Beauty: Is it really "in the eye of the beholder"?
Have you ever wondered why Hollywood stars are idolized in nearly every part of the world including cultures and languages very different from our own? Brad Pitt and Halle Berry look good to people living in Tokyo and Fiji, not just New York and Los Angeles. This is a testimony to the remarkable degree of consistency in what constitutes an attractive male or female appearance. Attractive facial features transcend race, gender, age, and sexual orientation.
The undeniable advantages of looking good
You may not realize it, but you are already an expert on what looks good.
From the moment you were born, you knew beauty!
Nancy Etcoff's book "Survival of the Prettiest" is a fascinating resource.
As it turns out, our appreciation of facial attractiveness is to a large degree
hard-wired into our brains. In her book, Etcoff describes research using sophisticated PET scans and functional MRI
to identify a specialized region of the brain devoted to facial recognition. Studies show that we judge a person's facial attractiveness in 150 milliseconds!
Before we even have time to say hello! Remarkably, attractive female faces, when shown to heterosexual men, evoke responses in the same
reward circuitry of the brain as food, money and
chemical stimulants (the illegal variety). These responses take place in a deep, primitive part of our brain, an area that developed
even before the region of the brain responsible for language. The responses are involuntary. In other words, a positive
gut response to facial attractiveness, rising to the level of desire, is in our programming as human beings. Most humans are probably not completely surprised to learn this, having experienced such visceral feelings of attraction first-hand.
We call it chemistry but it’s really biology.
Shouldn't it be the "inside that counts"?
A source of conflict in life is the struggle between the more advanced thinking part of the brain (that tries to keep us out of trouble) – the cortex - and the primitive part of our brain that seeks out
attractive physical features. Of course, this region of the brain is also closely tied to the sexual part of the brain which acts as a turbocharger. We may have advanced as a species intellectually, but we still have a great deal in common with our lower animal relatives in terms of Darwinian impulses. We make life decisions, sometimes literally life or death, based on how photons bounce off the topography of the human face. To think that, in the case of Helen of Troy, a face could launch a thousand ships!
Like life in general, it is a state of affairs that is not fair or just or moral. Ask anyone over 50 and they will tell
you that the importance of looks is a reality and you'd better get used to it. But there is a primitive, rational
and biologically sound basis for this bias toward beauty. Many of the facets of beauty also correlate with health, youthfulness
and fertility – estrogen contributing to an hourglass figure with fuller breasts and hips, unblemished skin, full cheeks and lips,
hairlessness and paler skin. Large eyes, a small nose and chin are associated with youth.
In men, thick eyebrows, smaller eyes, and a square chin signal the effects of testosterone and correlate with greater attractiveness.
Sadly, Eleanor Roosevelt said that her one regret in life was that she was not
"prettier" She was an accomplished woman and one with a lot to be proud of by any standard.
This regret cannot be assuaged by talk of "beautiful on the inside." Of course, today, her appearance
could be enhanced tremendously (starting with a chin augmentation). Who knows how stunning she might have looked
with some 21st century surgical assistance?
Joan Rivers talks of the “power” of beauty, something she did not have as a young woman, so she did not miss it.
She is not exaggerating by equating beauty with power.
As a plastic surgeon, I am committed to helping patients enhance their appearance and regain their youthful features. It's not a frivolous or superficial endeavor. One's attractiveness transforms human perceptions and influences the way they experience the world around them.