The Beautiful Face

Is Beauty in the Eyes of the Beholder?

The simple answer is both yes and no. The concept of beauty changes in time, changes in different cultures, and changes by manipulation in the media. Nevertheless, there remains evolutionary determined standards of facial proportions that endure through time and remain constant to all humans. 

 “Beauty is not a quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.”  David Hume

We all would agree that facial beauty has inspired artists, poets, philosophers, and the common man and woman. Its worship has both spawned violence and given birth to masterpieces of creativity. It deeply effects our lives but is barely understood. It has been an ever-present and powerful mystery to all humanity for ages. We seem to respond to it unconsciously and automatically as if it had some supernatural power over us. After thousands of years of civilization we are, only now, beginning to understand what facial beauty is, where it came from and why it has such a profound effect on us all. Our current understanding of it is very recent, derived from scientific research over the past twenty years.

If you think you already know what facial beauty is, test your facial beauty IQ by answering the following questions.

1)    What is it that makes a face beautiful (attractive)?

2)    Is our concept of facial beauty instinctive of acquired?

3)    Do standards of facial beauty change with time or are they constant?

4)    Do standards of beauty differ from race to race and culture to culture?

5)    Does the media set the standard of facial beauty?

6)    Is facial beauty measurable?

7)    What role does sexual attraction play in the preference of facial beauty?

8)    Why are adults attracted to baby’s faces?

9)    Why are babies attracted to beautiful adult faces?

10)  Is an average face beautiful?

11)  What role does emotion play in our facial preferences?

12)  Does biological evolution produce sameness or variation of facial proportion?

13)  Is beauty in the eyes of the beholder?

Briefly, here is how the researchers have answered the above questions.

(1) The universal standards of facial beauty are facial symmetry, average proportions and relationships, youthfulness, clarity of skin and healthy appearance. (2) The basic standards, as listed above, developed in our distant pre-human past and are imbedded in our genes. They are both a blessing and a curse from the past. (3) Although the basic standards are immutable, they can be temporally modified, overwhelmed or accentuated over time by changing styles. (4) The basic standards of beauty are recognized by all races and ethnic groups, but are often altered by cultural needs. (5) The media can influence facial beauty in a temporary way by publicizing fashion and style trends. Its standards are in constant flux. (6) Through numerous studies, testing and computer manipulations of faces, researchers have successfully measured and categorized facial beauty. (7) Sexual attraction is what facial beauty is all about in adults. The face is an advertisement of an individual’s qualifications as a sex partner. (8) Our fascination with the attractive proportions of a baby’s face is built into our genes by nature to help insure our attention to infants and enhance their survival chances. (9) Babies are attracted to youthful healthy looking faces because that face is most likely to be their mother’s face. An old, unhealthy face would be an unlikely source of a mother’s milk and constant care. (10) Studies of computer manipulated averageness confirm that the average faces are considered to be more attractive than less average faces. (11) Emotion is the “joker in the pack”. A happy, smiling face is universally considered more attractive than a serious face. Even the emotional state of the viewer plays a significant role in how he/she perceives a face. (12) Biological evolution does produce sameness in any distinct population. However, slight exaggerations of certain facial features, such as eyes, lips, or chin, can enhance or diminish facial beauty. Francis Bacon wrote “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” (13) Is beauty in the eyes of the beholder? The answer must be both yes and no.

Exactly how this new research can benefit us has been the topic of numerous books. By understanding that the evolutionary function of facial beauty does not and should not have the same significance today as it did several thousand years ago, we can more appropriately adjust our reaction to it. Columnist Michael Kinsley voiced his concern of our addiction to facial beauty. “We are all traumatized to varying degrees about our appearance. Facial discrimination is far more overt and shameless than racial discrimination: Our culture doesn’t even attempt to hide its preference for certain arrangements of facial and bodily parts over others.”

With our new scientific knowledge, facial beauty is not as mysterious as we once thought. Understanding it can help us control and direct our emotions.( There need not be any more Helen of Troy conflicts.) Those of us who can do this have taken a giant step forward into the future, leaving behind our haphazard and wild past.

“As a beauty I’m not a great star,

There are others more handsome by far

But my face, I don’t mind it

Because I am behind it—

‘Tis the folks out in front that I jar.”

Anthony Evers

Comment: Starting in 1967, I taught a class, Art for the Plastic Surgeon. Until I retired in 2001 this class was offered to Plastic Surgery residents and faculty of the Department of Plastic Surgery at the Indiana University School of Medicine.  Generally, those students who excelled in the class went on to become the most skilled surgeons. Not surprisingly, they began with minimal drawing skills, no scientific concept of beauty, and weak proportional understanding. After the course they could actually draw components of a face and put them together in and aesthetic way. They impressed their patients and colleagues with their new skills.  The class not only taught drawing, but also 3-D sculpting the face in clay, and molding and casting the face. It was a challenge that all the students enjoyed facing.

If standards of facial beauty can be understood, how about the body beautiful? This is a great subject for another blog. I plan to write about some of my favorite subjects, breasts, hips, buttocks, and legs. Your opinions will be welcome.


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