Our Controversial Beauty Study

A Contemporary Assessment of Facial Aesthetic Preferences

To be published in the Archives of Facial Plastic Surgery (Mar/Apr 2009)

A variety of aesthetic “canons” have been long served as standardized measurements to guide plastic surgeons in facial cosmetic surgery. These metrics include various angles, proportions, and geometric relationships of the landmarks of the face which are supposed to define what is aesthetically ideal. For example, the angle formed between the upper lip and the base of the nose is supposed to be about 100 degrees for a female nose. Or, the apex (highest point) of the eyebrow is supposed to be directly above the outer edge of the iris of the eye. Sometimes termed “neoclassical canons” these measurements originate from a predominantly Western view of facial aesthetic beauty, spanning back to concepts espoused by the Ancient Greeks and Leonardo DaVinci.

What motivated this research was a nagging question in my mind: why should the same standards of beauty be applied to different people? It was clear to me that two individuals could look very different from one another yet both be very beautiful. Particularly in our diverse, multi-cultural world, it seemed that we ought to have broader views about facial aesthetic beauty.

The study set out to determine whether or not three common measurements traditionally viewed as aesthetically ideal by neoclassical canons would be viewed as favorable by a contemporary, ethnically diverse groups of individuals. Variations of these measurements were applied to both Caucasian and Asian models of both an older and younger age group. The three specific measurements examined were position of the apex of the eyebrow, width of the nasal tip, and rotation of the nasal tip (length of the nose). For each of these features, a range of measurements were applied to a baseline standardized digital photograph through a computer morphing program. For example, each model had 5 versions of her face with the nasal tip altered from narrow to wide, 6 versions with various degrees of rotation of the nasal tip, and 5 positions of the eyebrow apices.

These photographs were then shown to 171 study volunteers of various ages and ethnicities. The volunteers were asked to rank each picture in each series of photographs from most to least attractive. Consistent with our hypothesis, there were no clear preferences for aesthetically ideal metrics across all volunteers. Instead, preferences varied depending on age and ethnicity of both model as well as reviewer. For example, eyebrows with apices that were further outward (away from the center), were tended to be preferred in younger models and by younger reviewers. Asian reviewers tended toward a preference for a wider nasal tip as compared to Caucasian reviewers. Many of the other preferences did not follow clear cut patterns, signifying a widely variable range of facial aesthetic preferences.

Although there is some evidence that some of our sense of aesthetic facial beauty is innate and independent of culture, it is also clear that one’s aesthetic sense is influenced by age, gender, or ethnicity. This is important in the modern era with increasing globalization and a wider group of individuals of different backgrounds seeking cosmetic interventions. The research described suggests that we cannot adhere to rigid beauty guidelines when considering the faces of individuals from a variety of backgrounds. Rather, we should consider features based on each person’s unique composition that comes from their ethnic, familial, and individual backgrounds.