The Elements of Physical Beauty

Not entirely in the eye of the beholder

We know a lot—at least we think we know a lot—about mating rituals in animals. These are often complicated behaviors that can last for hours and are designed to demonstrate good looks and physical prowess. Why? All that preening and strutting about and battling with other males are supposed to indicate a favorable genetic constitution. It is a kind of advertising and appears in females also. As part of such a ritual some animals construct elaborate structures that suggest ingenuity and, perhaps, good judgment. These qualities too are supposed to grow out of a healthy gene pool and are manifest not only in the likelihood of producing viable offspring, but, also– in those species that require it– an ability to be a good provider. It is all about the next generation.

It is easy to understand why a potential mate that is strong and vigorous is appealing. Strong children are more likely to survive. But why is beauty important?  And yet, it is.  Anyone who has ever seen a male peacock with his beautiful, but inconvenient, tail prancing about in front of a female can see as much. There are also animals such as the elk that are burdened with the extra weight of antlers, an essentially ornamental feature of their physiognomy, because antlers appeal to female elk. The same is true of the horned beetle. These structures, which have a tendency to grow ever larger down through the generations, develop at a considerable cost in energy.  Sometimes they become so large that survival itself seems threatened. Indeed, it is only at that point that evolutionary pressures begin to work the other way, setting limits to how far an animal will go in order to look attractive.

One would think that insects and birds and mammals are not thinking of the next generation when they evaluate the appeal of a possible mate; but, in fact, that is what they are doing. The physical attractiveness of both male and female correlate with a favorable or unfavorable genetic endowment. So much is true for human beings also.

Our standards for beauty are not arbitrary. The presence of genes that impact health and viability makes itself known by impairing symmetry of face and figure. An extreme genetic impediment, such as those that cause mental retardation, may present with gross facial stigmata, such as eyes that are too close or too far apart, or skulls that are misshapen—pointy or enlarged, or too small. When such children are born, their features are not always diagnostic of a particular genetic syndrome. They are referred to sometimes in their medical charts, cruelly, as FLK—“funny looking kids”—in the way that doctors and other medical personnel are often inclined to make light of conditions that are otherwise too terrible to contemplate. It is not known what particular genetic defects cause the more familiar minor physical irregularities, such as a too-long nose, or protuberant ears, or a crooked smile; but it is thought that these too are an indication of a subtle deficiency of some sort.

A man looking across a crowded bar at an attractive woman is not thinking at that moment of whether or not she could give birth to healthy children any more than any other animal does when examining a suitor. It is a judgment outside of conscious awareness, but that is what is going on.

As indicated above, one obvious element of beauty is symmetry and proportion.

An interesting experiment has been conducted numerous times in which the faces of a number of women picked arbitrarily are averaged by means of a computer program. The resultant portrait is of a beautiful woman. She never appears as some sort of bland composite. She seems real and distinctive—and beautiful. So, in a very real sense, being physically attractive is to approach as closely as possible an average appearance: a nose that is straight and of average length, eyes and mouth that are not unusual in any particular way, and other features that are unobtrusive. This conflicts with our usual understanding of beauty—namely, an appearance that is special in some way. But the particular attractiveness of a movie star, for example—however, distinctive and extraordinary she may appear to be—is only a subtle variation of average.

To some small extent, there is a fashion in appearance that defines beauty differently from one age to another—being chubby, rather than very thin, pale, rather than sun-tanned, and so on—but these variations are always within narrow limits. It is never attractive to be at an extreme: too fat, too tall, too short, too busty or hippy, too leggy, etc. The nose and chin should not be obtrusive by deviating too far from the average.

It is, therefore, reasonable—if not rational—for a person to be attracted to another based initially on appearance alone. Appearance matters. And yet, a man and woman looking at each other for the first time from across the length of crowded room can determine nothing of character and little of personality; still, it is these things that are likely to matter more to a successful relationship than appearance alone. For that reason, people can, and do, fall in love with pretty much anyone; but they should marry for other reasons.

But even that initial encounter from across a crowded room speaks to other matters: how well is someone dressed and groomed, for instance. These things often reflect distinctions of education and class. There was a time when Ivy-league educated women wore less make-up, for instance, than other women did, or, for that matter, than they themselves do more recently. Clothing indicates the way the person thinks about himself/herself. Is that person more relaxed, or more formal, more self-conscious, or uninterested in appearance—indeed, wealthier or poorer. So, an initial appearance gives some indications about important matters. They constitute a penumbra that colors physical attractiveness in unpredictable ways.

Survival of the fittest—or most good-looking—does not mean survival only of the very most desirable individuals. The rest of us have a chance of making a successful relationship; and most people do settle down eventually and procreate. Everyone has developed some idiosyncrasies of taste so that no one is attractive to everyone else—even movie stars are not universally admired. And someone who may appear plain to most people will surely and sincerely appear attractive to somebody else.  Although nature sets some constraints on what is attractive, the vast number of people fall within those constraints and have the same experience: they will be found attractive by some people and unattractive by others. It is at this point that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

An odd consequence of this chanciness of appeal is that some obviously attractive men and women have been rejected on a number of occasions and for that reason have come to feel that they are not very attractive. Others have the opposite experience. Also, as everyone knows, a person’s appreciation of his/her attractiveness depends on overall aspects of self-esteem, which may have nothing to do with the reality of someone’s appearance.

Having said all that, it is pretty much universal for people to do things to make themselves more physically attractive:

  1. Most obvious, and most commonly, people endeavor to change their appearance in a favorable way by grooming and by the use of make-up. As suggested above, some of these changes in make-up or in other added appurtenances—earrings or other rings, tattoos, etc. are more or less stylish, depending on the practices of the day. This sort of decorating oneself with dirt or colored materials is common all the way up and down the animal kingdom. It is important in such matters, for individuals to model themselves on the sort of person they want to be—or want to appear to be. Hair dyed to different colors simultaneously will look attractive to some and definitely not to others.

Dress, also, is usually chosen in order to enhance appearance. But as in the use of make-up, some manners of dress will appeal to some people and not to others. Tailored suits can make a good impression or a bad impression, depending on the audience. Once again, it is a matter of who the person who is dressing up wants to be—or wants to seem to be.

Clothes are often chosen to make physical imperfections less obvious. There are, it is said, clothes that can be chosen to make a person seem less fat or less skinny. One should not expect too much from these disguises.

  1. Some aspects of physical appearance can be changed by exercise—not many and not easily. Those who are too fat can reach their proper weight with exercise and diet. (See my book, “The Stuff-Yourself Diet.”) But not very many do. In general, the effect of weight on attractiveness is exaggerated, and the effect on health is under-estimated.
  2. Plastic surgery is a strategy that appeals to some. It is reasonable to correct an obvious deformity, but some people use plastic surgery over and over again in order to cope with some inner sense of being imperfect. The results are not always desirable. The expectations of some patients are so unreasonable, they are always disappointed with the outcome of surgery.

Often a patient will sit in my office and tell me that he/she is going for plastic surgery, and I am unable to tell immediately which part of that person’s body needs fixing. Most of these patients have the same experience: they may be satisfied with the result, but no one else notices any change in their appearance.

And, of course, some people exaggerate the importance of the part of the body that needs fixing, and do not appreciate the over-all impression of their appearance–for example, the 300 pound woman who goes for Botox injections in order to obliterate wrinkles around her eyes.

I have had elderly patients who were performers and underwent plastic surgery in order not to look so old. I think that was reasonable. It is even reasonable to want to look younger for its own sake; but the results have been so poor in my limited experience that I hesitate recommending surgery for that purpose.

A more important factor.

Having just written to the effect that appearance matters, I would like to say that it does not matter that much. A beautiful woman once told me it made a difference only for the first few minutes. After even a brief acquaintance, other factors counted more. The way I see it, physical attraction does not fall on a scale, with some individuals being really, really attractive and, therefore, being more appealing than others who are only really attractive. When men and women look at each other, there is an on-off switch in their reaction. Either that person is appealing enough to want to get to know or that person is not. And even then, a switch that is in the “off” position can unpredictably switch to “on.” Once a relationship has been developed, it is not vulnerable to the sudden appearance of a more attractive man or woman.

But there is something more to say. Personal attractiveness cannot be measured by simply looking at a photograph or judging someone at first glance.  Very quickly, aspects of personality intervene. I have noticed that some patients of mine have become more attractive over time. (Since I am a man, I notice the women, but I suspect the same is true for the men.) I sit opposite them; and I try to figure out what has changed since they first came to my office. I notice that they smile more. They are more direct. They sit more comfortably. They are more responsive. They may be more attentive to their appearance in the way they dress or use make-up. These are the pieces of a more global change: they have become friendlier and more open. They may feel better about themselves. They are more confident. They are more interesting. It is these qualities of mind that overshadow the minor variations in appearance that one thinks of initially as constituting physical beauty. They are the reason why someone in love with one person does not become distracted by another person who is more beautiful. (c) Fredric Neuman 2013


Stumbled across your and am So happy to see your smiling face. I will be following you. Ironically, I was just speaking to a friend about my collie. She is so beautiful and sweet but she has a diseased nose which has obviously not yet been diagnosed correctly. When I walk with my dogs people gravitate towards my aussie and tend to ignore the collie who is so eager to say hello. This makes me sad but I guess I might do the same thing.

- Michele Blanco