What science says about my outer beauty.
Certainly my face isn’t for everyone. My bulbous nose drifts to the right, and my chin is a bit weak, although it’s skillfully hidden behind a goatee. It’s more difficult to hide the bags under my eyes or the fact I have lost most of my hair, which probably kept me from a career in television. And a few months ago, after more than four decades of checking the mirror daily for zits, I noticed that my right ear lobe is shorter than my left. How do you miss something like that?
And yet I judge myself to be not unattractive.1 Is that valid?1 Many researchers have examined the specifics of what we find alluring in another human face. So I decided to use these findings to critically analyze my own mug.
To get started, here is an un-retouched reference shot:
We judge a face within a fraction of a second, just as you have already judged mine. Scientists have tried to quantify universal hotness by showing photos of faces to college students and taking measurements of those consistently identified as handsome or cute. The “politically correct” view, as one research group put it,2 is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a stance adopted by many great (and homely) thinkers, including David Hume (“Each mind contemplates a different beauty.”) and Charles Darwin (“It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standards of beauty with respect to the human body.”). And yet decades of studies have put this notion to rest: No matter what our race, sexual orientation, social class, age, or gender, we generally agree on which faces are more attractive than others.3
One quality that everybody loves in a face is symmetry, and it’s no secret that mine lacks the balance that turns heads. (The uneven lobes are the least of my worries.) This idea goes way back: Aristotle defined beauty as including “order and symmetry and definiteness.” Scientists believe symmetry signals strong genes. Apparently we all instantly consider “developmental precision” when deciding which faces stand out in the crowd, even if we have no practical—or realistic—plans to reproduce with their owners.
There is no hard-and-fast line that separates beauty from ugliness.
Fortunately for the slightly unbalanced, we also gravitate toward faces whose measurements are closest to the mathematical average. In a classic 1990 study, volunteers looked at composite faces whose features were averaged from many other faces—average nose, average eyes, etc. The more faces that were added to the composites, the more attractive the volunteers found them to be.4 The hypothesis is that we evolved to look for averageness in potential mates (a tendency known as koinophilia) because extremes suggest mutations.5 We may therefore judge a supermodel’s face as especially pleasing, not because her features stand out, but because her visage is extremely typical—a prototype.
Other scientists argue that while average is attractive, it’s not the most attractive. That distinction belongs to humans who have slightly exaggerated average features, a blessed state known as “supernormal.” Brigitte Bardot’s plump lips qualify, as do Angelina Jolie’s ski-slope cheekbones. (I checked, but my generous nose and supersized ears are bugs, not features.) Nancy Etcoff, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of Survival of the Prettiest, has argued that women use cosmetics to mimic such supernormal features.6 Therein may lie the difference between “beautiful” and “strikingly beautiful.”
Keep in mind, too, that while studies have revealed general “standards” of beauty—large eyes and a small nose in women, a square jaw and thick eyebrows in men—there is no absolute “face formula.” “We know when we’ve crossed the threshold, but there is no hard-and-fast line that separates beauty from ugliness,” cautions psychologist Michael Cunningham, a professor of communication at the University of Louisville, who in 1986 coined the term “facialmetrics.” Bardot is a case in point. Technically, her lips are “too large,” but no sane man would call her ugly.
So where does that leave me? For perspective, I turned to Tommer Leyvand, one of a team of Israeli scientists who developed software for “digital face beautification.” Leyvand, who is now a director of engineering at (appropriately) Facebook, agreed to beautify me, assuming (as anyone would) that it’s even possible to make me better looking. When Leyvand ran the actor James Franco’s face through the beautification process for The New York Times, for example, nothing happened. Conversely, it deflated Bardot’s lips, which made her more scientifically attractive, but far less striking…