Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Beauty and the beastly business of quantifying it

The speed and temporary nature of social media feeds lead to some interesting contrasts.

In my Facebook newsfeed yesterday, I first took note of a Design Taxi link posted by Marc from Osocio about "The World’s Scientifically Most Beautiful Woman".

Here she is:

18-year-old student Florence Colgate has the most naturally perfect face, according to a British lifestyle show's nationwide search.
“Florence has all the classic signs of beauty,” Carmen Lefèvre, of The Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews’ School of Psychology, told The Daily Mail. “She has large eyes, high cheekbones, full lips and a fair complexion. Symmetry appears to be a very important cue to attractiveness.”
Along with — apparently — blonde hair, blue eyes and light, unblemished skin.

I won't even get into the Nordicism of all this. (The Mail actually called her "'Britain's most beautiful face".) There have been enough blogposts about that issue already. I'm more interested in the parts that sociobiologists have tried to rationalize.

For example, symmetry is seen as a sign of good genes and good health. Maladaptive mutations, as well as childhood disease and injury, can affect symmetry. It's seen as a way to advertise good health and disease resistance — in other words, that person is a good source of healthy babies.

The other features are ethnically specific. Blonde hair and big blue eyes are what are known as "neoteny" — that is, babylike features kept into adulthood. All humans are very neotenic apes, retaining our round-headed juvenile chimp features throughout our lives.

Via pbase
The loss of pigment that gave northern people lighter skin is also an adaptive mutation to absorb more vitamin D from less sun exposure. I personally believe that lightening of skin and eyes in parts of those populations came along for the ride, then got amplified by sexual selection because youth is attractive.

But Darwin I ain't.

The other link I was going to mention was actually directly above Marc's "beauty" link. It was a CBC story titled, "Ugly Meter app worries cyber bullying activists"

A smartphone app allows users to assess their own symmetry based on some unknown standards. It's like "Hot or Not", but without the subjectivity of human feedback.

According to uglymeter.net:
"How ugly are you? For over 3 million users, Ugly Meter has been the go-to iPhone App that won’t lie when it comes to determining how attractive or ugly you are. Just snap a picture of yourself (or someone else) in the app and hit the scan button. The Ugly Meter will scan your face and determine just how ugly you are and dispense advice accordingly. Ugly Meter then allows you to post the results to Facebook or Twitter."
I wonder about the ethnic standards of beauty behind this, too. Although my own northern Euro ancestry doesn't seem to have helped much:

I blame the lighting.
I tried a few more times, and found that the insults got pretty creative.

To test the baseline, I tried scanning a screenshot of Miss Colgate:

Clearly, the creators of this app and the people behind the British talent search read the same books. Or something.

But then what happens when I scan a head-on glamour pic of Iman, a woman so ethereally beautiful, she got David Bowie to settle down:

I must have held the camera funny. I'll try again:


But hey, there was nothing scientific about this (mostly because I don't have all day to fart around with my iPhone). If you don't mind giving them your 99¢, you can find out for yourself what "beautiful" really means.

(I'll update this post with more scans, as I get a chance.)

George Clooney (a reader request by Rachel)

Sometimes, it just seems random. Watch what happens when I scanned the face of late-'70s David Bowie, two different times.

Was it the misplaced cursor that made all the difference? (Good thing I didn't shoot him in full Aladdin Sane makeup.)


  1. Yeah the science of beauty seems pretty shaky and biased.
    I'm not sure if you have the same iPhone as me, but I notice you took pictures of your screen. You can take a screenshot of your iPhone screen by pressing the power button and the round button simultaneously and it saves it to the photos folder. You might already know that but I didn't for a long time until I figured it out on accident. So if you're like me this will be life-changing (in a very small way)!

    1. Thanks, Laura! It was just easier for me to do my GISing on the laptop.

    2. Dang, I thought I was sharing some super secret. Well, I'm glad you know about it already then.

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  3. This is an interesting post. I was not aware of an app called ugly meter. I like the information that you have shared. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work.