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
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.’’
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