Face Facts- Divine Lines

Written for Plastique magazine '09 (photo not published)

divine lines - plastique magazine

"No her nose is funny." "This one's lips are too small" Why are we only seeing three quarter angles? Maybe she's really uneven from the front!" "There are no beauty shots she must have terrible skin." "No way, her chin is gigantic!" This is typical of how we in the fashion industry talk when picking a model for a beauty shoot. Shocking behaviour isn't it? We judge purely on physical aesthetics, not on personality or social merit, just the way you do when you look in fashion magazines.

Up until the 1980s social commentators like Naomi Wolfe, author of The Beauty Myth, claimed that the idea of physical "Beauty" was culturally determined as a conspiracy to undermine women's confidence. In 1987, psychologist Judith Langlois, discovered by accident that 3-6 month-old babies looked longer at photographs of attractive faces. Langlois had collected hundreds of photographs of faces and was analysing the response of adults to discern attractiveness, but discovered that even babies had a radar to assess beauty hard-wired into their genetic makeup.

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Every woman born into the world has been cast into a global beauty contest without her consent and everyone judges, even babies. According to a model scout, you know you're in the presence of exceptional beauty "when someone walks in the door and you almost can't breathe. You feel it rather than see it." Hence the apt descriptions, "breathtaking", "drop-dead gorgeous", a "knockout".

But for the other 99.5% of us, how do we assess how close we come to any kind of physical ideal. The general consensus of what makes someone attractive is basically a general consensus. If you were to take a thousand pictures of women and use a computer to find the average between all the facial features, long- short, wide- thin, you would end up with an attractive face. In Ancient Greece this idea of physical beauty was made manifest in their classical art. When you look at the Venus de Milo keep in mind that her face was designed to be an archetypal woman. I reckon she was probably a size 14, had a nice face, and slightly frizzy hair. Yup, I'll go along with that!

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Along with average features the other key to an attractive face is symmetry. If you draw a straight line down the centre of your face from hairline to chin, are your eyes, lips and cheeks similar in size and shape from right to left? If so, the symmetry supposedly signals a healthy metabolism, likely to produce very healthy babies. This isn't necessarily true, but it is what we have been programmed to interpret. This biological programming is a relic of the make or break mating choices our ancestors faced a few 100 thousand years ago. Yes it is a little outdated with medical advances and average life expectancies three times longer than during the Ice Age, but it still kicks in when we look at faces.

This is the driving force that makes women and men resort to plastic surgery to improve on nature, some to such an extreme that they end up looking rather similar. These over-worked faces become as appealing as the freakish bodies of muscle men, kind of fascinating, but ultimately off-putting.

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The website www.beautyanalysis.com displays the work of Californian plastic surgeon Dr. Maquardt's. Marquardt has used the principle of the "Golden ratio" a mathematical equation long used to calculate the most beautiful forms in nature, to create a mask that fits the planes of ideally proportioned faces. Marquardt superimposes the mask on ethnically diverse and mostly gorgeous faces to prove that the most beautiful faces fit the mask best (Lily Donaldson and Natalia Vodianova would be perfect). Try putting your own face to the test.

Contrary to Marquardt's theory, newer research argues that our brains calculate attractiveness using a best vs worst features algorithm, assessing not whether every feature is perfect, but does the good outweigh the bad. In 2005, a team of computer scientists, Eisenthal, Drer, and Ruppin designed a programme that assessed the attractiveness of 91 faces using an algorithm of comparing facial features on each face. There had been attempts previously to create a programme that could assess beauty the same way we do, but only this one worked because it also used the good vs. bad algorithm.

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The Predictor machine and a group of men and women were asked to rate each face from 1-7, 7 being the most beautiful. The machine and humans ratings were strikingly similar. Okay, so adults, babies and now machines can get involved in the global beauty contest, but at least this weighing up good and bad approach is less rigid. This is a much more useful starting point for us 99.5% not so breathtaking folks. We can use makeup and hairstyles and all the other tricks of the fashion and beauty industry to dazzle with our good features!

This flexibility in judgement helps explain the success of models today such as Aygness Dene, who has a slightly larger jawline than the Phi model. Hye Park, with her rounder face or Alana Zimmer and Amanda laing with their exquisitely un-Marquardt profiles. We adore the extraordinary combination of facial features of these distinct beauties. They aren't perfect, but they are idiosyncratically beautiful nonetheless.

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