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Does beauty equal mediocrity?

Words: Lara McPherson

You only need to take one look at the models stalking the European runways to see that what today's fashionable ideal of beauty, and how far away it is from the aesthetic reality of your average work-going, online-shopping, Girls-watching punter.  

But according to attractiveness studies (and yes, such a thing does exist), what people perceive to be beautiful is actually an average of the facial features on people we see around us. So, contrary to popular opinion, the thing that dictates a beautiful face is actually how everyday it is.

Investigations into what is sometimes called “the law of averages” have been applied to beauty since 1883, when Francis Galton discovered that composite faces tended to be more attractive than any individual photo. And this finding is remarkably consistent, regardless of whether the sample is full of Miss Universe Finalists, an isolated population of hunter-gatherers or everyday folk from a German University. This means, that no one person is more beautiful than an average of any group of people.

It make sense, really. We’re essentially lazy, so we like to look at things we’re familiar with, to save the extra mental energy it takes to analyse anything out of the ordinary. The less work involved, the more beautiful we perceive something to be. Hence the phrase “easy on the eye”.

So, if our perception of beauty is actually based on averageness, are we essentially striving for mediocrity? Is our desire to look like everyone else programmed by science?

Biologically, we’re sexually attracted to features that have been able to survive. Any abnormalities are seen as potential mutations or diseases and need not apply. Perhaps this means all the unusually lithe limbs, high cheekbones and shiny hair we see on the pages of the fashion glossies may actually be a dying breed, destined to be weeded out by the process of natural selection that Darwin described so brilliantly.

(A freak fact: though perhaps less well-known, Sir Francis Galton is a polymath cousin of Charles Darwin and contributed to developing the theories of heredity and eugenics, the wisdom of the crowd and the inheritance of intelligence. Any wonder - clearly there was an intelligence mutation in their family! Google the man if you want to feel like a comparative academic under-achiever.)

Our fondness for an average of what we see daily accounts for cultural/ ethnic differences in the perception of beauty - and is seen in isolated populations. If we are surrounded by people in who all have certain facial features in common, we can safely assume our brains will be trained to find these attractive.

But this phenomenon also explains how and why global ideals of beauty are shifting further towards Caucasian features, and it correlates to the greater reach of Western media. Whether we’re in Delhi, Shangai, Dubai or Melbourne, the more white people we see, the more our lazy brains are programmed to find white features beautiful, despite the reality of the ethnic diversity of the people around us.

There is a sinister side to this, with a whole generation growing up to find normalised Caucasian features the aspirationally attractive and going under the knife in pursuit of the Western ideal. In an August 2011 episode entitled “Beauty Race”, SBS Insight discussed this at length. They featured Heidi Liow, who at the age of 20, had already undergone three operations to her eyes, nose and chin to create a “more balanced” and “Western” face.  (Read full transcript here.) She wasn’t alone in aspiring to a Caucasian ideal, with examples of skin whitening creams used in South East Asia and Africa discussed at length. Does the imbalance of the global media landscape mean we’re creating a more aesthetically homogenized society, devoid of unusual features and ethnic attributes? What a disturbing prospect. To think we could all be bound to end up all looking a super race of average white people through artificial means like Heidi Liow.

As disturbing as the thought of us as a cobbled together Frankenstein race seems, it is also quite poetic to think that despite rising ethic tensions, the ever-presence of racist attitudes in our increasingly racially diverse society, we are programmed to find beauty in a perfect mix of the people we’re surrounded by, not just the perfectly beautiful (and inherently atypical) leggy types we’re led to believe are the the beautiful people.

At the same time too, it is oddly comforting to think that those perhaps those beautiful people are really... just average.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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