism on the subject of beauty science?
Part of the answer here rests in your Facebook feed. Journalists, particularly in an era when a story’s page views may be taken into account when paying writers, are skilled in crafting attention-grabbing headlines and takeaways. At their best, these takeaways make for reader-friendly, high-traffic stories . . . and at their worst, they fall into the realm of sensationalist clickbait. And what’s more sensational than seeming evidence that some of us are
more beautiful than others—and therefore happier, better paid, and better laid? Responsible journalists incorporate flash into headlines that remain accurate, but sometimes we end up with just plain old bad reporting or bad headline writing.
But the crux of the oft-poor translation of science via media lies not within the world of science, or within the world of reportage, but in the uncomfortable pairing of the two. Laypeople depend on cultural translators like reporters to help them understand and assimilate scientists’ findings—which, when the journalist is trained to accurately relay the experiment’s implications, doesn’t present a problem. But just as the average reader doesn’t necessarily have the tools or background to place scientific findings in a broader context, the average journalist isn’t necessarily trained in science reportage either. That’s how we wind up with headlines like “More Beautiful Than Most? Your Higher Salary Makes You Happier” (
the study established a correlation, not causation, invalidating the phrase makes you happier), “Beauty and Its Neural Reward Are in the Eye of the Crowd” (the study was about how the brain calculates value, not beauty), and “
A Perfect Body? Women Would Swap a Year of Life” (
more than two-thirds of women in the survey said they wouldn’t).
David Brown, physician and twenty-four-year veteran reporter for The Washington Post,
gave a 2008 lecture at the University of Iowa identifying key concerns about science reporting. First, he says, American journalists (and, I’d argue, the general public) are often intimidated by the sciences. Because of an undereducation in technical areas, journalists may revere scientists and are, as Brown pointed out, “often unwilling to bring their own natural (and legendary) skepticism to scientific topics.” That is, writers often put aside their own “lived experience,” which Perrett refers to as being key to his own understanding of the importance of beauty research. Second, journalists may conceive of science as being more black-and-white than it actually is. Third, journalists are trained to find authority figures to comment on events, whereas scientific findings specifically do not rely on commentary. The practice is evidence based, not political.
But the biggest obstacle to a healthier flow of strong science journalism may be one of writing’s basic tenets. One of the things journalism students are repeatedly told is to find the story within any body of evidence or research. The idea is that the human mind craves a linear tale in order to make sense of the strands any one mess of information has to offer. Paint a picture for the reader, and the piece makes a stronger impact. “
But for science writing, [narrative] is a
hazardous form,” said Brown. “Why? Because the narrative form makes an anecdote evidence.” In the case of beauty research, the temptation to tease out a narrative may be downright irresistible—after all, looks are powerful enough to impact each of our own personal narratives in one way or another. The role of physical appearance can be so loaded with emotion that we’ll do quite a bit to tease out a story line that explains its importance. Hence a single study on the ideal waist-hip ratio goes from an account of an actual study to a paean to supermodels and a tsk-tsk to women whose waistlines aren’t deemed evolutionarily fit. Research based on women’s perceptions of beauty is even more rife with narrative possibilities. For a reporter, a single experiment testing women’s body image after exposure to idealized images becomes a chance to address far more than the study; it can quickly become a buffet of commentary on eating disorders, Photoshop, and the diseased relationship American women supposedly have with glossy magazines. In other words, it becomes evidence of a crisis, which makes for more intriguing journalism than the review of a single study of thirty-three white college students. A study is not a story. But humans have an urge to create a story out of an anecdote in order to understand its potential. And if crafting stories is your job, that urge becomes an imperative. A story is what readers want to read, and what writers try to tell.
The Science of Looks: Retro Edition
If evolutionary psychology has a public-relations problem, it’s no different from a past field that linked appearance to other personal traits. Physiognomy, or the pseudoscience of assessing one’s character through appearance—specifically the face—was invented by the ancient Greeks and was popular off and on throughout history until the nineteenth century. Firm lips signaled a firm character, weak lips a weak one; a retreating forehead was a sign of superior wit, and so on. Read today, the specific codes of physiognomy are laughably unscientific. Witness this passage on unibrows from Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss pastor who became the field’s authority with the 1775 publication of his book on the craft: “
Meeting eyebrows, held so beautiful by
the Arabs . . . I can neither believe to be beautiful, nor characteristic of such a quality. . . . [They] perhaps denote trouble of mind and heart.”
Physiognomy wasn’t necessarily about beauty per se; the point was to measure character, not aesthetic charms. Still, generally speaking, a good character was held to be reflected in an aesthetically pleasing face—and poor character manifested itself in the reverse. Lavater also took care to spell out the characteristics necessary for features to qualify as beautiful—a nose viewed in profile shouldn’t exceed in width more than one-third its length, for example. Yet when reading the precision with which Lavater treated his diagnoses, it’s hard not to be reminded of the exactness used by scientists studying beauty to describe their own subjects today. The careful measurement of waist-hip ratios, the anthropometrics of what constitutes facial symmetry, the assignation of numbers to rank photographs of people: The modern science of beauty parallels physiognomy, even if the disciplines purport to have different aims. And given that we overattribute certain characteristics to lovely appearances—including, as we have seen, physical health—it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that the science of beauty as we know it today might eventually wind up being viewed as we now regard physiognomy. It might be happening already, actually. In one of the studies disputing Singh’s findings on the waist-hip ratio, the authors concluded, “
We . . . suspect the WHR, not unlike the golden section or the grand mean, will eventually be understood to be a dimensionless number with great intuitive appeal but with highly circumscribed explanatory or predictive efficacy with respect to aesthetic judgments.”
Not that everyone these days entirely disavows the possibilities of physiognomy. The pseudoscience is seeing a revival of sorts, with numerous researchers taking up the cause. While some studies simply test whether people make associations between physical and personality characteristics without measuring the accuracy of those associations, other experiments are explicitly designed to assess their veracity. Faces expressing introversion versus extroversion, openness to experience, and emotional stability—
three of the Big Five in personality testing—were measured by British researchers (including Perrett) in 2006. A companion
study looked at how
desire for certain personality traits in a partner affected attraction (for example, if you like easygoing men, you’ll be attracted to a different type of face than those who prefer their men a little more keyed up).
These modern incarnations aside, to most of us physiognomy seems like some sort of twisted parlor game. But at one point its importance went well beyond that. In 1878, Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis
Galton started collecting and merging photographs of violent criminals in order to determine shared physiognomy among them. Not only did he become one of the first scientists to proclaim the “average is beautiful” maxim (he noted that the more faces added into a composite, the more appealing the result), he later began to wonder whether certain physical characteristics—and, correspondingly, their moral equivalents—could be eliminated through breeding. In 1883,
Galton coined the word eugenics.
Even without the involvement of physiognomy, the testing and
categorization of people has a historic link to eugenics. After all, one purpose of testing anything is to be able to divide and classify information, and once we get into dividing and classifying people, we tiptoe into dangerous territory. Consider in this light studies such as the 2011 one on the supposed unattractiveness of black women, and it begins to look less like political incorrectness and more like an alarm bell about where ranking human looks could lead. In fact, actual beauty contests—at least, the most well-known one, Miss America—started at the same time as the Fitter Family contest, an explicitly
eugenics-minded competition in the 1920s that emphasized familial pedigrees (think the Westminster Dog Show, but for people). In the Miss America Pageant, the longer lasting and more popular of the two, contestants supposedly won not on beauty alone but also on charm, comportment, and, starting in 1935, talent. But Miss America took contestants’ measurements, including those of the calf, upper and lower arms, wrist, thigh, ankle, and of course bust-waist-hip. Contestants’ dimensions were recorded for posterity, and as with the 1993 waist-hip ratio study and its myriad offshoots, these were seen as a uniquely qualified measure of beauty. In another part of the hemisphere, not much later than the birth of Miss America,
another group of specially selected citizens were also having
their measurements recorded. The fascination with evaluating human bodies in Nazi Germany may have had a darker purpose than that of a group of Atlantic City suits trying to rally up some business, but the means remains uncomfortably similar regardless.
This is not to say that evolutionary psychology and its practitioners are necessarily eugenics-minded in any way. Indeed, most in the field are quick to point out that evolution can account for only so much of any human action or tendency. But the base concern remains: Measuring human beings on things they can neither help nor change contains an element of appraisal, and in such a situation it’s near impossible to avoid introducing an assessment of human value. And once we introduce human value into the equation, isn’t the next natural question, How can we improve what we’ve already got?
Hot or Not: Our Desire to Quantify Beauty
When I think through the various tests I’ve conducted on myself—pulling on strands of wet hair to see if it’s thick enough to be considered “good,” or tracing the reflection of my face in the mirror to determine, once and for all, if my face is round or oval—one in particular stands out. As I stood in my kitchen a few years ago placing a pencil underneath my breast, I remembered that I’d done this exact test before. Except that time I wasn’t in my thirties and hoping the pencil would drop to prove my perkiness. No, the first time I’d conducted the pencil test I was eleven, and inspired by a tidbit in some teen novel, I was placing a pencil underneath my breast in the hopes that it would stay put. That, I’d learned, would mean I was developed enough to graduate to a real bra—maybe even the kind with wires!—instead of the stretchy training bra I’d donned since fourth grade.
It probably doesn’t take a degree in women’s studies to see the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” trap at play here. Standing there in my kitchen, I laughed out loud when I realized that I’d done the same thing twenty-odd years prior. It’s ridiculous, right? This test was particularly ridiculous—I mean, what’s the sweet spot? To indicate that its subject is properly breasted, should the pencil stay but shake loose after six seconds?
Dangle by the eraser? Levitate? But the test was just an exaggerated version of the problem with all these tests. I was looking for something concrete to provide a guideline of something aesthetic; I was searching for unassailable proof that some part of me was either acceptable or unacceptable. The result mattered, sure, but the true satisfaction came from merely having a result. I was looking to quantify something unquantifiable.
This desire to quantify beauty—to pin it down, put a number on it, check a yes/no box—is, I suspect, what lies at the base of the wealth of beauty science, both on the researchers’ end and in the public eagerness for their findings. The wish to measure beauty is the logical follow-up to the wish to possess or embody it, and when treated cursorily, the sciences give us a veritable checklist against which we can measure our attractiveness. Once I know a defined standard exists, at some point I’m going to wonder how well I match it. I’m embarrassed to tell you that the first thing I did upon learning of the golden ratio that supposedly measures the perfect human face was find an online tool that would calculate how close my own features were to that ratio.
Rather, I’d be embarrassed to tell you about my calculation if I weren’t surrounded by proof that I’m hardly alone. From the website Hot or Not to the iPhone app Model Potential (which tells you your chances of making it on the catwalk after you upload a photo of yourself and punch in your measurements) to the knowing nods I get whenever I mention the pencil test, it’s clear that though plenty of people might eschew these admittedly ridiculous tests, a lot of us are hungry to know whether we’re beautiful. And if all signs point to yes, the next logical question is, exactly how beautiful are we? We sometimes want a yes/no answer to queries that drive us to distraction; for all of that “eye of the beholder” stuff, sometimes we want firm, incontrovertible proof that we’re pretty. We may even want proof that we’re not.
Two women I know come to mind: a friend of mine who once pursued acting and a writer who goes by Charlotte Shane who also worked as an escort. On her first visit with an agent, my actress friend was told she wasn’t pretty enough to be cast in the kind of roles that were appropriate for her age and stature. She reports it as being crushing—but also freeing.
“He sort of confirmed my worst fears, but from there it was like: Well, now I know. I didn’t need to stress about it anymore—I had my answer.” She quit performing shortly thereafter, a choice she says she doesn’t regret. As for Shane, she told me about one of the reasons she first engaged in sex work: “
In our culture, the majority of messages directed at women say: You’re valuable for how you look. I think it’s natural for most women to say, ‘I want to know how much I’m worth in this world’—and that means, ‘I want to know how much my looks are worth.’ We’re told we contribute by being attractive. How attractive am I? Am I attractive enough? Should I be more? Could I be more? There’s a desire to quantify your appeal.” An agent served as an expert opinion for the erstwhile actress, while the escort has an exact market price on her appeal, something she describes as “almost merciful”—a mercy few of us have. (Even if you accept the idea that men “buy” women’s beauty by spending money on dates or gifts, it’s still not as stark of a value assessment as actual money changing hands.) Science, with its waist-to-hip ratios and symmetrical features, may fulfill a similar function for the rest of us.
Parallel to the drive to quantify our beauty is a wish to distance ourselves from it, or at least separate it from our identity. Beauty is intensely personal, in both our relationship with our own looks and the way we see others. You know the throwaway phrase nothing personal? Putting a number on beauty makes it exactly that: nothing personal. Calculating our looks takes something that we embody and wrests it from judgment, whether our own or that of others. I didn’t feel great after my waist-hip ratio revealed that I was hardly a top-notch specimen—but I also had a sense of relief upon seeing an actual number assigned to my figure. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough or pretty enough or thin enough. It was something definite, measurable, and more or less unchangeable—the ratio is no different now than it was when I was twenty pounds heavier—and casting it in these prewritten biological terms removed the sense of fault I’d previously had about my figure. Quantifying beauty erases opinion from the equation; it removes subjectivity from something that is inherently subjective.
Pinpointing the parameters of prettiness also removes our agency.
Normally I argue the need for women’s exertion of personal power, and certainly it has a vital role in self-presentation. But with that agency comes responsibility—and with responsibility comes burden, at least sometimes. In the last century—particularly since the advent of feminism—the beauty industry has couched itself as a sort of secret weapon that any woman can use to enhance her looks, regardless of where she began on the scale of conventional attractiveness. But just because the beauty industry has attempted to democratize access to beauty doesn’t mean that it is a democracy. The notion that beauty is something within our control also sets us up to believe that beauty is something we can fail at—don’t hate her because she’s beautiful, for you can be beautiful too. Maybe you’re not trying hard enough. Introducing specific questions of beauty that can yield specific answers relieves us of that notion, of that burden of beauty. If science gives us relief from wondering where we fall on the scale, it also provides succor from the self-blame that accompanies failure. The research on attractiveness may not make us feel more or less appealing. But it can be a guidepost for where we want to focus our energies. My unsatisfactory waist-hip ratio didn’t change how I felt about my waistline, but it did help me realize that there wasn’t really much I could do about it. Did the energy I’d previously spent fretting over my belly suddenly go toward, say, learning Portuguese or developing my origami skills? Hardly. But having an answer was one little nudge toward freeing up the part of my brain that was devoted to chiding myself for not being quite enough in this particular way.
As your average seventh-grader learns in science class, one of the inherent characteristics of the practice of science is its requirement of isolating variables: the factors, traits, or conditions that are controlled or changed in an experiment. Experiments isolate variables so that they test only one at a time; an experiment on facial attractiveness might use head shots instead of full-body photographs in order to prevent participants from factoring below-the-neck appeal into their responses. In that vein, beauty researchers stress repeatedly that they are aiming not to define beauty itself but rather to define its physical characteristics. But because those characteristics must be defined in isolation from one another, the entity of beauty, which depends in part on the overall impression made, cannot itself be measured
in its entirety. Even without introducing larger concepts like inner beauty or the relationship between beauty and charm (or beauty and love, or, for that matter, beauty and attraction), the very definition of beauty is that it’s a quality or aggregate of qualities that is pleasing to the eye. Beauty science may indeed be able to someday tell us the exact waist-hip ratio that is “beautiful” or the exact distance between the eyes or the length of the nose in proportion to the mouth. But by its nature, it will never be able to tell us about the aggregate of qualities that each of us perceives as beauty. In fact, quantifying beauty can alert us to the places where we instinctually challenge beauty norms, revealing to ourselves that allure is more multifaceted than hitting all the right neurons. Talking with people about what they find appealing in others inevitably brings mentions of quirks. One friend of mine admits he’s a sucker for “chicks in glasses”; another looks at what she calls “beard porn.” Me, I’ve always been inexplicably drawn to men with acne scars from their youth. One man tells me that he’s always been attracted to women who were larger than those his friends thought were hot. He points out that there is a sort of comfort in knowing what, and who, he finds beautiful. “
My tastes are different than what’s thrown at me as a guy, and I’ve always actually liked that,” he says. “There’s a lot of bullshit out there telling you what guys are supposed to like. You look at ads and half of them have these hot chicks trying to sell stuff to you because that’s what businesses think my demographic likes. Knowing what I actually like, it sets me apart. It’s not manipulated. My tastes are mine.”
Beauty can be looked at rationally, but it doesn’t always feel rational,” says Perrett. “It can drive humans to unimaginable things.” The entire field of science sprang from the desire to make the irrational rational, to discover and explain what was once thought inexplicable. It’s only logical that the people in a field that exists to demystify and classify knowledge would want to do just that with the ineffable essence of beauty. And it’s just as logical that beauty’s very ineffability ensures that it’s an endeavor that can never be fulfilled.