The myth of universal beauty

The myth of universal beauty

The plus-sized comedian Dawn French would be unlikely to describe herself as a sex symbol, but was she simply born at the wrong time? "If I had been around when Rubens was painting, I would have been revered as a fabulous model," she once quipped. "Kate Moss? Well, she would have been the paintbrush."

French may have been talking in jest, but her point is a serious one. Do standards of beauty change over time? Or are some features universally accepted, across the centuries and across cultures, as being universally appealing?

There are even some good evolutionary reasons why beauty might be timeless. Certain biological features might signal health, fitness, and fertility - the makings of good mate - and we should find these features sexually attractive. Yet the more biologists and psychologists have looked, the harder it has been to find a purely biological basis for beauty.

Consider the apparently received wisdom that we prefer symmetrical, evenly balanced features. The scientific explanation seems sound: disease and stress during childhood could subtly influence the body's development, creating an "instability" that leads one side to grow slightly differently to the other. A slightly lopsided face should therefore be a sign of physical weakness - making them less appealing as the parent of your children.

The problem had been that many of the previous experiments had asked just a small number of subjects to rate different faces - making it easier for fluke results to jump out. When Stefan Van Dongen at the University of Antwerp conflated the results in a large meta-analysis, he found the effect almost disappears when you consider enough people. In fact, facial symmetry may not even say much about your health.

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