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How Do We Define Beauty?

Illustration for article titled How Do We Define Beauty?

Is your preference for a low nose or a high nose? According to a recent study, North Americans and Brazilians identify beauty differently, especially around where your features are placed. But is nose height the only subjective beauty standard?


Interestingly enough, the study results were targeted to plastic surgeons, to help them understand cultural differences in beauty ideals:

Surgeons that perform nose surgery "must be aware of the different concepts of beauty, especially when working with people of non-Caucasian origin," Gomes said.

Most of the recent studies of the issue were "produced in North America, where the beauty concepts seem to have subtle differences when compared to concepts of other cultures," he noted. "Attention to this aspect may help the surgeon to tailor a more adequate technique and meet their patients' expectations better."


Exactly - beauty is a highly objective thing to quantify. We develop our own individual standards of beauty, taking cues from our families, society, our peer group, and pop culture. In addition, we take into account the shifting standards of beauty over time. For example, the hourglass figure, once coveted, has fallen to the wayside in favor of an overall leaner figure. (See also the changing cast of 90210, which demonstrates that beauty standards can change remarkably within a ten-year period.)

So it is possible to determine something as "objectively beautiful" when the values of beauty are constantly shifting?

Researchers have also honed in on the idea of symmetry as being part of a universal standard of beauty, pointing out how other animals prefer symmetry in mate selection and how some of these traits held cross-culturally:

According to a University of Louisville study, when shown pictures of different individuals, Asians, Latinos, and whites from 13 different countries all had the same general preferences when rating others as attractive — that is those that are the most symmetric.

However, John Manning of the University of Liverpool in England cautions against over-generalization, especially by Western scientists. "Darwin thought that there were few universals of physical beauty because there was much variance in appearance and preference across human groups," Manning explained in email interview. For example, Chinese men used to prefer women with small feet. In Shakespearean England, ankles were the rage. In some African tribal cultures, men like women who insert large discs in their lips.

Indeed, "we need more cross-cultural studies to show that what is true in Westernized societies is also true in traditional groups," Manning said his 1999 article.


But with even these basic ideas under scrutiny, how do we truly determine what is considered beautiful?

Brazilians Judge Facial Beauty Differently Than North Americans [Eureka Alert]
What's Most Beautiful? Brazilians Say A Low Nose [Reuters]
Looking Good: The Psychology And Biology of Beauty [Journal of Young Investigators]


Earlier: Women Today Are Fat, Unhealthy - And Full Of Themselves
New 90210 Showcases Skinniness, Outrageous Fortune

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Erin Gloria Ryan

Beauty is an intrepid peasant girl stuck in a provincial town with her eccentric inventor of a father who finds himself imprisoned in a castle ruled over by an enchanted prince. And then Beauty decides to give beastiality a try.