Nina K. Anderson, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Children's
Dentistry, Stony Brook University, and Donald B. Giddon, DMD, PhD,
Former Dean and Clinical Professor of Epidemiology and Health Promotion,
New York University College of Dentistry, and Clinical Professor,
Faculty of Medicine, School of Dental Medicine, Harvard University
This article is a follow-up to the essay entitled "What Is Beauty?"
by Sheila Samton, which appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of Global
Health Nexus. In it, we examine several beauty maxims and possible
myths, particularly as they relate to female beauty. The research
in this area will be briefly reviewed to determine whether there are
objective bases for these beauty beliefs. Beautiful individuals comprise
a very small percentage of the population, yet they seem to have tremendous
power to dictate how society should act and behave (Wolf, 1992). Is
this the ultimate irony?
Beauty is not judged objectively, but according to the beholder's
estimation. (Theocritus, The Idyll). Modern Translation: Beauty is
in the eye of the beholder.
Is there universal agreement on what is beautiful and attractive,
or do people have different ideas about what is beautiful? If beauty
is in the eye of the beholder, then it would be expected that perceptions
of attractiveness would vary widely across individuals and within
cultures. In fact, Iliffe (1960), Udry (1965) and many subsequent
authors with differing methodologies, including pictures, genetic
algorithms, written description, and virtual reality, have found consistent
agreement among judges and across cultures about what is considered
to be beautiful (Cunningham et al., 1995; Gangestad, 1993; Jones,
1996; Oliver-Rodriguez, Guan and Johnston, 1999).
For females, the most attractive/preferred face is symmetrical, with
large eyes, high forehead, a small mouth and nose, prominent cheekbones,
and large full lips. Large eyes, a high forehead, small mouth, nose,
chin, and reduced vertical facial dimensions represent paedomorphic
or neotenous features signaling youthfulness. Prominent cheekbones
and large full lips and a low waist-hip ratio are secondary sexual
characteristics signaling reproductive maturity. Consequently, many
strategies are employed across cultures by females to enhance the
lips (lipsticks, lip disks, collagen injections), eyes (belladonna,
tattoos, epicanthoplasties), cheeks (blusher, mandibular contouring),
and nose (rhinoplasties, piercings, makeup). Males have an advantage
when selecting young, symmetrical, fecund females as mating partners
because they are likely to have greater reproductive success than
with females without the biologic markers of fitness. In fact, Hill
and Hurtado (1996) found that the facially attractive Ache Indian
women have 1.2 times the fertility of women with average attractiveness.
From an evolutionary perspective, facial and body attractiveness provide
cues to underlying health and fitness. In support of this concept,
there are innate neuropsychological mechanisms underlying attractiveness
judgments. These mechanisms are adaptations that have evolved to increase
gene propagation. For example, symmetrical facial features, breasts,
and overall body symmetry are associated with resistance to disease
and developmental stability. Departures from symmetry may reflect
an organism's developmental instability because the primary causes
of fluctuating asymmetry include mutations, pathogens and toxins.
Although Langlois, Roggman and Musselman (1994) and a few others have
proposed that the most attractive faces are average, the majority
of data on facial preference studies support the idea that both males
and females prefer mates with exaggerated features because they are
costly to the individual but are honest signals of fitness, reproductive
potential and resistance to parasites.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all Ye know
on earth, and all ye need to know. (Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn).
Modern Translation: What is beautiful is good.
What are the effects of attractiveness, particularly of the face,
on perceptions of attributes by others? Do attractive people actually
possess other positive personality and other attributes such as cognitive
ability, intelligence, social skills, and sexual experience? In a
classic study, Dion, Berscheid and Walster (1972) found that subjects
attributed other positive qualities such as success, higher socioeconomic
class, and marital happiness to those facial images judged as attractive,
than to those faces judged as unattractive. Subsequent research by
many others (Alley, 1993; Eagly et al., 1991; Patzer, 1985) has provided
additional support demonstrating that there is a consensus across
gender, ethnic and age groups that what is beautiful is good. Compared
to unattractive counterparts, attractive individuals receive better
grades, shorter prison sentences, more positive job reviews, and are
considered to be more successful, confident, assertive, and likeable
and have better mental/physical health, and social status.
Parekh and Kanekar (1994) examined the physical attractiveness stereotype
in the context of consumer behavior. They found that product quality
was rated higher by subjects when displayed by an attractive model
than by an unattractive model, but only when demonstrating beauty
products. In another study (Harris and Busby, 1998), attractive marital
therapists were considered by patients to be more competent, trustworthy,
genuine, and effective than less attractive therapists. Patients also
reported that they were more comfortable discussing sexual problems
with an attractive than with a less attractive female therapist.
Using earnings as a more objective measure of success (Quality of
Employment, the 1971 Quality of American Life, and the 1981 Canadian
Quality of Life surveys), people who were judged as "plain"
by interviewers earned five to ten percent less than people of "average"
looks, who in turn earned less than the "good-looking" (Hamermesh
and Biddle, 1994). In addition, attractive lawyers earned more than
their unattractive peers beginning at five years after graduation,
and continuing throughout their careers. In contrast, Dermer and Thiel
(1975) and others found that people judged as attractive were also
perceived as self-centered, vain and egotistical. Similarly, Eagly
et al. (1991) and preliminary work by the Giddon group, found that
attractiveness was negatively related to judgments of honesty, intelligence,
and concern for others.
To further explore the basis of a possible "darker side"
of the attractiveness stereotype, Singh (2004) found that subjects
judged those with attractive waist-hip ratios (WHR) (0.70) as less
faithful than those with less attractive WHRs (1.0). As further confirmation
of a potentially dark side of attractiveness, low WHR (0.70) women
were reported to engage in more flirting and other mating strategies
to make dates jealous, compared to women with high WHRs (> 0.70).
Using a hypothetical bargaining scenario in the labor market, Solnick
and Schweitzer (1999) found that attractive individuals were offered
more but were expected to do more than unattractive individuals.
Thus the question arises, is there a curvilinear relationship between
what is good and beautiful; that is, what is beautiful is good, up
to a point?
All the beauty of the world, 'tis but skin-deep. (Ralph Venning,
The Triumph of Assurance). Modern Translation: Beauty is only skin
According to evolutionary psychobiologists (good genes theory, parental
investment theory, etc.,) the universality of what is attractive reflects
the importance of health assessment in sexual selection or mate choice
and is reflected in the visual aspect of the face and body as well
as vocal and olfactory attributes.
For example, babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome develop distinct
patterns of craniofacial and body morphology including reduction of
total head size, increased head-body ratio, upper and middle craniofacial
asymmetry, telecanthus and features of a long face syndrome with a
large gonial angle (Jackson and Hussain, 1990), as well as increased
risk for neurobehavioral anomalies (Mattson and Riley, 1998).
Cocaine use by mothers is also associated with mild facial dysmorphic
features of hypertelorism and midfacial flattening in the neonate
(Astley et al., 1992). There are a variety of syndromes (Brachmann-de
Lange, Prader-Willi, Rubinstein-Taybi, Smith-Magenis, and Sotos),
with an associated craniofacial phenotype (Ward et al., 2000). In
fact, Ward et al. (2000) and Long et al. (1998) report that there
are over 100 systemic diseases, which have craniofacial manifestations,
although many of these physical anomalies may be below the human threshold
of visual perception.
Moreover, fMRI, PET and other imaging techniques have demonstrated
the existence of organizations of neurons within the central nervous
system, which are differentially responsive to curves, facial versus
nonfacial, familiar versus unfamiliar and attractive versus unattractive
facial stimuli. The results of these neurophysiologic studies provide
further evidence that such morphological preferences are innate and
universal (Aharon, 2001; Haxby et al., 2002).
Cunningham (1986) found that males judged attractive females as more
fertile and likely to have fewer medical problems than unattractive
females. Based on subjects' self- reports, Shackelford and Larsen
(1999) found that attractive females displayed greater cardiovascular
health and were less likely to suffer from headaches or runny noses
than unattractive females; however, no significant differences were
found between attractive and unattractive groups.
Sexual dimorphism in body fat distribution as measured by WHR is unique
to humans. According to Singh (2004), across gender, ethnic and cultural
groups, figures with low WHR (0.70) were judged to be more attractive
than figures with high WHR (1.0). In fact, the WHR has been shown
to be an accurate predictor of a female's reproductive age, risk for
various diseases, premature mortality, degree of androgenicity/estrogenicity
and fecundity, independent of overall body weight.
Onat et al., (1999) and others have found that WHR is positively related
to levels of most lipids and lipoproteins, fasting glucose and insulin,
diastolic blood pressure and plasma triglycerides and risk for coronary
heart disease (Seidell et al., 2001). Using three-dimensional images
of female bodies varying in Body Mass Index, Fan et al. (2004) found
that the most important factors in judgments of attractiveness were
the ratio of waist height over the chin height (WHC) (a measure of
the length of legs over total height) and the deviation of WHR from
the ideal ratio of 0.70.
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not beauty is universal and its role in perceptions of and by humans
in appreciation of the arts, animals and other humans. Although some
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