Have you ever measured the distance between your eyes? And then between your eyes, your nose and your mouth? Maybe with a ruler, in the dead of night, weeping, after awaking with the cold, sweaty terror that your features might not be perfectly symmetrical? Probably not, right? Like me, you have all manner of shit to be getting on with, like de-moulding the bathroom ceiling, getting a repeat prescription of your contraceptive pill, remembering your pin number, and fighting the patriarchy.
Yet, bizarrely enough, measuring women’s faces is what a small but significant proportion of the scientific community seem to be constantly engaged with, nay obsessed with (perhaps, I hazard to add, because of their own personal lack of familiarity with that ubiquitous “other”: woman). Every month or so, scientists will emerge from their musty hidey-holes, like bespectacled badgers blinking in the sun after weeks of hibernation, and announce that, after years of research, they have finally hit upon that elusive and complex formula that denotes female beauty. They’ll then issue a press release which will appear, verbatim, in a number of news outlets, with the express intention of making you feel inadequate over your afternoon ricicles.
Last month, I saw two “perfect female faces”, and got to thinking, as you do, about societal notions of female beauty. The first was Florence Colgate who is, for once, an actual real girl. Dubbed “Britain’s most beautiful face,” her features are, according to the scientists judging the beauty pageant she entered [my emphasis], a mathematically perfect distance from one another. She is, like the Californian Girls so admired by Brian Wilson, your classic, inoffensive, aryan blue-eyed blonde. The second “perfect female face” I encountered was in that feel-good feminist manual Grazia magazine. It shows a modelesque woman smouldering at the camera under the legend “Is this the sexiest ever face?” The “news peg” Grazia has used for this feature is the release of a book called “The Science of Love and Betrayal” by a bloke called Robin Dunbar, whose name, you’ll notice, ladies, has no ‘Dr’ prefix. Grazia says: “for maximum sex appeal, your eyes should be small (more feminine) and positioned halfway down your face (like a baby’s..)”
What I was able to deduce from the Grazia feature is that the ‘science’ of sexy depends mainly on making your face look like you’re cumming. All the time. So red lips and pink cheeks. ‘Pupils should be dilated’, they go on to say, something which can be achieved with regular doses of barbiturates or just turning the light on and off wherever you are, every few seconds. It’ll piss your friends and colleagues off and may induce and epileptic fit, but at least you’ll look well sexy, yeah? The strangely emotionless photograph of Ms. Colgate, meanwhile, looks as close to a computerised facial composite of a human face as you can get.
Having studied Art History at a liberal university bursting at its pillared seams with old feminist marxists, I can go on for hours about WESTERN conceptions of idealised feminine beauty (it’s probably why it took me four years to get a long-term boyfriend after I walked in on the last one in bed with someone else.) But I won’t, because it’s dead boring. Suffice to say, men have been trying to work out what signifies and defines female beauty since like, the days of yore. Plato wrote of “golden proportions”, Da Vinci tried for years to paint one, ending up with the Mona Lisa, who probs isn’t an actual woman at all, just his idea of a perfect one. Then, in the 1880s, Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton took some time out from his usual occupation of performing blood transfusions on bunny rabbits to father that bastard child of evolutionary theory, Eugenics (FYI, his much more sensible cousin Darwin ”thought that there were few universals of physical beauty because there was much variance in appearance and preference across human groups.”)
This didn’t bother Galton, however, who was busily engaged in studying photographs of criminals to work out if there was such a thing as a criminal face. Turns out there wasn’t, but he spent a lot of time (arguably more than is healthy) making composite photographs of criminal faces which, somewhat surprisingly, ended up looking like, WAY hotter than the original crims (boner central). Which is how we ended up with the Eugenics so popularised by the Nazis, as well as a society in which a new computerised composite of a perfect female face crops up with alarming regularity. Galton has a lot to answer for.
What is strange about these faces is that they are oddly bland. These perfect symmetrical masks are, if you like, the FACE of biological determinism (see what I did there). The theory goes that, the more symmetrical a woman’s face, the more likely she is to attract a mate on the basis that she is “healthy” and free from defects. Your face is more likely to be symmetrical when it is not sagging, so symmetry also equals youth which equals fertility. It’s the same school of thought as the omnipresent ideal waist-to-hip ratio which is, if you are lucky enough to possess it, enough to make you “bang tidy” in the eyes of the opposite sex.
Now for the science bit. Except, not really, because I’m struggling to find any reputable scientific reporting on the internet. Maybe I need to take out a subscription to the Lancet, but on’t interweb most of the studies seem to involve undergraduates who were probably too stoned to even focus on the demo-face, let alone judge it properly, or, those infallible markers of scientific fact: babies. Namely, that babies spend longer looking at symmetrical faces. Why, I ask you, are what babies think and do taken as reliable scientific data? I suppose because babies, in their unsullied, natural form, are untouched by the evil indoctrinations of society. But also, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that babies don’t really know shit. They can’t recognise their own faces in a mirror for bloody ages. They crap themselves. They stick their fingers in sockets. They are not Stewey from Family Guy. All babies are idiots. They are also a teensy bit young to be thinking about potential sexual partners.
What’s most alarming about these computerised composites of perfect female faces is how bland and emotionless they are. If you look at one, it’s hard to imagine that they are capable of performing the gestures of an animated human soul (just check out the one that the geek above made out of all his favourite ladies.) Because, crucify me if I’m wrong, it is those gestures, those smiles and those smirks and those pouts which often render a person attractive. Much like the waxy pallid face of a corpse devoid of the essence of human life, a blank canvas is not. If you don’t believe me, go and sit in a bar looking bored and supercilious and see how many guys hit on you (don’t look too depressed, though, or you’ll attract the kind of arsehole who preys on emotionally vulnerable women.) Furthermore, ideals of feminine beauty adapt and change by the decade. Once it was the boobless flapper, then it was Monroe, then it was the Amazonian super model, then it was heroin chic, then Jordan.
And don’t even get me STARTED on how these computerised women are invariably Caucasian and pay no heed to the social mores and ideals of other continents, nations and societies. When it comes down to the perfect face, it’s Aryan or nothing. It seems we haven’t come so far from Galton after all.
My boyfriend put it best when he tried to explain this phenomenon through resorting to a familiar and comforting object: the hamburger. If you ask a thousand people to describe their perfect hamburger, and then try to make that hamburger, your resulting patty will be invariably bland and inoffensive. Granted, no-one will recoil in horror from it, but after chomping on down no-one will be rhapsodising about its sweet and delicious combo of flavourings, either. Because that burger will have not one defining characteristic which will make it exceptional. It’s for the same reason that Coldplay are the biggest band in the world right now.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my offensive face. Because, lucky thing that I am, someone in the world thinks it’s beautiful. Just as someone in the world thinks Ms.Colgate is beautiful when she laughs. Just as someone out there in the world thinks that you, with your freckles or your gap teeth or your coffee coloured skin or your afro or your red hair or your chin dimple or your crows feet or your bumpy nose, thinks that you’re beautiful. So next time some crappy women’s mag or newspaper waves one of these pictures in your face, point and laugh at it for the scientifically dubious creation that it is. And then get a biro, and add a unibrow, spots, and devil horns. Because you have better things to do than measure your face.