Beauty Secrets


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I was 20 minutes into a knock-off reality television show called Make Me a Supermodel — which pits aspiring male and female models against one another — before I started to wonder how I had gotten sucked into the absurdity of it all. It took another 10 minutes to muster the discipline to turn it off.

It was enthralling television in spite of its derivativeness and dithering dialogue. Dominic recalled how everyone always told him that he should model and Perry told us that he was only auditioning for the show because his girlfriend insisted, while Aryn swore that modeling had always been her dream and Holly cried when she talked about how proud her family would be if she became a model.

Up until the moment I turned it off, I was completely caught up in the excitement of looking at beautiful people, figuring out what made them particularly so, and deciphering what piece of all this beauty might catapult one to win the whole thing. Though uniformly tall and thin, the contestants were not necessarily classically beautiful. In fact some looked rather odd: Frankie has a nose like Pinocchio. Ben has peculiarly puffy lips. Shannon has teeny eyes that get lost in her lankiness. Jacki has an overlwhelminly wide mouth on her angular face. And Stephanie’s features just sit funny on her face. Yet each was overtly attractive in a special way. I was bothered that I couldn’t put my finger on just what it was that made them special.

Beauty is always enchanting and mysterious. It has succeeded in driving people to distraction since the beginning of time, and yet we are still trying to figure out what it is about beautiful people that makes them so appealing. It can’t be just big eyes, clear skin, shiny hair, or a lovely physique, can it?

There is certainly a physical element to beauty, but it may be more subtle than we realize. Studies have repeatedly shown that what is considered beautiful in plants, insects, birds, and other animals correlates overwhelmingly to symmetry. Female insects are more likely to choose mates with symmetrical sexual ornaments. Female birds are more attracted to mates with symmetrical tail feathers. Female humans are more attracted to symmetrical men. One study even found that symmetrical men made better dancers than those who were less symmetrical. Humans seem to have an innate ability to distinguish people who are more symmetrical from people who are less so. Studies that have linked symmetry to fitness and fertility suggest an evolutionary purpose behind the desire.

Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder: Other people’s opinions also matter, as does familiarity. Scientists at the Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen found that women were more attracted to a man if other women liked him, too — a habit previously documented in other species. Positive interest from another woman increased a woman’s preference for the males, perhaps by conveying approval, but it had the opposite effect on male judgments, perhaps by encouraging jealousy.

On the other hand, studies have long documented that people tend to find beauty in averageness. Recently, scientists at the University of California San Diego demonstrated how the mental ease that comes with processing average faces may actually cause them to be attractive. This holds true, they noted, because what people like is a function of what their mind has been trained on, making prototypical faces literally easy on the eye. Because beauty basically depends on what you’ve been exposed to and what is therefore easy on your mind, the work appears to account for cultural and historical differences in beauty.

Now comes an elegant study that reveals the complex biological and subjective interactions that inform people’s perception of beauty. Researchers at the University of Parma in Italy showed images of Classical and Renaissance sculptures to people with no knowledge of art criticism and used brain scans to study their neural activity.

Subjects viewed original and modified pictures of more than a dozen male and female sculptures, including the nude statue of Doryphoros by Polykleitos, which looks a little like Michelangelo’s David. All of the original depictions met criteria for being proportionate — having the so-called “golden ratio” of 1 to 0.618 — between body parts, while 15 modified versions depicted either a long torso and short legs, or the opposite pattern of a short torso and long legs.

When the subjects viewed pictures of the originals, the areas of the brain activated indicated a strong emotional response, revealing a special attraction to these images. People had a significantly diminished response to the disproportionate images.

The brain scans revealed that the subjects’ sense of beauty was mediated by two non-mutually exclusive processes: one objective, based on a joint activation of cortical neurons and the insula, and the other subjective, based on the activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain driven by emotional experiences. The researchers concluded that both factors intervene in determining our appreciation of an artwork — and, most likely, of the rest of the world around us.

All of this research helps explain how and why we appreciate certain people as beautiful and not others, and yet I’m still a bit mystified about the roles of beauty and attraction in our lives. I’ll probably be surreptitiously checking in on Make Me a Supermodel to figure out — both objective and subjectively — just how one contestant rises above all the rest. • 8 January 2008

SOURCES: Dance reveals symmetry especially in young men. Brown WM, Cronk L, Grochow K, et al. Nature. 2005;438:1148-50. Social transmission of face preferences among humans. Jones BC, DeBruine LM, Little AC, et al. Proc Biol Sci. 2007;274:899-903. Prototypes are attractive because they are easy on the mind. Winkielman P, Halberstadt J, Fazendeiro T, Catty S. Psychol Sci. 2006;17:799-806. The Golden Beauty: Brain Response to Classical and Renaissance Sculptures. Di Dio C, Macaluso E, Rizzolatti G (2007) PLoS ONE 2(11): e1201.