“Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend. If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it.” – Roger Scruton
How can beauty be defined? In The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, the great philosopher Emmanuel Kant defined beauty as a reflective judgment, where beauty is considered aesthetic, and an aesthetic judgment is essentially a verdict of taste. Although the feelings we have towards those considered “beautiful” may vary, and even more so stray from moral goodness and pleasure, following Tolstoy’s cautionary sentiment of the “delusion that beauty is goodness” – Kant believed we appreciate beauty without reason. As the judgments we make are based on subjective feelings, they remain nonetheless uninfluenced by personal motives, at least subconsciously: our individual motives generally do not take precedence when appreciating beauty, so our taste perhaps applies universally.
Although Kant’s statement of the appreciation of beauty as subjective may be sound, studies have found that a population will predominantly find unison in what they determine to be beautiful. This suggests a method, or science, behind it. In the words of Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff: “Many intellectuals would have us believe that beauty is inconsequential. Since it explains nothing, solves nothing, and teaches us nothing, it should not have a place in intellectual discourse. And we are supposed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. After all, the concept of beauty has become an embarrassment. But there is something wrong with this picture. Outside the realm of ideas, beauty rules. Nobody has stopped looking at it, and no one has stopped enjoying the sight. Turning a cold eye to beauty is as easy as quelling physical desire or responding with indifference to a baby’s cry. We can say that beauty is dead, but all that does is widen the chasm between the real world and our understanding of it.”
It is believed that beauty lives in the “divine proportion,” a ratio from which the proportion all natural things in the universe are apparently based on. The ratio, 1:1.618, denoted as phi, named after Greek sculptor Phidias, is appropriately the basis of ‘beautiful’ art, and reflected in nature through insects, flowers, and animals, humans included. For instance, should we evaluate the human arm, each following finger bone is 1.618 the length of the previous finger bone. The distance from our elbow to our wrist is 1.618, the same distance from our wrist to fingertip.
Though ancient mathematician Euclid was first to describe the golden ratio, Dr. Stephen Marquardt, a famed Maxillofacial surgeon and researcher, can be credited towards creating the first objective tool used to assess beauty. Based entirely on the ‘Divine Proportion,’ if one’s face were to entirely conform to this controversial mask, then such face would supposedly be considered beautiful. A series of lines traced over the width of the mouth to the width of the cheek should conform to the ratio, as should the width of the nose to the width of the cheek and the width of the nose to the width of the mouth. Acute triangles traced from the tip of the nose to the farthest corner of both eyes, including a trace from the corner of both eyes to the top of the eye similarly determine beauty. These configurations are among those that are used to create the mask.
There is, however, much more to beauty than simply mathematics: Dr. Victor Johnstone of the University of New Mexico created a revealing study linking beauty to fertility. Finding that a specific type of adult female face men found attractive was due to two measurements; the distance from the eyes to the chin, and the size of the lips. The study suggested that women with baby faces – the prime example given being Kate Moss, whose big eyes, full mouth and small nose launched her modeling career – may be found attractive because the proportions mentioned are directly linked with levels of estrogen in the female. In another of Johnstone’s studies, a female child’s face was morphed through age. When asked when the face was most beautiful, participants found that the age 24.8 years was considered the most beautiful. Interestingly enough, this age is when estrogen levels are supposedly highest and women are at their most fertile.
Furthermore, the waist to hip ratio plays an enormous role when speaking of “fertile beauty,” as one may call it. Biologists have found links between the fascination for Barbie doll proportions in women and a higher disposition of fertility and health, as men were more susceptible to calling a woman beautiful and healthy, no matter her weight, if her waist to hip ratio was 0.7, in other words if the waist was 70% the size of the hips. This is perhaps why Kate Moss and Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn as well as Marilyn Monroe were all seen as attractive, even though these women are obviously very different in size and appearance, but all bear something in common: the ratio 0.7. This corresponds to research that says that women with the waist to hip ratio of 0.7 are the most healthy and fertile. This is because the waist to hip ratio negatively correlates to estrogen, meaning high amounts of estrogen lead to low waist to hip ratios, which are found to be the most attractive. A high concentration of estrogen in the female body results in nearly 35 pounds of reproductive fat deposited on the hips and thighs rather than on the waist. In the Netherlands, a study found that women of a waist to hip ratio of 0.9 were one third less likely to be able to reproduce than women with a 0.8 ratio. Furthermore, it was found that woman with a higher ratio were said to have the same health risks as women with a high Body Mass Index, including diabetes, obesity and dyslipidemia, all leading to early mortality. This could be the answer as to why the male population is fascinated with curvier women – because the lower the waist to hip ratio, the curvier, more reproductive, and healthier the woman.
While the concept of attractiveness as universal is hotly debated, attractiveness is what draws us towards other people and by extension, guides our reproduction. Although we may not be able to drastically change our facial structures or morph our body proportions to appear more attractive without taking extreme measures, if we abide by the “science of beauty” there are certain steps we can take to increase our attractiveness: by adding false eyelashes, women can create the appearance of larger eyes, altering their facial proportions. Adding bangs to one’s hairstyle could likewise be considered a quick fix. In the same way, coloring one’s lips a shade closer to red also helps in promoting the contrasting of facial features, youthfulness and vibrancy – all indicators of attractiveness. Before reaching for those scissors, or applying the eyelash glue, embrace your own scientific beauty and remember, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, “there is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion.”