Data The Beauty Myth: What Keeps Us From Seeing Ourselves Clearly?
“What I look like” is not a static picture cut out and placed in different environments, but one that changes again and again.
This is DATA , a monthly column by Angela Chen on numbers, nerdery, and what it means to live an evidence-based life.
Years ago, my friend Hayley read that women reach peak attractiveness at age twenty-eight. The claim is false and depressing, yet it’s become our running joke. It’s pseudoscience—and yet there is something appealing about having such a simple rule with which to gauge our beauty and its progression.
Physical beauty, like so much else, is simultaneously an experience constructed in our heads and a judgment measured against beauty standards that exist out in the world. One modulates the other, but if you fall on either end of the beauty spectrum, you know it. I have always known that I am not objectively beautiful, but I do not believe I am ugly, either. Like most people, I naturally fall in the middle, in the zone known as “okay-looking,” and so my question now is not whether I am beautiful or ugly. I want to know the specifics of how I appear, and where exactly I stand.
I’m a little faceblind, but that’s not what I mean when I say I’m not sure how I look. I know that I’m short; that I have brown eyes and hair currently dyed burgundy. But those are just facts. I want to know what someone really sees— what they experience—when they look at me, and the evidence doesn’t point to a clear answer. I have been called both photogenic and not photogenic, and the v ideos I make for work are a chronicle of confusion. In one, I look soft-skinned and charismatic; in the other, shot two weeks later, I appear ten pounds heavier, and oily. I’m unsure which to believe.
Jess Zimmerman writes that “ the more you swing wide of the tiny target of feminine ideals, the harder you’re supposed to sweat to hit the mark.” That there is a mark is undeniable. But many women don’t know quite where we are in relation to it, and so we remain obsessed with whether we’re close enough to reach it and how to do so. As beauty standards expand and we learn to appreciate different aesthetic styles, the question becomes even more ambiguous. For me, judging beauty is like the famous quote about obscenity : I know it when I see it. But this face is so familiar that I can’t quite see beauty, or even the absence of beauty, in myself.
Can numbers help us understand and recognize beauty? There is no lack of measures that supposedly correlate to it: the coveted 0.7 waist-hip ratio, facial symmetry, a certain body mass index. Quantifiable digits and our thirst for the aesthetically pleasing have spurred an endless parade of articles about “the most beautiful woman in the world” as determined by “math” and “science.” Researchers create an ideal using such measures, then use computer algorithms to analyze the components of a person to determine whether it hits the bullseye. Because culture and exposure matters, these women are usually white.
Such results are an exercise in “science,” we are told, because physical beauty is a sign of genetic fitness and so the “most beautiful woman” is actually “the most fertile woman.” Facial symmetry means we’re “healthy.” That small-waisted, curvy-hipped 0.7 ratio is appealing because it is linked to easier childbirth, and we’re programmed to care about passing on our genes. Every trait has an evolutionary purpose and signals something about who are are at the deepest level.
Against this common line of thinking, however, Yale University professor Richard Prum argues that beauty may have evolved for pleasure, not function . As Prum explains in his book The Evolution of Beauty, such traits may once have had an evolutionary origin, but continued to evolve simply because they pleased us. The desire for the trait becomes its own force, he told me in an interview, divorced from the original purpose. So, yes, wide hips were once associated with fertility, but since then we’ve learned to find wide hips attractive regardless of whether they correlate to being better at giving birth.
Much of the research into these so-called genetic indicators is badly done, according to Prum, and there’s limited evidence that the correlations hold up. After all, thin people can be unhealthy and curvy women can be infertile. Lacking a symmetrical face doesn’t mean you are inferior in an evolutionary, genetic way. Beauty standards may exist, but an unassailable, scientific “most beautiful woman” cannot. And so we’re back to squinting at the mark—trying to see ourselves, wondering what others see.
When “objective beauty” is out of reach, we look around to see how else we can define ourselves. F or writer Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, her private beauty myth was that she was hairy and oily-skinned, with strong features, pear-shaped with a small waist. Growing up in South Dakota, a certain Scandinavian look was prized. “I wasn’t blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and ski-jump-nosed,” writes Whitefield-Madrano, “ergo, I was Maria Callas .” Years later, she realized her features aren’t necessarily strong, they’re just not tiny. Her cheekbones are sort of high, but not really. She gets the occasional zit, but there’s no justification for using “products for oily skin.” Part of her private beauty myth (hairy) was insecurity, but another part (small-waisted) was the invention of a positive trait even when the evidence was flimsy.
Similarly, I chose to believe that although I was not pretty, I was “striking” because of high cheekbones and a pointed chin. I self-describe as having a “heart-shaped face,” and so when my boyfriend’s mother commented on my “nice round face” I jokingly asked him to correct the record. Over the years, certain choices—the dyed hair, a habit of wearing lipstick, large earrings—might have made me striking, but the truth of the claim from my features alone is less plausible. My face is the same shape regardless of what I call it. I rejected the idea of a round face because to me it was either “cute” or a euphemism for shapeless.
There are so many ways we fail to see ourselves clearly; so many forces that conspire to keep us from doing so. To this day, I’m still unsure what a “weak chin” is, or my true body shape or skin type. Humans are uncomfortable with ambiguity, and it can feel better to believe in your strong features and dry skin than to believe in being average. “Strong” is interesting. You can buy special products to fix your “dry” skin. “Average” blends in and is impossible to describe.
I have asked myself again and again why it’s so important to know exactly how I look, especially since there probably is no one answer. If I know how I look, I know where I stand and so I know my place in the world. I will never act uppity or ask for less than I deserve. I can calibrate my expectations for my life.
This is the model, but it breaks down in reality. My weight has fluctuated thirty pounds in the past year due to medication. The change has been all too obvious to me and I have been much happier on the lower end than the higher. But no one has treated me differently. Strangers weren’t kinder when I was thinner or crueler when I was heavier. Ultimately, either others weren’t paying much attention, or noticing the change didn’t affect our interactions.
The bad lighting and the flattering angles capture a true aspect of me. “What I look like” is not a static picture cut out and placed in different environments, but one that changes again and again. Perhaps an average of some sort would give me the answer I crave. But the tiny details and different angles seem to matter far less than I think, and so what I “truly” look like probably matters very little, too. The change in my self-esteem over the past year has been far more marked than any change in the outside world. I am the one that cares most and is most affected.
When I was younger, my presumed lack of “objective beauty” was the most infuriating thing—I wanted power and I wanted opportunity and I hated that I would be held back by genetics or laziness. I have been held back. Beauty privilege is real. But I have also been held back by being female, by not being better at sports, by this and that and a thousand different things. And I have been given gifts that I have done nothing to deserve. Physical gifts, even: good skin, good teeth, good hair.
There is no general peak beauty age, but there may be a period in an individual’s life when, looking back, people say that is when we looked our best. My peak might have already passed, or it might be in the future—you can only know the peak of a dataset once it has ended. For now, I will try to stop looking at myself from the outside and monitoring the inputs so obsessively. Broad strokes are enough; the more detailed picture is no better guide for how to navigate the world.