Beautiful gain: perceptions of beauty

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder but, in our image driven society, beauty plays a huge role in how we feel about ourselves and others. Beatrice Aidin explores how our concepts of beauty have changed over time and asks if there is a formula for what makes a face beautiful?

It is a lesson that we learn from an early age – the beautiful thrive. Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty are fairytales that embed the concept into young minds that the attractive prevail. But why is beauty so important? And how has our concept of beauty changed over the years?

Leonardo Pisano, known as Fibonacci, was one of the greatest mathematicians of the middle ages and, unintentionally, the first known beauty expert. Born in the 12th century, he created the Fibonacci numbering sequence, which reflects the numerical laws of nature in flowers, shells and leaves. This also became the traditional methodology for measuring beauty, identifying the “golden rectangle”, which is said to be the numerical ratio for the shape of beauty. One important element of this, which has long been associated with what makes the “perfect face”, is symmetry. Leading psychologist, Dr Linda Papadopoulos says: “Babies respond to more symmetrical faces and for adults it is a Pavloian response to find a baby face cute with a small nose and larger lips.”

There are also evolutionary factors which impact on what we find “attractive”. Dr Papadopoulos adds: “From an evolutionary point of view, clear skin gives an overall look of health to internal health.”

Perfect breasts too have their own formula. In a study published this year, in the International Journal of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery, surgeon Patrick Mallucci of London’s University College Hospital and the Royal Free Hospital, studied one hundred pairs of breasts from The Sun’s Page 3 over a period of three months. “It started about three years ago when I was asked to give a lecture to the Royal Society of Medicine about breast augmentation and the ideal proportions,” Mr Mallucci explains. “There was very little written on what defines good shapes.”

Page-3 girls are not allowed to have altered breasts and Mr Mallucci chose these as examples of “best in show”. Using measurements he created a formula. “We asked what the common theme was and we found that was distribution of breast volume between the upper pole with a 45:55 ratio through to the nipple, which had to be 20 degrees pointing up. None of this is about size, it is about proportion.”

In our society we are very observant about what people look like and we want to make a good impression

All very well, but sometimes in the quest for perfection people go too far. Alicia Douvall, a former glamour model, spent over £1 million on plastic surgery and regrets it all now. “I thought plastic surgery had no limits and you could change who you are and buy happiness,” she says. But she does not blame the cosmetic surgery trade. “I was addicted and have been in rehab for body dysmorphia. So I don’t feel angry towards the industry,” she adds.

Dr Papadopoulos thinks our self-esteem is too embroiled with the way we look, a trend that has been exasperated by our celebrity-obsessed, image-driven culture, and surgery is not a quick fix, she warns. “I think people are trying to fix their self-esteem [with plastic surgery]. Women are more likely to compare themselves to celebrities than each other. Why when we know they are airbrushed?

These images are so digitised that we might as well be comparing ourselves to cartoons.” In addition, no formula will allow for beauty’s fickle foe; fashion. A rhinoplasty carried out in the seventies would no doubt be a different shape to one performed in 2011. Jennifer Gray famously changed her nose and lost her career because one aspect of beauty cannot be prescribed – personality.

“Women who age best are the ones who haven’t put all their self-esteem in one basket and also focus on their intelligence, passions and career,” says Dr Papadopoulos. “Plastic surgery becomes a quick fix to a problem, but won’t help in the long term.”

So what is the look now? “I do think patients want a more natural appearance,” says Dr Susan Mayou of the Cadogan Clinic. “They like ‘less is more’ and that suits my approach. In our society we are very observant about what people look like and we want to make a good impression.”

And that impression is nowhere more important than in the workplace. A recent book, Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, makes the case that better looking people are more succesful. Using erotic power is also necessary for women, she says, if they are to work with men and be successful in the work place. This could be one argument in favour of cosmetic surgery and injections that no mathematician could have devised a formula for.

DO BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE DO BETTER IN BUSINESS?

Does how we look really affect how we do in the work place? According to studies, it does. But why does this happen? A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which examined discrimination against facially stigmatised applicants, revealed that interviewers were unable to recall as many facts about the interview when faced with someone with a facial stigmatism, which in turn led to them rating the applicant lower than those with no facial stigmatism.

But it is not just people with facial deformities that fall foul of the beauty bias, attractive bosses were rated to be “better at their jobs” than average looking bosses and unattractive bosses in a Work Power survey carried out by Elle and MSNBC .com and research by Dr Daniel Hamermesh, author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, demonstrated that attractive people earn on average up to 3 or 4 per cent more than “average-looking” people.

So in the current economic climate, where competition for jobs is at an all time high, are people who are perceived to be more attractive more likely to get a job?

A study published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences showed that the attractiveness of interviewees can significantly affect the outcome in hiring practices. “When someone is viewed as attractive, they are often assumed to have a number of positive social traits and greater intelligence,” the authors Carl Senior and Michael J.R. Butler note. “This is known as the ‘halo effect’ and it has previously been shown to affect the outcome of job interviews.”

A survey carried out by cosmetic surgery and beauty information website MyFaceMyBody also found that 57 per cent of men were wiling to consider surgical or non-surgical cosmetic treatments in order to boost their careers believing it could give them the edge over other candidates at interviews. Facial aesthetics expert Dr Bob Khanna comments: “In this difficult economic climate people will look to get that extra edge on colleagues and a cosmetic treatment can give you that.”