Breaking news from science: beauty is quantifiable! You can measure it! Did you think that beauty was subjective? It’s not. Did you think that people were attracted to different appearances? They aren’t. All men are attracted to the same woman. She’s…Jessica Biel! And the rest of us? We just occasionally remind men of Jessica Biel in some small way.
I was watching a documentary on Netflix called The Science of Sex Appeal. I was nervous. I was waiting to be told by the most prominent scientists at the most prominent research centers and universities that I would never be hot. And then I was waiting for them to explain to me why not, using some very serious-looking equations, a bunch of fancy computer generated diagrams, and a legion of student participants who all eagerly confirmed their hypotheses.
It wasn’t the first time.
In college, I took a social anthropology class with Robert Trivers, who Wikipedia refers to as “one of the most influential evolutionary theorists alive today.” (And who would ever question Wikipedia’s sincerity?) It was a big class. There was a giant projector screen. And on the screen were giant images of women’s faces and bodies. Hip-to-waist ratio was really, really important, I learned. Soft, round breasts were by far the best option. Facial symmetry was key. I went back to my dorm and looked in the mirror. Hmm….There was a chance I’d find a mate. If he didn’t look at my face too much.
Here’s a simple test (for women) to find out if you’re evolutionarily desirable (i.e. can get a lot of dates and the best possible partner):
Does your face reflect Plato’s Golden Ratio? Is it perfectly symmetrical? Do you have large, clear eyes? Is the space between your eyes at least as wide as the length of one of your eyes? Are your teeth naturally white and straight? Do the lengths of the parts of your lips that are not directly under your nose measure the same, added together, as the width of the bottom of your nose? Is your chin delicate and your eyebrows thin and low? Is your skin clear? Is your hair thick and lustrous? Do you have a tiny waist and full hips? Are your breasts big, round, and perky, yet soft? Are your legs long, with tapering ankles? Do you speak in a high, sweet voice? Do you smell delicious?
If you answered yes to all of the above, then you are the perfect woman (Jessica, is that you? Get out of here! Now you’re just bragging). Every man wants you. You can choose any partner you want. Evolution has favored you, and scientists will fall at your elegant, slender feet, amazed at witnessing the perfect specimen.
(Good, wouldn’t want to miss out on the butt. So important for our research. source)
Are you broad-shouldered, low voiced, and muscular? Is your face symmetrical? Is your chin strong and your eyebrows thick? Do you have very little fat anywhere on your body? Are you tall?
No? That’s OK. Do you drive an expensive, tricked out car? Do you make a lot of money? Good. Phew.
In the end, I liked the documentary. It had all these fantastically funny moments. Like when a woman on the street is handed a photo of a guy who was previously rated unattractive by other women, and who now has an invented income of $375,000 stamped alongside his image. She’s asked to rate his attractiveness on a 1-10 scale. She glances at the picture for about a second and goes, “Ten!”
Researchers at UCLA found that the most attractive bodies didn’t even exist in nature. Like, the waist-hip ratio that men favored was so extreme that if it showed up on a real woman, she wouldn’t be able to give birth. Trying to explain what the deal was, the scientists called this type of male preference a form of biological laziness. As in, guys respond to things that look feminine, so the more exaggeratedly feminine, the better. Oh, good, it’s definitely female. I can mate with it. Done.
A member of a car club, standing in a parking lot full of neon green and pink ghetto cars with monster truck wheels and flame decals explains (scientifically, of course), “The bottom line is you need a nice car to get a nice chick.”
The whole facial symmetry thing got me wondering, but at that point my suspicions were confirmed. I’m an evolutionary failure. From a very young age, when I saw a guy with a fancy car, I automatically liked him less. I assumed his priorities are all wrong. He spent all his money on a stupid car! What’s left for our potential offspring?
And when people in the film were sitting around rating each other’s attractiveness, I was pretty surprised at how harsh they were. Women who looked gorgeous to me were getting 4.5’s. Not a single person, except for the low-ranked guy with the imaginary fortune, got a 10.
After an exercise in which about twenty young men and women were told to pair up with the most attractive partner they could, the researcher remarked that they’d ended up choosing partners at about the same level of attractiveness, just as expected. It was the best they could do. But there I was, thinking that the low ranking pairs looked great, and that guy who was supposed to be a stud looked too annoying to count as appealing.
I also kept wondering about how everyone felt. How did the test subjects feel, when told to compete for the “sexiest” match? How did the beautiful, heavyset UCLA researcher feel, designing “ideal” computer animated body models in her lab? How did the researcher with the high-pitched, nerdy voice feel, studying how women were so much more likely to choose a man with a low, rumbling voice?
I know, that’s not really the point. And I’m all for scientific inquiry. But whenever I come across research about evolution and beauty, and a bunch of hardworking people in white coats who are proudly proclaiming that they’ve cracked the sexiness code, I end up feeling relieved that regardless of what they’ve found this time (and it’s usually more of the same anyway), I, as an evolutionary failure, am able to find women other than Jessica Biel stunning. I’m able to fall madly in love with a man who doesn’t even own a car, and whose voice is softer and sweeter than my own. And I’m able to go through life with a face that doesn’t have a golden ratio on any part of it, being, for the most part, pretty satisfied. Maybe one day I’ll have some lopsided kids with big noses and subpar hip-waist ratios. But I’m going to try my hardest to point out to those kids that they are just about as beautiful as it gets. Maybe they can even be scientists who run a lot of experiments on how people are a lot more attractive than they think they are. Or about how we all need to get over this stuff. Or about how being able to write really clever books set in allegorical fantasy worlds is the most attractive feature in any potential partner. Much more so than eyebrows with a perfect hair count.
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Un-roast: Today I love my manly eyebrows. As I said to Bear, when I was telling him about the documentary, “My eyebrows could take your eyebrows.” He said, “Like, in an eyebrows battle?” “Yeah.” And it’s true. And I’m proud of them for that.
P.S. I talked to Trivers a few times after class, mostly out of indignation. He seemed, as far as I could tell, to think my face was cute. Sort of validating, if I’m being totally honest.
P.P.S. Not sure why Jessica Biel came up so much in this post. I saw a movie with her in it a few days ago. That could be it.
P.P.P.S. There’s a discussion on Blogfrog’s Daily Break about this. I started it, but I don’t have high hopes for it.