Hey Thoughty2 here. In 1878 Charles Darwin’s cousin, explorer, inventor and polymath Sir Francis Galton discovered a new technique to combine portraits to create a composite image, an average face. What he discovered was that whenever you average people’s faces to create a new face, the resulting composite face is always beautiful. He thus concluded that as humans we find averages beautiful. We dislike extremes, anomalies and oddities.
Sir Francis Galton deduced that facial symmetry as well as avergness, both contribute to beauty. Around the same time that Sir Francis Galton published his research a Polish businessman by the name of Maksymilian Faktorowicz took immense interest in what Galton had to say about beauty. Galton’s findings inspired Maksymilian to create a strange device which he called the beauty micrometer. It’s purpose was to measure a woman’s face and check for averageness and symmetry. It was able to pick up on minor structural flaws that were barely noticeable to the human eye.
Women flocked in their droves, mostly from the film industry, to try out Maksymilian’s device. Conveniently he also happened to produce and sell a range of beauty enhancing products to fix the so called imperfections that the beauty micrometer picked up on. He named these products makeup. So successful was his range of makeup that he started a company named after himself. Maksymilian Faktorowicz - Max Factor. Which as you all know would become one of the largest makeup brands in the world.
But this raises a poignant question, why do we find symmetry and avergeness to be beautiful? Why aren’t quirky, odd and disfigured faces considered beautiful, by most people? Researchers have long thought the reason for this is that imperfect, asymmetrical faces can indicate that a potential mate has an ailment or disease, and so the laws of sexual selection dictate that we are predisposed to choose not to mate with such people. Although not a very nice theory, it makes sense. After all, it’s true that various diseases we can have as children do leave permanent scars and physical disfigurements on our faces and/or bodies. Albeit less so today with modern medicine.
But if this were true wouldn’t so called ugliness and physical imperfections have died out long ago through sexual selection; kind of like a natural eugenics? There must be more to this beauty thing than wanting to avoid diseases and genetic disorders. Also, today with modern medicine, illnesses we have as children, such as chickenpox rarely leave any permanent physical marks on our faces, as they would have done in our hunter gatherer days.
The answer to why we find symmetrical faces so beautiful could in fact be so simple it’s almost beautiful. Some scientists think it’s simply because humans find beauty in all things symmetrical in nature. Symmetry represents order, calmness and certainty, it is the opposite of chaos, so seeing symmetry, whether it’s in nature or a significant other’s face, makes us feel calm and content.
Be it the wings of a butterfly, the orderly leaves of a plant, or the gentle ripples in a pond, all these sights bring us peace, the same chemical reactions that cause this feeling of content could be triggered by the symmetry of a person’s face.
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But can beauty be measured? Like we measure intelligence? Turns out yes. Believe it or not, there is a unit of measurement for beauty, it’s called a Helen. The more beautiful you are, the more Helens you possess. No I’ve not gone crazy, again. I forgot to mention that it’s meant as a joke. Coined by Cambridge mathematician W. A. H. Rushton, it comes from the fact that people would write that Helen of Troy was so beautiful that she “had a face that launched a thousand ships”. And so the more Helens a person has the more likely their beauty is to inspire actions, such as waging war. There are also millihelens, for situations when someone is so darn ugly they are simply not deserving of one full Helen.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary beauty is defined as “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.” Now this suggests that beauty is subjective. And since we are all unique and we all find pleasure in different ways, it is true that beauty must be in the eyes of the beholder. So maybe perfect symmetry, averageness and physical proportions to set norms aren’t true beauty. Well this of course depends on your point of view. But the Japanese have a novel way of approaching the idea of beauty, that I personally find rather appealing. They call it Wabi-Sabi.
Wabi-Sabi is the appreciation and beauty found within imperfections. This isn’t just another ancient Eastern tradition that is mostly ignored by modern society. Wabi-Sabi is deeply ingrained within modern Japanese culture. Writer Leonard Koren wrote Wabi-Sabi is "the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West."
Wabi-Sabi is loving that mole on your partner’s cheek. It is appreciating the way that crooked old tree warps and twists in its eternal struggle against gravity. It is loving the curves, bumps and oddities of a person’s body. And finding beauty in how cracks meander through your favourite architectural monoliths.
The famous Zen Garden in Northwest Kyoto contains 15 stones, that are placed in such a way that no matter what angle you look at them from the ground, you can only ever see 14 stones, the fifteenth is always just out of sight. Thus symbolising Wabi-Sabi, no matter how you see the garden, it is never complete, never perfect. The idea of Wabi Sabi comes from Buddhism but it truly originated from Japanese tea ceremonies, as people would favour unique, handcrafted cups and tea making apparatus that had imperfections and unique marks from their makers hands, over perfect, ornate crockery, which is only intended to show off.
Wabi Sabi is a deeply complex ideal and way of living that cannot be fully explained using the English language. But it’s a refreshingly beautiful take on beauty compared to the obsession of striving for perfection and symmetry that is often promoted in the West.
Speaking of perfection, it turns out it’s not all it’s made out to be. A study on catwalk models discovered that the more symmetrical and technically perfect a model’s face is, the more likely they are to have low self-esteem and generally have a lower well being than average. Other research conducted at City University in London found that people who make a living from their looks such as catwalk and catalogue models were more suspicious, non-conforming, intensely emotional, interpersonally alienated, eccentric, and self-centered.
But it turns out there are also considerable benefits to what society would call “beautiful”. These studies also mentioned that more physically attractive people are considerably more likely to be hired and promoted. On average attractive individuals earn higher salaries. They are also more confident, it’s thought that this is because they put themselves out there more often and have thus had more experience at making conversation and socialising.
However vanity and striving for perfection can be dangerous and lead you into a pit of misery. A recent study by London-based Royal Society of Public Health found that instagram is the worst social network for mental health. Researchers found that a desire to take perfect sugar-coated images of one’s own life in an attempt to gain likes, followers and keep up with one’s peers only increased mental issues such as depression, anxiety and feelings of FOMO, a fear of missing out. Interestingly this study found YouTube to be the most positive social network on the internet, being the only social network in existence that scored positive marks for mental health. So that’s good!
I’ve talked in a past video about how damaging social media is to the mental health of young people today but this recent study showed how it’s the way that Instagram and other sites like Facebook only show the very best of other people’s lives that is so mentally damaging. When we see edited, cherry-picked photos of our friends on holiday or having a good time with friends it makes us feel self contempt, like we are missing out on life. Some people compensate by manufacturing scenarios so they can post pictures on Instagram that makes their own life appear to be just as good as their friends, which is always a futile and empty pursuit, only adding fuel to this vicious cycle.
The study found that the worst affected are women. Seeing airbrushed images of other women on Instagram with perfect bodies, hair and makeup makes women feel inadequate, as if their bodies and looks aren’t as good as their peers. Instagram may seem harmless on the surface and sure, it can be and is used harmlessly by a lot of people, but sadly for many people it’s just a mechanism for them to put a filter on their life and show it off to the world.
Hey, I’m not judging, we’re all guilty of it, myself included. But next time you’re obsessing over how perfectly you can filter and showcase your figure, your holiday snaps or your lunch on Instagram or Facebook, maybe you should take a moment to indulge in some Wabi Sabi and instead put your phone down and appreciate the subtleties and beautiful imperfections of the world around you, the leaves on the ground, the landscape, the insightful, interesting conversations of those around you. For true beauty is not what you see or what you strive to be, but it is the fantastical wonder and the greatness of life which you experience everyday and equally so that which you give to others. Thanks for watching.