Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Science of Beauty

The Greeks had Aphrodite for beauty and Athena for science,
but Hindus landed a twofer, Saraswati. Economize!

When I first started seriously following the beauty beat, I thought I must have started at just the right time. There were so many new studies coming out about personal appearance, what a glorious coincidence! But when the stream of studies didn’t stop, I began to realize that beauty is an enormous area of study.

There’s research on how quickly we process and “accurately rate” beauty (accurate according to...?); how being good-looking can work against you (if you’re talking to a person of your sex who’s riddled with low self-esteem), or for you (if you just wanna be happy); the importance of symmetry in beauty (or maybe not); the number of us willing to trade a year of our lives (or just our chocolate) for the perfect body—and that's just a quick sampling. Now, this is great when you’re trying to come up with fresh content four times a week, so yay! But in the larger picture, isn’t the research attention paid to beauty sort of, I dunno, weird?

Some speak of personal beauty as this overwhelming force of nature: It’s uncontrollable, it drives men to their knees, to insanity, to the realm of madness; it launched a thousand ships, remember? It’s supernatural, immortal, otherworldly—beautiful women are witches, succubi, sirens. Not that women are the only ones who can cast the spell of beauty; Shakespeare’s fair youth, for starters, was a boy.

I happen to think much of this is bullshit (has ever a self-actualized person fallen onto their sword at the mere sight of a beautiful woman?), but that’s beside the point. The idea of overwhelm, I suspect, is what drives much of the academic research behind beauty. For if beholding beauty makes us feel powerless, why wouldn’t any of us want to deconstruct it—demystify it, find out what exactly it is that (supposedly) makes us tremble with rapturous delight? There’s an urge to pin down beauty in order to explain it, much the way that writer and prostitute Charlotte Shane writes of the satisfaction of quantifying one’s appeal by putting a price tag on it. I can’t help but wonder if the drive behind some of these studies is much the same: Researchers aren’t quantifying their own appeal, but they’re quantifying the appeal of others, which is, after all, where the power lies. It reduces the supposed power of beauty, transferring the power back to the appraisers, even when the outcome of the study is that beautiful people are richer and more intelligent. If you're researching beauty, you become the one who’s identified what’s really going on, which is a satisfying place to be.

One strain of beauty research focuses on what exactly makes someone beautiful. This is where you get the waist-hip ratio bit, the importance of symmetry, “baby face” beauty, and so on. Much of this falls under the desire to quantify beauty, but there’s also a philosophical component here, particularly when looking at studies about the role of the average. We tend to conceive of beauty as something unique and rare—but studies repeatedly emphasize that averaging photographs creates a face more attractive than any one face in particular. That is: We find the non-unique beautiful.

At least, that’s what this strain of research would have you believe. But what’s really being studied here is conventional attractiveness, not beauty. Some studies include this caveat (“It seems quite clear that there are few consistent standards of beauty across cultures,” Hamermesh and Biddle 1994), then plow ahead anyway. This may be worthy in its own right, but it’s interesting that studies repeatedly choose to focus on “beauty” instead of what they’re actually studying, ideas on conventional attractiveness—the key word here being conventional. By their very nature, most studies on appearance cannot study beauty. Instead, they must study what we’ve already agreed meets the culturally prescribed criteria of good looks. They’re studying stereotypes and conventions, which certainly can and do depict beauty—I’m not about to argue that Liz Taylor was any less of a beauty simply because she was widely acknowledged as such—but they’re not the full story. (Let’s also not forget that our perception of good looks may be more fickle than we’d like to believe.) The very efforts researchers take to make it the full story (say, rating subjects using a wide pool of respondents, or rating subjects over a long period of time) only serve to reinforce what we as a culture have agreed upon as beautiful, not what we as people consider beautiful.

At its worst, beauty scholarship isn’t even that: It’s what one person singles out as beauty. In this widely quoted aggregated report of five studies relating to beauty, four of the five studies relied upon the assessment of one person. (Actually, at its true worst, beauty science is just flat-out bad science, as with the “Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?" brouhaha. Incidentally, the author is now admitting that his analysis “may have been flawed,” a rather disingenuous way of acknowledging that in his analysis he never considered that racist bias may account for why photographs of black women were scored less attractive than women of other races.)

I’ve never attempted to define beauty on here, in part because that was one of my personal reasons for starting this blog: I wanted to find out what I thought beauty really was. I used to think of it a little more black-and-white: There was “inner beauty,” and there was physical beauty, and while someone’s personality can shape whether you see someone as physically beautiful, I believed there was a much stricter line between the two than I do now. I don’t know if we can map beauty. It’s an amalgam of genetics, experience, self-care, grooming, skill, circumstance, effort, finances, the time-space continuum, and plain old luck. Some beauty might be better caught in photographs than others; other beauty may best be captured in film; others still may shine only in person, when one’s electricity serves to illuminate them with the golden glow that beauty—whatever that is—confers.

And I think this might be what bothers me so much about these beauty studies. It’s an intense focus upon conventional looks to the exclusion of the magic beauty can create. I’m not exaggerating when I say that in more than half of the interviews I’ve done on here, at some point the subject has started talking, unprompted by me, about someone in her life who isn’t conventionally good-looking but who is magnetic. (I quickly learned I had to edit that out of interviews or risk being repetitive.) If we’re quick to categorize that as personality or charisma, we lose part of the original meaning of beauty—"a quality or aggregate of qualities that gives pleasure to the senses," as per Webster’s. Personality and charisma can be, but aren’t necessarily, distinct from beauty. The more we try to put a fine point on what exactly all this beauty business is about—with coefficients and calculations and n factors and quadratic formulas—the more we pretend there’s a formula to the magic of everyday life.

Listen, I write about beauty nearly every day. I like that these studies exist; I like that there are legitimate researchers trying to identify various aspects of beauty instead of just shrugging and saying it’s all up to the gods anyway. I like reading these studies and checking and critiquing my own assumptions. I like that there are people in the realm of the quantifiable doing what I’m attempting to do with words: learn more about appearance, and figure out why it can feel so damned important, why it can hold sway over us to the degree that it does.

But science, for all its quantifiable research, can have a veil of opacity over it as well. Scientific jargon can be alienating to the point where I want to just cry uncle because frankly, I don’t understand the language. (And it doesn’t help when science writers sensationalize studies, which is easy to do with beauty-related research because the public is hungry for it.) And when you don’t understand the language, it’s easy to just assume that they must know what they’re talking about. Even a skeptic like me sometimes just throws up her hands with a cry of “Science says!” because, hell, they have numbers and charts and data and PhDs, and what do I have but my dictionary and a women’s studies minor, right? But science isn’t infallible, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect our lived experiences. And when we’re talking about beauty—a quality that gives pleasure to the senses—to divorce it from our lived experiences and instead put it on paper can, when not regarded with caution, further alienate us from what we were gazing upon in the first place.


  1. Amen by the pound.

    I worry about the way these (sometimes sensationalized, as you noted) stories strike young people reading about them. When I was younger and looking EVERYWHERE for validation of my looks, studies like these were terrifying. But maybe young girls can now stumble upon blogs like yours to strike a healthier balance, eh?

    "Some beauty might be better caught in photographs than others; other beauty may best be captured in film; others still may shine only in person, when one’s electricity serves to illuminate them with the golden glow that beauty—whatever that is—confers."


  2. Rebekah, I didn't address this directly but I too was totally thinking of how these sort of "studies" bothered me when I was younger--and I'm talking my early 20s, when I started reading women's magazines more thoroughly (because I worked in them). Ladymags love to have those chirpy little stats--probably the most irresponsible and least comprehensive way of presenting even good studies--that inevitably made me feel shafted, even if I happened to fall on the "right" side of science. I never want to read about the waist-hip ratio again!

  3. "I never want to read about the waist-hip ratio again!"

    Oh, I know! Or the importance of symmetrical features, big foreheads, being prettier than your mate (THAT one terrified me), the necessity of wearing high heels so your legs are the Ideal Length--- when I was a teen, the No Nonsense Beauty Book supplied me with illustrations of the perfectly proportioned body, face, and face in profile. Cue the instant loathing!

  4. Rebekah, if you ever feel like reliving that instant loathing, just say the word! (Do I know how to turn a phrase or what?) This actually got me thinking about "beauty tests" (like putting coins between your ankles, calves, and knees to see if your legs "properly" meet up at those spots) and if there were any that struck you as ridiculous (or anxiety-provoking) I'd be curious to hear more.

  5. I just found your blog tonight and I love it! I have been thinking about these studies ever since I started reading them 7 years ago. This is my first time reading something that criticize them. They are usually taken as truth. Are you aware of the study which showed that BMI is more important than WHR? the participants chose a WHR of 1.0 on a thin woman over a WHR of 7.0 (supposedly "ideal") on a larger woman. I had read over and over again about the importance of a low WHR, so when I read that study, I was floored. It then occurred to me that nearly all the studies had been done on simple line-drawings of the same woman. The ONLY thing that changed was the waist (hip size remained constant). So the participants usually picked the smallest waist (within reason). However, when the hips are changed, and the waist size remains constant, the "Ideal" is different. The participants prefer less curvy figures.

    What does this mean? Well, basically what you already said, that beauty is based on a whole host of factors and you can't narrow it down to just one thing. I've also read studies where participants rated each other's attractiveness before meeting, were instructed to act a certain way (mean or nice) and then were rated again. As you'd expect, the people who were nice were rated higher in the second survey and those who acted mean were rated lower. It may sound obvious but it's still nice to know that attraction isn't purely physical, which those other studies would have you believe.

    1. Here is a link to that study:


      Also, there are studies that show how men's preference for WHR is shaped by economic circumstances. (Poorer men prefer higher WHR.) The "evolutionary explanation" (I take that with a grain of salt) is that those women appear more athletic, self-reliant, etc., which is necessary in hard times. I don't believe in these explanations, because they are purely speculation. I am only interested in the statistics. But anyway, this just goes to show that there are so many factors involved that you wouldn't even expect to influence a person's attractiveness.

    2. Hi Crystal--Just now saw your comment buried in my e-mail, apologies! Thanks for the link. It's fascinating how readily people take these studies as gospel--since writing this I've found plenty of studies along the lines of the one you mention about BMI vs. WHR that contradict these findings--but do you see those studies mentioned in mainstream media? Nope. Because they don't confirm what we've sort of decided is the beauty standard, at least that's part of it. Oi!

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