alexA recent survey suggested that humans define physical beauty as symmetry, and that the more perfectly symmetrical both their face and body are, the more ‘beautiful’ that person will be said to be. I’ve always been a skeptic on such things, and since this weekend sees the publication of the Hedonism edition of Virtual Occoquan, which I had the privilege to co-edit, I thought it was time to put it to the test.

The picture above is of a model, Alex, as she appeared in a recent magazine. Alex has, to me, a beautiful face: expressive, flawless (thanks perhaps to the makeup), with strong, even features. If you believe the beauty pundits, if her face were completely symmetrical she should be even more beautiful. So I used a bit of digital wizardry and replicated both the left and right sides of her face, to make a perfectly symmetrical Alex. The results are shown below.
alex leftalex right
See what I mean? I think the asymmetry is what makes her face beautiful. Even setting aside the fact that perfectly symmetrical hair looks silly, both symmetrical Alex’s look a bit bland. What really surprises me is how different the symmetrical Alex’s look from each other. The right-side one looks several years younger.

There has been some discussion on Salon blogs lately about the importance and sanctity of our names as icons, avatars, of who we are. I would say that our faces are even more important as representations of us. If I had put up Alex’s face and name on my blog and masqueraded (a great word!) as Alex, it would be interesting to see how my audience would have differed, and how people’s impressions of me and my work would have differed. I’d hazard a guess that my business writing would be taken less seriously and perhaps my creative writing more seriously. I’d certainly get more fan mail.

We’re about twenty years away from facial surgery that will allow us to look any way we want to. And that decision may have a huge impact on our success, our relationships, our direction in life. As if career, life partner, and work-life balance weren’t enough decisions to make!

The imaginary people I created above are staring at me, haunting me, begging me for better hairstyles. Alas, that’s beyond my artistic or technical skill. Should I put them back in the bottle, or give them names, lives of their own, make them characters in my stories? As for Alex, if that’s her real name, if that’s her real face, I apologize for making your avatar the victim of my alchemy.

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  1. Bryan says:

    i read awhile back in scientific american(i think) that we find people attractive that have features we would like in our offspring. so healthy people in good shape should look more appealing than those that aren’t because at a instinctive level in our brains we want them because of the benifits they would be to our children.

  2. xian says:

    The explanation I’ve heard for privileging symmetry in attraction is that it implies an absence of parasites. So it might not so much be perfect symmetry as achieved by a mirror or computer but broad symmetry and lack of deformity on one side. You should see the lemons in our backyard that have been infested with spider mites!

  3. manpreet says:

    Umm, I like the last picture. Symmetry in your second picture is not appealing as it’s not done correctly (misshapen features, incorrect photo joins). There is also the matter of the golden ratio and babyfaceness etc. Here’s one site with more on this

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Manpreet: Great (and scary) link, thanks. And you’re right about the imperfection in my creation of both symmetrical Alex’s. It’s due to the fact that my software only rotates pictures to the nearest 1 degree, and the original Alex’s head is tilted about 10.5 degrees. As a result, the very slight asymmetry that results may well account for the unattractiveness of the pseudo-symmetrical Alex’s. What really intrigued me about the site you refer to was the preference for completely artificial faces over even the most attractive ‘real’ ones. Now I’m wondering whether Alex’s original face has been compromised by computer software, or whether she really exists at all! And what will happen when we can pick our own face by computer — since the ‘average symmetrical face’ hypothesis has been debunked, will future man have increasingly ‘inhuman’ attractive faces, and what will be start to look like?

  5. silly me says:

    From Discover Mag. WebsiteA Face of One’s Own By Evan I. Schwartz As any newborn baby knows, no two faces are alike. Now, finally, a computer knows this, too. Alexander

  6. verymodern says:

    Thanks for your generous compliment on my blog, I quite appreciated it. And now I know you’re here, so you’re blogrolled. :) I’ll tell you, I really liked this blog. Personally, I am sick to death of the botoxed and face lifted. I remember when I first saw Signorney Weaver “done”. NOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I yelled. Man, she was a beautiful woman and now she’s a freakin cartoon. That was more than five years ago and it just gets worse and worse. People are altered everywhere you turn and it just kills me. I like my people real. I like to look at a real face. Anyway, I blather. Thanks for the stopping by. I’ll be back, and I’m Elsa, by the way. Nice to meet you. :)

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Elsa. My guess would be that those that yearn for a total facial (or other) makeover probably are unhappy with their appearance, and those that ‘like their people real’ probably look pretty good already! I confess that if I could I would have my face made over in a heartbeat. Yes, that’s vain, and possibly silly at my age, but I don’t see it as that different from other forms of ‘self-improvement’ we all indulge in. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to be too attractive, because I think that can be a handicap, get in the way of other things that are more important. I’d rather look like Pierre Trudeau at 50 than Brad Pitt at 30, for example.

  8. Phil Wolff says:

    I saw this done to a photo of JFK. The theory was that the left side of the brain affects the right side of the face, and vice versa. So you’re really seeing the two personalities of two brains on one face. Part of how we understand and read faces, then, is reading each and juxtaposing the two. I’ve also read of changes to the face as people’s hemispheres were either separated or integrated. How that translates into beauty? no idea.

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