Last year, a modeling contest claimed to have found the most beautiful woman in Britain: Florence Colgate, an 18-year-old who worked at a chip shop in Kent. As the Daily Mail later pointed out, Colgate’s face is nearly exactly symmetrical, with measurements matching ratios scientists have identified in the faces of exceptionally beautiful people: the distance between the pupils just less than half the distance between the ears, the distance from eyes to mouth just more than one-third the distance from hairline to chin. From the ancient Greek “golden ratio” to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man to our preferences today, physical perfection seems to come down to proportion.
Of course, we know individual tastes can be more generous, and more idiosyncratic, than any ratio or formula—as Francis Bacon said, “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” Yet a number of common aesthetic preferences probably developed for a reason. Evolutionary biologists argue that we favor certain proportions and symmetries because they suggest a lower likelihood of genetic abnormalities—and so, a more viable mate. Still, when it comes to surviving modern life, an array of studies suggest that physical perfection isn’t always so ideal.
First, beauty’s upside: to a degree, life is easier for people whose bodies are classically beautiful. Attractive men earn 9 percent more than their unattractive peers . We assess the personality traits of beautiful people more accurately—suggesting that we pay more attention to them . Attractive women are disproportionately likely to be described as having certain desirable personality traits, such as extroversion and conscientiousness . Beautiful people have better sex. Women are more likely to have an orgasm during sex with a man who has a more symmetrical face and body, regardless of romantic attachment or the man’s level of sexual experience . Attractiveness also seems to go hand in hand with popularity—at least among guppies. In a bid to deflect unwanted male attention at times of low fertility, female guppies prefer to surround themselves with more-attractive females .
Yet life for the beautiful is not as perfect as it seems. In one study of job applicants, beautiful women who included a photo with their résumé were 41 percent less likely to land an interview than “plain” women who did the same . When accused of homicide, beautiful women are more likely to be presumed guilty . And attractive people are also more likely to be associated with a number of negative traits, such as conformity and self-promotion .
If, as these studies suggest, our culture discriminates against both the too-beautiful and the not-beautiful-enough, we may be evolving toward a state where everyone is a comfortable, unintimidating, Goldilocks level of just-beautiful-enough.
THE STUDIES: 1. Hamermesh et al., “Beauty and the Labor Market” [PDF] (American Economic Review, Dec. 1994)
2. Biesanz et al., “What Is Beautiful Is Good and More Accurately Understood” [PDF] (Psychological Science, Dec. 2010)
3. Segal-Caspi et al., “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover, Revisited” (Psychological Science, Oct. 2012)
4. Thornhill et al., “Human Female Orgasm and Mate Fluctuating Asymmetry” (Animal Behaviour, 1995)
5. Brask et al., “Social Preferences Based on Sexual Attractiveness” (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dec. 2011)
6. Ruffle et al., “Are Good-Looking People More Employable?” (Nov. 2010)
7. Herrera et al., “Is Miss Sympathy a Credible Defendant Alleging Intimate Partner Violence in a Trial for Murder?” (The European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, July 2012)