Beauty:Making sense of sex appeal

It's not all a matter of taste - and that's official. But we may be no nearer to learning just what beauty really is.

We all recognise beauty when we see it, but what makes a beautiful face is something that few can agree on. Is there some mathematical combination of angles, ratios and proportions that produce an equation for beauty , making one face more beautiful than another? Or is beauty like a work of art a matter of opinion, taste and culture? [ World6 | Toynbee3]

These questions were familiar to the Greek philosophers 2,500 years ago, when the face of Helen launched a thousand ships, just as they are pondered today when Princess Diana launches a thousand magazines.

In the last year a flurry of research has provided new insights into the origins of beauty. At University College Hospital, London, Dr Alfred Linney from the Maxillo Facial Unit has been using lasers to make precise measurements of the faces of top fashion models women generally accepted as beautiful.

The most controversial finding in the research is that there is no such thing as the beautiful face. Instead, Linney and his team have found that the features of models are just as varied as those of everyone else. "Some have teeth that stick out, some have a long face, and others a jutting chin.There was no one ideal of beauty that they were all a bit closer to," he says.

One of Linney's co-workers,orthodontist Mark Lowey, even considered that some of the models' features might have required surgery if found on a ''normal'' face .One type of problem people often seek help for is teeth that stick out," he says ," As a general rule we'd consider operating on cases where the teeth project more than five millimetres, but one of the models we measured had teeth that were eight millimetres out and she still looked gorgeous".

Although the UCH study suggests that the criteria for beauty are rather less rigid than previously believed, it still leaves one question unanswered: if one woman goes to an orthodontist to have her teeth straightened, how come another earns a fortune modelling them?

Interestingly, the Greeks had the same ideal of beauty for men and women - at least as far as their statues went - but that is unusual.Generally, male beauty has been considered less important,since male attractiveness is measured in terms of power and social standing rather than by facial features.However, when women hold economic power,such as among the Nigerian Wodaabees, then it is the males who become preoccupied with beauty and who dress up and hold beauty competitions.

Recent findings from UCH undermine one of the most influential scientific ideas of beauty - that the composite features of several ordinary faces can result in one beautiful face.

The theory dates back to the last century and is the work of Sir Francis Galton, who made his name both as a psychologist and geneticist In 1878 he discovered that if photographs of a number of faces were superimposed, most people considered the resulting composite to be more beautiful than the individuals who made them.

But this theory has taken a knock in a recent report from the science magazine Nature. Dr David Perrett, of the University of St Andrews, compiled some composite photographs of European and Japanese faces and asked people to judge them.

"We found that not only were individual attractive faces preferred to the composites, but that when we used the computer to exaggerate the composite features away from the average,that too was preferred," he said. This would account for the popularity of actresses such as Brigitte Nielsen and Daryl Hannah, who have features that are far from average.

The research also gives scientific respectability to another old idea. As the philosopher Francis Bacon put it more than three centuries ago: "There is no excellent beauty which hath not some strangeness in the proportion".

Dr Perrett claims that his beautiful faces have something in common. "The more attractive ones had higher cheek bones, a thinner jaw, and larger eyes relative to the size of the face than the average ones did," he says He also found that beauty can transcend culture: the Japanese found the same European faces beautiful as the Europeans did, and vice versa.

So it seems there is something fundamental to beauty.Many people agree on who's got it and different cultures find the same faces attractive - although obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Even three-month-old babies, according to Dr Judith Langlois, of the University of Texas, prefer beautiful faces to plainer ones. All of which suggests there must be an evolutionary advantage to being beautiful.

Could it be that beauty is an indication of a woman's fertility? Until recently , evolutionary theories concerning beauty and fertility opted for the "law of averageness" Anthropologists proposed that. beauty represented no more than the average value of faces in a human population. They argued that; evolutionary pressures operate against extreme features: people with average physical properties should stand the best chance of surviving to pass their genes on to the next generation. Average features serve above all as an indication that their possessor is likely to be fertile. The quest for a fertile mate also explains why glossy hair and good skin are sought after because they showed that someone is healthy and free of parasites.

Yet another theory said that women with baby faces, such as the model Kate Moss, who has big eyes, a small, full mouth and small nose, were attractive because they triggered the warm protective feelings we have towards small children.

Then last year Professor Victor Johnstone, of the University of New Mexico, published results of a fascinating series of experiments that linked perceptions of beauty to the effects of oestrogen on the bodies of adolescent girls His results bore the idea of childish features being attractive, but the explanation he gives has turned the original theory on its head.

"We found that that there definitely was a type of adult female face that men found attractive and that it was different from the average face," says Johnston. "The two key measurements are the distance from the eyes to the chin, which is shorter - in fact it is the length normally found in a girl aged eleven and a half; and the size of the lips, which are fatter - the size normally found on a fourteen-year-old girl". The Kate Moss view seems to be confirmed, but where does that leave actress Sigourney Weaver as an example of an attractive mature face, for instance?

Johnstone came to these conclusions by running a computer program that tried to mimic the process of evolution. Faces randomly selected by the computer were rated according to attractiveness by volunteers, and the most attractive were combined to breed a second generation of faces, continuing the process on to third and fourth generation,and so on. Gradually a shorter,full - lipped face took over. But Johnstone doesn't believe that the reason for its success was that it triggered protective feelings. "Although the features are juvenile, the face wasn't seen as being babyish," he says. The ideal face turned out to be that of a woman of 24.8 years.

The proportions seem to point to fertility, specifically the effect of the hormone oestrogen on the female face. "Up until puberty the faces of boys and girls are similar," says Johnstone. "But then the rise in oestrogen in girls gives them fuller lips, while testosterone in boys gives them a fuller jaw . So what people are picking out as beauty is really a sign of fertility brought on by oestrogen. Interestingly, 24.8 years - the age when most women achieve ideal facial proportions, according to the study - is the time when oestrogen levels are highest and women are at their most fertile".

In cultures where male beauty is valued, the features that are considered attractive are generally the mature ones - the small eyes, large nose, thin lips and prominent chin, rather than the big eyes and small mouth and jaw of the attractive female baby-face. Of course, there are beautiful male faces , Michaelangelo's David is a classic example,but generally men have more freedom to stray further from the rules of strict proportion and still be regarded as attractive -Sean Connery or Gerard Depardieu come to mind.

The oestrogen-beauty-fertility connection rears its head again in studies where men decide if a woman's body is sexy or not. Dr Devendra Singh from the University of Texas, points out that while testosterone encourages weight to be put on around the stomach, oestrogen lays it down around the buttocks and thighs, so full buttocks and a narrow waist send out the same message as the ideal face: ''I'm full of oestrogen and fertile."

When Singh got male students to rate pictures of women according to whether they had an attractive figure, he found that the most popular proportions for the ratio of a woman's waist to her hips were between 0.67 and 0.8. Women with these ratios were also seen as being humorous, healthy and intelligent .Those women whose waists are thicker were viewed as being faithful and kind, while women who are too thin were seen as aggressive and ambitious.

When men adopt a more traditionally feminine role of being judged solely in terms of their looks, such as the Chippendales today , they begin to show such traditional feminine anxieties as being worried that people only want them for their bodies and not for who they "really are".

There is no doubt that the fertile baby-face that emerged from many computer-based studies is attractive - Nell Gwyn fits it just as well as Cindy Crawford - but it doesn't by any means describe all beauties.

Why hasn't evolution produced a race of small-nosed, pouty-lipped clones?

Evolution hasn't produced a race of small-nosed, pouty-lipped clones. What about Glen Close or Susan Sarandon, with their strong, even slightly hooked noses and definite chins? Another beauty researcher, Dr Michael Cunningham of Elmhurst College, Illinois, has been looking at the effect of individual features in a beautiful face and has discovered that some features may or may not be desirable, depending on what the judge is looking for. When male interviewers are selecting a woman for a job, for instance, arched expressive eyebrows and dilated pupils are seen as desirable, but they were less important on a potential date.On the other hand, men contemplating partners with a view to settling down and starting a family, found a wide smile more important than expressive eyes and eyebrows. Is the secret of Julia Robert's appeal that she would be good with children?

Cunningham also found that attractive women with mature features, such as small eyes and a large nose, received more respect ."It could be that societies where women have more power and autonomy idealise women with more mature features," he says, "while those which value submissive females may prefer baby faces". But is beauty really just a matter of sending out a message saying: ''I am ready to conceive?'' So far all the studies are limited to photos that capture some types of beauty.Yet we all know people who are attractive in the flesh, but lousy in photos.

Why? Is it to do with how fertile they look? No one knows.But the search for a better definition of beauty will continue, driven by the billion-pound beauty industry's desire to find new ways of closing the gap between the actual and the ideal. In politics and business, personal looks are increasingly important;one estimate says that American professional women now spend up to one-third of their income on appearance.Maybe the 19th-century writer Stendhal got it right when he said: "Beauty is no more than the promise of happiness."
Jerome Burne .

The face that launched a thousand quips

Beauty by numbers: the measure of the ideal face

When Greek writings were rediscovered during the Renaissance,tracts defining beauty and attempting to snare it in the meshes of mathematics began to appear.One writer declared that for absolute beauty the face should be one-eighth the length of the body;another that the corners of the lips must decline, forming an obtuse angle.

In the 19th century,one writer gave geometry a racist twist with his "facial angles",measuring the angle between the tip of the chin and the nose. A profile of 100o represented divinity. The European rated a noble 90o , while the 70o scored by an African was considered to be "scarcely human".

But the most influential idea was the so-called golden section,a pleasing ratio of just over 1.6 to one which was used by the Ancient Greeks. Its appeal is as strong today.

Dr Mark Lowey, of University College Hospital, has made detailed measurements of fashion models' faces. He claims the reason we classify certain people as beautiful is because they come closer to the golden section proportions than the rest of the population.[Symmetry {A3 Paper}]

"In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,the answer to everything was 42, but actually it is 1.618," he says.[You might say beauty was in the PHI of the beholder! -LB] On beautiful hands the relationship between the between shorter and longer joints is 1.618, just as the distance from the hairline to the tip of the nose on a beautiful face is 1.618 the distance between the nose and the chin.

"Things that follow this proportion are seen as pleasing, but we have no idea why," admits Dr Lowey [It could be the principle of repeating on smaller scales that the brain may recognise as being similar in nature to itself -LB]. Some faces can be quite a way from it and still be considered beautiful. Princess Diana, for instance, has a face with a nose that is too big and is not balanced by the mouth.

Rhianna's actual face and mirror images of both halves of her face.

Eye Care Basics | Beauty Surgeries

Basic Instincts

The strangest things determine our choice of mate - subtle body odours,a symmetrical face,the precise proportions of waist to hip. In this exclusive extract from his new book - Professor Robert Winston explains the mysteries of sex appeal

Universal Appeal 'Men throughout the world choose mates whose hip measurements are much bigger than their waistline.The preferred waist-to-hip ratio is 0.7 to one. This is as true for Kate Moss and was for Marilyn Monroe'

Why do we appear to be pre-programmed eventually to lose interest in a sexual partner?
The majority of people have no problem with the idea that humans are descended from apes. But while we accept that our general shape and structure is derived from other creatures,we rarely consider the psychological implications. Up to 10 million years after the appearance on earth of our earliest ancestors Homo sapiens not only looks,moves and breathes like an ape: he also thinks like one. Many of our instinctive reactions and emotions are unnecessary in the modern age, but they continue to shape the way we live. Of all the human instincts, sex shouts the loudest: we are obsessed. Even when our behaviour is not overtly sexual, we spend a great deal of time in activities that are, in a fundamental way, connected with sex or reproduction: money, career, appearance, friendships, competition. Sex begins with looking for a mate. Most Homo sapiens have a complex series of tests that potential mates must pass if they are to prove suitable. Men from different cultures are attracted to varying types of female body, but there is one universal attraction: men through-out the world choose mates whose hip measurements are much bigger than their waistlines. The preferred waist-to-hip ratio is 0.7 to one. This ratio is as true for Kate Moss as for Sophia Loren; was as true for Audrey Hepburn as for Marilyn Monroe.
It even holds for ancient "Venus" figurines, the small stone sculptures of women found across Europe and Asia, which were possibly connected to fertility cults: although many of these figurines are enormously fat, all of them adhere to the "golden" ratio.

Ancient Ideal The 'Venus of Willendorf' about 25,000 years old

Possibly the waist-to-hip ratio tells a man about a woman's health and, by extension, her fertility. After puberty, oestrogen causes increasing amounts of fat to be laid down on a woman's thighs, buttocks and breasts - and this fat was once likely to be important for the survival of both mother and children. Males are also attracted to symmetrical faces and unconsciously register even tiny asymmetries. We are all born with a highly developed ability to recognise different faces: men apparently redirect this talent later in life towards selecting desirable mates. A remarkably precise formula for the perfect female face was drawn up by Pythagoras. For someone to be "beautiful", he argued, the ratio of the width of the mouth to the width of the nose should be 1.618 to 1. This ratio should also hold for the width of the cheekbones in relation to the width of the mouth. The face of your favourite supermodel would probably fit Pythagoras's formula. Some years ago, a group of researchers in New York began to investigate the genetics of mating. They started by looking at laboratory mice, concentrating on a group of genes called the MHC genes, which are present in nearly all the cells of mammals and play a major role in the immune system. Remarkably,the researchers found that mice were much more likely to mate with partners who had dissimilar MHCs. But why would the make-up of the MHC be so important in the choice of a mate? It turns out that there could be something very useful about choosing a mate with a different MHC. We all carry genetic defects in our DNA which could be fatal to our children; but if we mate with someone who does not have the identical defect, our children will nearly always be protected. So how do we detect if a potential mate has similar MHC genes to our own? One answer is provided by studies involving T-shirt sniffing. Researchers a the University of Berne tested the MHC genes of a number of female students and arranged them into types. They then asked a group of male students, whose MHC genes were also typed to wear cotton T-shirts so that their body odour permeated the fabric. The T-shirts were taken to a laboratory,where they were sniffed consistently preferred the smell of T-shirts that had been worn by men with dissimilar MHC genes to their Pheromones - subtle odours emitted by each of us - may well influence our choice of partner. The results suggest we can literally sniff out a suitable mate. When two people do finally sniff each other out and fall in love, there is a period of time - on average lasting for around 18 months to three years during which passion is at its height. This state of mind has a lot to do with the so-called "love-drug" called phenylethymine, or PEA. This chemical is produced in the brain in large quantities during this fiery period of ardour and amour, and its effects are somewhat similar to amphetamines, or "speed". PEA is present not only in the brain nuclei of love-struck couples; it accompanies other intense experiences too. Parachute jumpers' PEA production goes into overdrive during a freefall, an experience they associate with feelings of great exhilaration. What is clear is that either we fall in love to get our PEA injection like an addict finding his next fix, or the PEA is our "reward" for falling in love. The chemical aspect of infatuation must have evolved over thousands of years to bond us to the person in question. But whichever comes first, PEA or love itself the trip, like all good things, must come to and end.

Marriage is a divorce waiting to happen
Love is, literally, a drug, and a highly addictive one at that. And like all addictions there is a law of diminishing returns. The positive effects wear off after a certain period of time. After the initial intense period, your brain starts to pump out endorphins - brain opiates that are more like morphine than speed, serving to calm the mind, kill pain and reduce anxiety. Why do we appear to be preprogrammed eventually to lose interest in a sexual partner? The evolutionary psychologist Helen Fisher [Ref : Audio "Primitive Streaks" {Love}; H.Fisher Loving &Loathing.rtf] suggests that humans pursue a similar strategy to animals such as foxes. Foxes are serially monogamous: they pair up for just one breeding season and stay together long enough to help raise their young before splitting up. Fisher argues that humans, too, are designed to be monogamous only for the time it takes to raise a single child through infancy - about four years. In the UK, between 40 and 50 per cent of marriages end in divorce. After conducting research in nearly 60 countries, Fisher has backed up her claims by showing that divorce rates peak at around four years into marriage. According to this theory, every marriage is a divorce waiting to happen. Some understanding of the reasons for this may be found by studying the habits of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies - the closest modern-day comparisons to ancient human life on the savannah. In traditional societies such as the Australian Aborigines and the Nersilik Eskimos, there is a much longer period of breast-feeding than in the West - until the child is around three or four years old. After this four year period the mother gives birth to another child. The whole point of monogamy is, to be harshly utilitarian, that a partnership provides protection and resources for is own biological children. There's one huge stumbling block for men, though. How do they ever know for certain that the children are their own? Homo sapiens is an unusual species in that the female's monthly period of fertility is hidden -unlike species such as baboons or bonobos, who are not shy about broadcasting their fertile condition to the entire troop: during their period of "oestrus", their entire genital area swells and turns a bright shade of pink. Human females do no such thing. They themselves often tend to be unaware when they are ovulating. Concealed ovulation is a clever ruse. It goes hand in hand with internal fertilisation. Just possibly, both concealed ovulation and internal fertilisation evolved as mechanisms to ensure that a woman's mate was attentive all month long. They reduce the risk of desertion by the male, which itself reduces the risk of the male forging relationships with other women. Were these, perhaps, the very beginnings of a trend towards monogamy in human culture? I once came across an extraordinary clinical situation at my infertility Clinic at Hammersmith Hospital, London. Margaret B came for investigation of her infertility in her early thirties. Exhaustive tests failed to find the slightest thing wrong. I could even find sperm in her uterus on examination many hours after intercourse. Her husband too,seemed in good health, with an apparently excellent sperm count. One day, some years after she had first come to me, I said that perhaps the problem could be with her husband. She looked at me for a long time started crying and said, "No, it must be me." Eventually, her story poured out. She had been sleeping regularly with her husband, but for the past six years she had been having regular intercourse, sometimes on the same day and even when she was being treated by me, with her long-standing lover. "And he has three children, so I know he's fertile," she told me. Three months later, Margaret came to my clinic to tell me that she and her lover had taken a momentous decision. She had just seen him off at London airport - he had decided to emigrate. Only five weeks after her final farewell at the airport, she phoned to say that she had just missed her period and the pregnancy test was positive. And this time there was only one possible father. At the University of Manchester, Robin Baker and Mark Bellis have argued that human spermatozoa come in different shapes and sizes precisely because they may face a baffle against a competing. male's. According to their studies, the most common sperm are the standard-issue "egg-getter", with conical heads and long tails, designed to swim for their lives. But a different type of sperm is also ejaculated: these have coiled tails, so swimming certainly isn't their forte; instead they act as kamikaze sperm, wrapping themselves around the foreign egg-getters and hampering their progress. These researchers are convinced that sperm competition has been the main force to shape the genetic programme that drives human sexuality. I believe their views are fanciful - most of the unusual-looking sperm in human ejaculates are simply abnormal. But whatever the truth of all this, it is possible that adultery is an evolutionary adaptation that has grown up alongside monogamy and long-term commitment. Some estimates suggest that around 50 per cent of British married men and women are having extra-marital affairs. We already know some of the genetic reasons why men want to have affairs. They're programmed to spread their genes. If a man has a chance of impregnating another female - especially one who is already married and would not have to be provided for -then he may well have stumbled across the ultimate evolutionary bargain: all the benefits of of continuing his genetic legacy with none of the work involved in bringing up a child. What for a woman is evolutionary advantage of taking on a lover? We now know that women in all societies regularly have affairs. Indeed, genetic studies in rural parts of the UK suggest that up to 15 per cent of children are not the offspring of their "official" father. One way of explaining female infidelity is that it's a woman's way of hedging her bets. The security of knowing there is more than one "provider" for you and your children cannot be taken lightly. In addition, a lover provides an extra insurance policy: if your husband dies or is killed, there is someone else to help you take care of the children. Adultery, for a woman, is also about dipping into the genetic pool. Your current husband may be infertile, or may simply carry poor genes. Taking a lover is one way of introducing different DNA into the litter without destroying the stability of the family structure. A man's libido has a darker side, too, especially when sex is accompanied by physical coercion. Sociologists have traditionally viewed rape as a pathological form of behaviour, a crime committed by dysfunctional individuals. It is difficult to conceive of rape being described as "useful" from the point of view of human evolution, yet that, controversially, is what some researchers have recently suggested. While making it very clear that their theory does not provide any moral justification for rape, they argue that, historically, it is possible that it could have been in a man's interest to force a woman to have sex. Rape, a useful male strategy? No normal man wants to know he may instinctively harbour a desire to rape women. But there are some studies which bizarrely indicate that, for some unknown reason, the chances of a woman conceiving from a single act of rape are more than twice those of a woman who engages in a single act of consensual sex. Some scientists have suggested that rape increases secretion of stress hormones in the body and that these may, if the rape takes place somewhere near the middle of the menstrual cycle, trigger ovulation. Is this some throwback to the time of the caveman? Certainly, if true, this statistic provides a possible evolutionary reason for rape - and suggests that certain feminists might not have been so wrong when they said every man is a (potential) rapist. My own research has come up with some very different results. I wondered whether sex that the female partner found pleasurable improved the chances of her having a successful conception We asked several hundred infertile women about their regular sexual experiences. Two hundred women with a known cause for infertility (about half of them had blocked Fallopian tubes) were compared with a group of 200 women who had no known cause for being infertile. In all cases their partners had sperm counts within the normal fertile range. We found that women who were infertile with no apparent cause reached orgasm less regularly or reported experiencing less pleasurable sex. The control group, with a clear cause for infertility, generally reported more sexual satisfaction. One possible explanation for this is that female orgasm assists the transport of sperm through the uterus and into the Fallopian tubes. More work needs to be done, but this study raises interesting questions. If sex that is pleasurable to the woman does improve the chances of conception, it must be in the man's interest to ensure that his partner reaches orgasm. This may explain why most men seem to enjoy sex more when their partners do too. Men of all cultures tend to find younger women more sexually attractive. A woman who is young and healthy has a better chance of bearing a number of children, who in turn will be successful and go on to reproduce. For some men the combination of the loss of sexual interest often found in a long-term monogamous relationship, combined with the ageing of their partner, prompts a so-called ''mid-life crisis". A small minority of men who are sufficiently attractive, or who have high-status jobs, end up marrying a younger woman; in some cases, a succession of younger women. Men who marry these women are catching them in their fertile prime; on an unconscious, biological level they may be striving to maximise their genetic legacy. In fact, they are practising a kind of polygamy: even though they don't keep more than one wife at a time, they're marrying women in their prime and then discarding them, so the principle holds. Polygamy, monogamy, marriage, children - all these relationships are inextricably, bound up in our genetic heritage. Shadows of the savannah will always be present, cast over modern mores and ways of life. Slowly, we are starting to grasp the very basic truths about human relationships, and not all of them are easy to accept.

Human Instincts by Professor Robert Winston (Bantam) is available for £16.99 plus £1.99 P&P.A BBC1 Series starts in late October
[The Sunday Telegraph Sep 15 2002]

Picturing the golden ratio

NEXT time you're hanging pictures or looking through a viewfinder, think of the ratio 8:13. This 'golden ratio' pops up everywhere in art and nature, and people seem to like it: painters place key parts such as the eyes eight thirteenths of the distance up or along their canvas, even the logarithmic spirals of seashells are based on the magic number. In his Presidential Address, Chris McManus (University College London) demonstrated the way that he and others before him have experimented with this golden ratio. After concluding his work on the ideal geometry of angels (they should be spherical, apparently), the 19th-century German scientist Gustav Theodor Fechner moved to testing the golden ratio by presenting subjects with 10 squares and rectangles of varying shapes. No one chose the 'golden ratio' rectangle as their least favourite, and it beat the lot for 36 per cent of people. In paired comparisons McManus found that Fechner was right, although there was individual variation in preference and the golden ratio was not so much the most preferred as the least disliked. McManus moved on to seeing if sixth former could tell a fake from a real Piet Mondrian, a Dutch artist who made use of the golden ratio. They did indeed perform better than expected by chance. Mondrian was doing something right: experimental analysis and computer manipulation is only just getting to the bottom of what.
[The Psychologist Nov2002]


Jul94 p20