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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

I never forget a face, but in your case I’d be glad to make an exception. Groucho Marx.

Last Saturday, my son mentioned that he was considering doing a paper on the characteristics of beauty and the universality of those characteristics. I wondered about this topic for several reasons and asked him whether he thinks that universal beauty even exists. Most of us tend to see beauty - first and foremost - within our own ethnic group (see June 23 blog).

Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised at all that the outcome of a beauty contest within each ethnic group would indeed reveal similarities. The characteristics for defining beauty may indeed be universal. To test this hypothesis I have done some research on the most beautiful women in each ethnic group. Here's the list of most beautiful women by ethnicity and the source that I used: African: Nia Long (IMDb), Asian: Aishwarya Rai (source), and Caucasian: Salma Hayek (IMDb).

Interestingly, one could well argue that none of these 3 women show distinct ethnic features and that they somehow represent a melting pot of all ethnic groups. This would indeed support the view that the characteristics that define beauty are universal. Prominent features would then be the forehead, brows, eyes, nose, lips, jaw and cheekbones but most of all the symmetry between those.

It makes sense to use the face as a key determining factor for beauty as the face is the host of nearly all human emotions (see my April 12 blog). Even in animals we use the face to determine whether an animal is sweet, ugly, friendly or hostile. Even flowers are judged by their blossom ("face") and not by their leaves or stem. Insects are however mostly seen as ugly (also see my March 27 blog).

There is no doubt that beauty (which here means both male and female attractiveness) is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, but across individuals and across cultures there is nevertheless considerable agreement about what makes a pretty or handsome face, and the evidence strongly counters the conventional wisdom that attractiveness preferences are mainly acquired through life experience. For one thing, the beauty bias is already present in infancy. Six-month-olds prefer to look at the same relatively attractive faces that adults do (APS-Psychological Science).

Among the most important and consistent factors in facial attractiveness are structural qualities of the face that are highly sex-typical. An attractive man, in the eyes of female experimental participants, is generally one with relatively prominent cheekbones and eyebrow ridges and a relatively long lower face. Likewise, prominent cheekbones, large eyes, small nose, a taller forehead, smooth skin, and an overall young or even childlike appearance add to women’s allure in the eyes of male raters. (APS) The relevance of beauty is in its evolutionary perception of having good genes which is perceived to be more desirable in potential mates. 

Notwithstanding the above, you often hear that all asian/black/white faces look the same. This cross-race effect refers to the tendency to more easily recognise members of one's own ethnic group. Deeper study of the cross-race effect has demonstrated two types of facial recognition: featural and holistic. The first is for unfamiliar (other ethnic) faces and the latter for familiar (same ethnic) faces. Obviously, this featural method evolves in a holistic approach when ethnic interaction increases. 

I’ve never seen a smiling face that was not beautiful. (source, author unknown)