Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but really, what makes a face beautiful? It’s easy to notice someone across the bar, or on a dating app, and immediately know that you want to get to know that person better, but have you ever considered why you are attracted to a certain person? Why are certain people even considered beautiful and what did they do to become more attractive? Is it all just a matter of preference or is there more to it?
What Makes a Face Beautiful
There is something innate about an attractive person that makes you want to get to know them and spend time with them. Even as an infant, we are drawn to attractive people. But why exactly is that? And does attractiveness differ based on our ethnicity and the culture we were raised in?
All of these questions are ones that scientists have been studying for years. From remote villages to face shape and the preference of infants, there is a lot of research that looks into why someone is considered beautiful.
The Visual Science of Beauty
We live in a very visual world where we process hundreds of thousands of images each minute. Our brains are constantly categorizing. Constantly working. Constantly processing everything. It is easier for our brain to process things that are familiar. This is why you’re more likely to remember something out of the norm – like the rat carrying off a slice of pizza in the New York Subway. Something out of the norm stops and catches your attention. So, when you are scanning the bar or your app for a potential mate, you look for someone that is easy for your brain to process. Someone who is considered attractive.
Scientists have found that many of what people consider attractive is average. This doesn’t mean average in looks, this means average in size of features. An attractive person has an average sized nose – it’s not the largest nose or the smallest nose. It is a nose that is the most common size. It’s a nose that your brain doesn’t have to linger on – your brain sees the nose, processes it quickly and approves. Average faces may be seen as more attractive because they are the most familiar. We are drawn to familiar.
The Symmetry and Facial Structure of Beauty
Our brains also enjoy processing things that are symmetrical. Even if you look at flowers, they tend to be fairly symmetrical but not perfectly symmetrical. Our brains read faces and things with similar sides as symmetrical. The symmetry of the world is not something you probably think of often – especially in people – but we all know that one person who does not have a symmetrical face. You know you’re thinking about them right now. There is something on their face that is not symmetrical. And because of this feature, this person is likely not someone you would classify as very attractive. That doesn’t mean they don’t have other great qualities, but on first glance, beauty is not the quality you would first attribute to them.
Additional studies get deep into the distance between features on a woman, and how handsome or beautiful someone is based on whether their face shape is considered more masculine or feminine.
Back to Familiarliy
But the majority of studies on beauty look into how our brains process information. It goes back to what is familiar to us. This is also probably why many Caucasian people marry other Caucasians. Same with other ethnicities. When scientists when to a remote village in Africa and studied what was considered beautiful there, they found similar themes – people are attracted to the familiar. American babies (of any ethnicity) also prefer people of their own ethnicity.
Because people gravitate towards the familiar, aka attractive people, it’s no wonder an attractive person is more likely to get a job and make friends easier than others. When people are shown photos of different people and asked to give attributes based only on the photo, the attractive people are more likely to be given the attributes of popular, smart, friendly, helpful, and kind. We do this every day whether we know it or not. We do it when we scan the bar and decide if we are going to approach the attractive person across the bar. We do it when we take a second to decide if we are going to swipe left or right on someone.
First Impressions and Beauty
While we may be able to form a first impression on someone in as quick as 100 milliseconds, that impression can change as we get to know someone. This is why you may be friends with someone of the opposite sex first and then grow to find them attractive as you get to know them. Or why some dating apps match on interests and qualities instead of just appearance. It’s when you learn more about someone that you sometimes realize you want to spend more time with them. This is something you hear a lot about in arranged marriages – they didn’t initially find the person attractive but they grew to love them and in turn found them attractive.
There is also potentially a link between beauty and health. Attractiveness was thought to be a health cue. People are attracted to beauty because a beautiful person is less likely to be susceptible to illness, and more likely to be able to bear children. In turn, other studies have completely disproved this. But maybe part of it is survival of the fittest.
No matter how you look at it, many of the studies do boil down to what is familiar. Brains process attractive faces faster than they process unattractive faces. This makes it easier to quickly swipe left or right, or quickly make the decision to talk to someone you see across the bar. First impressions are hard to ignore and sometimes it does take a drink with someone to know if the first impression is worth a second look.