Spring 2005 Table of Contents
     
What is Beauty? The Discourse Continues
 









 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


By 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 deep.

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.

In summary, artists, philosophers, doctors, and others have debated over the centuries the definitions of what is beautiful, whether or not beauty is universal and its role in perceptions of and by humans in appreciation of the arts, animals and other humans. Although some answers are now available, many of the questions still remain unanswered.


Footnotes:
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T.R. Alley, The developmental stability of facial attractiveness: new longitudinal data and a review. Merrill-Palmer Q. 39 (1993), pp. 265-278.
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