The sci­ence of beauty

They say beauty is in the eye of the be­holder, but it could all be down to a math­e­mat­i­cal for­mula that even ba­bies un­der­stand, dis­cov­ers Nick Hard­ing

Friday - - Society -

Some of the great­est minds in his­tory have pon­dered the ques­tion, ‘what is beauty?’ From artist Fran­cis Ba­con to physi­cist Richard Feyn­man, many have tried to cap­ture and de­fine the essence of beauty, but the con­cept re­mains elu­sive.

As the say­ing goes, ‘beauty is in the eye of the be­holder’ – but is it? While many would main­tain that beauty is in­con­se­quen­tial, unim­por­tant and su­per­fi­cial, sci­ence shows that it ac­tu­ally has an im­por­tant role to play in our evo­lu­tion.

In fact, sci­en­tific re­search has found that we are hard­wired to ap­pre­ci­ate beauty in our fel­low hu­mans – some­thing ad­ver­tis­ers have been us­ing to their ad­van­tage for years.

Re­search by psy­chol­o­gist Alan Slater and oth­ers at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter in the UK has shown that ba­bies re­act pos­i­tively to what most peo­ple rate as beau­ti­ful faces. Alan showed pic­tures judged by adults as at­trac­tive to new­borns and found that they in­vari­ably stared longer at faces con­sid­ered as more at­trac­tive.

Re­searchers also found that faces rated as beau­ti­ful by col­lege stu­dents are not just easy on the eyes of chil­dren, but also easy on the brain. Ap­par­ently, ugly faces take more cog­ni­tive re­sources to per­ceive than pretty ones.

It’s per­haps be­cause of this that tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials are full of beau­ti­ful peo­ple sell­ing ev­ery­thing from insurance to sham­poo, and on a more per­sonal level, some re­tail­ers care­fully choose at­trac­tive staff to work in their shops.

Ex­perts be­lieve this early pro­gram­ming that hap­pens in chil­dren could lay the foun­da­tion for later so­cial pref­er­ences for at­trac­tive peo­ple.

But why are we pro­grammed to ap­pre­ci­ate beauty? The an­swer could lie in evo­lu­tion and the need to en­sure we have off­spring and that they sur­vive. Dr Markus Ran­tala, whose find­ings are pub­lished in the Royal So­ci­ety jour­nal Biology Let­ters, found that at­trac­tive women have lower lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol. “Stress can ad­versely af­fect fer­til­ity,” he says. “So those who are less stressed have greater re­pro­duc­tive po­ten­tial.’’ This is ob­vi­ously an im­por­tant fac­tor when it comes to choos­ing a part­ner.

Dr Ran­tala, of the Univer­sity of Turku, Fin­land, also found that at­trac­tive women carry just the right amount of fat in their bod­ies.

All this makes one thing clear. In the words of Satoshi Kanazawa, of the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, who uses evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy to an­a­lyse so­cial sciences such as so­ci­ol­ogy, “More at­trac­tive peo­ple are healthier, have greater phys­i­cal fit­ness and live longer.’’

Per­fect pro­por­tions

So what are the fac­tors that gov­ern whether or not you find some­one phys­i­cally at­trac­tive? There are the ob­vi­ous clues such as even skin tone, youth­ful­ness, bright eyes and wide lips. But on a deeper level, com­puter map­ping has made it pos­si­ble for re­searchers to test dif­fer­ent fa­cial fea­tures and anatom­i­cal shapes to work out the math­e­mat­i­cal body con­fig­u­ra­tions that are deemed most beau­ti­ful.

In a 2010 study, New Zealand an­thro­pol­o­gist Barn­aby Dix­son showed vol­un­teers pic­tures of a woman in which her chest, waist and hips had been dig­i­tally al­tered and asked them to rate the im­ages for at­trac­tive­ness. Cam­eras tracked their eyes as they looked at the pho­tos.

The re­sults showed that the hips and waist were the main fo­cuses of at­trac­tion and that a waist-to-hip ra­tio of 0.7 – or a waist mea­sure­ment ex­actly 70 per cent of the hip cir­cum­fer­ence – scored the high­est marks.

When the re­sults were trans­posed to re­al­life body shapes, they were amaz­ingly ac­cu­rate. The magic 70 per cent for­mula ap­plies to some of the world’s most beau­ti­ful women such as Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, ac­tress Jes­sica Alba and supermodel Kate Moss. And the at­trac­tive­ness of the hour­glass fig­ure holds true across

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