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Dissecting Beauty

December 22, 2009

Canons of beauty #3 - Blue eyes by Desirée Delgado

Why do scientists study beauty? Is it to understand the logic of attraction and the ways cultural and biological imperatives combine to create attraction? Is to figure out how humans can use a single concept to stand for a set of qualities that change depending on culture, time, and place? These would be worthy goals but, if you were to judge by this AFP article, the real reason for studying beauty would be to determine whether or not women need plastic surgery.

It begins with the spurious claim that because groups of US and Canadian university students agree on the attractiveness of certain facial dimensions, beauty must not be in the eyes of the beholder but “in the measurements between the eyes, mouth and ears of the woman being observed”. Never mind that the study was entirely about the perceptions of those who observed the altered images of women and that students from the US and Canada are exposed to very similar cultural and media messages about beauty. Lest one think this is merely an instance of bad reporting on science, it must be noted that the researchers have encouraged this impression by calling the preferred dimensions “the new golden ratio”.

And the story gets worse:

Happily, the 36/46 percent ratios “correspond with those of an average face,” the study said, meaning there’s no pressing need to get out the measuring tape and calculator or to rush to the plastic surgeon.

In fact, there are easy, non-invasive ways to trick beholders into thinking a woman’s face is “maximally attractive,” says the study, published in Vision Research.

I know that whenever I hear that university students would prefer that I look a certain way, I rush out to make sure I fit those requirements! Thank goodness that doesn’t mean getting surgery this time!

The price of beauty / El precio de la belleza by _guu_

The assumption that women have a “pressing need” to fit these measurements is deeply offensive. It shows just how far we have to go before women are viewed as more than decorative objects with an obligation to alter our appearance to suit the desires of whoever may happen to look at us.

Finally, the researchers only looked at the faces of white women. While it is at least something that they acknowledged that it was a limitation, that articles have talked about this study as if it were about all women, noting the absence of women of color as an afterthought, illustrates how white women continue to be seen as the default, especially when it comes to beauty.

Women who cannot fulfill the expected decorative role according to the standards constructed by society are penalized for that even as women who can do so struggle to maintain that ability and are limited by those expectations.

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