Scientifically, you’re better-looking than your parents. And, your kids will be better-looking than you.
What makes one person more attractive than another? It’s a question with so many facets that it can almost seem unanswerable. Whether looking at renaissance artworks, Greek sculptures, photographs, or a modern-day Instagram feed, beauty has always found a way to come to the forefront.
Over time, what we considered beautiful has changed considerably, so much so that it would be more accurate to say that beauty is a spectrum rather than an ideal. However, there’s been one thing, that throughout all of human history appears to have been universally desired — symmetry.
Imagine a beautiful person. Anyone, from any time, in any place. I can almost guarantee that, if you were to trace lines across that person’s face, you would find an underlying symmetry to their features. It can be seen across almost all of the art from all periods, as well as in how we choose our partners, and it’s the latter that informs the former in this case.
There is continuing debate on why humans have shown a preference for this kind of symmetry. Some have suggested it’s a learned trait. From the moment we’re born, we begin to observe the world around us. And since symmetrical, average things seem to require less mental work to make sense of, we learn to love them. For an easy example of this, compare a regular shape to an irregular one. There is no real reason beyond personal preference to design our world to this ‘regular’ standard, yet the majority of our world, from architecture to graphic design adheres to it. Something about the breaking of the ‘regularity’ rule appears to make us just a little bit uncomfortable, and so we avoid it.
A learned love of symmetry is not the only theory, however, particularly when it comes to human attractiveness. Many have argued that it comes down to genes more than our environment.
Some go further, stating that our environment evolved out of a desire to adhere to our genes. Or to put it another way, our genes make us desire a kind of ideal form, which we created through art and architecture, which in turn shapes how we interact with notions of beauty and the world.
The term ‘good genes’ has many negative and pseudo-scientific connotations, but in this context, it simply means healthy.
Our earliest ancestors selected partners based less on notions of love, but on the likelihood that their offspring with them would survive in their environment. This is the famous ‘survival of the fittest’. And for humans, as for a great deal of other animals, symmetry seems to be one of the subtle rules hardwired into our brains to show who’s fitter. It’s not exactly understood why this is, and numerous suggestions about — ranging from lack of physical deformity, to adequate nutrition, to an absence of parasites. Whatever the reason though, our ancestors selected partners based on symmetry, and to such a degree that it has become enshrined in our societies across the world. We consistently choose symmetry over asymmetry during studies on attractiveness.
Is it symmetry alone that decides how nice a person looks? Certainly not. In fact, beauty can be brought up from a more unlikely-sounding source: averages. To many of us, the ‘average’ is synonymous with ‘plain and unattractive’. But what if we take the scientific meaning of term, and take ‘average’ as ‘statistical mean’ instead?
Or, to put it another way, what does the average person look like? The answer has consistently proven to be a little more left-field than many of us might imagine, namely: beautiful.
Evidence has shown that if a group of ten men or women had their photographs digitally averaged out and combined into one singular image, participants in the study consistently ranked the combined image as more attractive. Interestingly, the more people they average out, the more attractive the composite image became. There have been dozens of studies into this, though perhaps the most famous one averaged out the faces of dozens of serial killers with results consistent to those mentioned above.
Why does this happen? Again, we don’t know for sure, but this combining process probably smooths out characteristics that we would normally call ‘imperfections’ in someone’s face. Things such as face shape, blemishes, skin texture, wrinkles, redness, and asymmetry get averaged out of the picture, to create a thoroughly ‘average’ composite face that we find more attractive than any of the individual faces making it up.
Because the composite face naturally becomes more symmetrical and, for lack of a better word, ‘generic’, it’s thought that some biological function, like the ones mentioned above, makes us naturally inclined towards the most average face possible. This has been observed across numerous countries including the US, UK, Australia, Japan and even in traditional hunter-gather groups in Africa.
While merging people’s faces in computer software can provide a great deal of insight into the immediate effects of averaging on the human mind, the process in the real world is much different. The only way to ‘combine’ people here is — you guessed it — through passing our genes to our children. Naturally, half of the genes from one parent and half from the other creates a kind of real-world replication of the process of averaging.
In other words, your parents averaged out their genetic material when they had you, creating a person who is more than likely slightly more symmetrical than they are — which the human mind will typically perceive as more attractive. If you have children, the same thing will happen. And so on.
It could, however, be many generations before a photo of someone today and their descendent ten generations down the line look starkly more or less attractive in their symmetrical averageness.
There are many other interesting facets to these theories too. For instance, women tend to get more ‘attractive’ generationally than men do. This could be because attractive women have more children, and a higher percentage of those children tend to be female, which in turn perpetuates the trend. Once again, the reasons for this aren’t fully understood, but it may go some way to explain why your ‘average’ man and woman do seem to increase in ‘attractiveness’ equally when averaged out.
Today, technology and plastic surgery are being used to reach for the most ideal standard. Our eyes can no longer reliably assess a person in the same way they once could, since any perceived imperfection can be corrected digitally or filtered out with technology. Plastic surgery takes this concept one step further, correcting imperfections but separating us from our genes.
It’s no wonder that since the rise of filters, technology, and plastic surgery, people — men too, but especially women — are held to an almost inhuman standard. This goes far beyond the averageness demanded by our genes and more akin to the ideal form of Classical Greek sculpture, which even the Ancient Greeks believed was unattainable for mortals.
Ultimately, then, beauty is a complex and subjective topic. While genetics may inform our decisions, they don’t dictate them. What’s beautiful to one person, may not be to another and, in our technologically evolving world, a dependence on ‘symmetry through genes’ and averageness may become a thing of the past.
I do, however, find it oddly comforting that, in a universe filled with chaos and entropy, many living creatures move towards a perceived ideal and a uniform identity.
Life, through whatever means, seeks the ideal form of itself.