Richard G. Petty, MD

The Biology of Beauty

When we think about the characteristics that make someone physically attractive most of us probably think that they are purely subjective and culture bound. But recent evidence suggests that this is not true.

In an astonishingly comprehensive study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Devendra Singh from the University of Texas at Austin has analyzed references to fictional beauties from modern times back to early Indian literature. He found that slimness of the waist was the most common term of praise from an author.

I found it very surprising that this association even seemed to hold in times when a more Rubenesque figure was in fashion.

But I think that the key is not the actual number of inches, but the ratio of waist to hips.I have commented several times that the waist to hip ratio is probably a better physical marker of health risk than body mass index (BMI). Though even this needs to be supplemented by other tests.

Professor Singh’s work has nothing to do with making value judgments, but is instead looking at some of the factors involved in mate selection and this work adds to evidence highlighting the role of the ratio between waist and hips in attracting a mate.

All the recent furor over the dangerously shrinking fashion model has again raised the question that although female waist size has become important in modern Western society and culture – and is likely a factor fueling eating disorders – it is not completely clear whether this waist obsession has always been the case.

In what can only be described as a labor of love, Singh has spent years examining representations of women through history, and in one study, he measured the waist-hip ratio of hundreds of statues from different eras.

In the most recent research, he looked at how "attractive" women were depicted in literature, analyzing more than 345,000 texts, mainly from the 16th to 18th centuries. While most of the writings were British and American, there was a small selection of Indian and Chinese romantic and erotic poetry dating from the 1st to the 6th century of the Christian era.

Singh had this to say: "The common historical assumption in the social sciences has been that the standards of beauty are arbitrary, solely culturally determined and in the eye of the beholder. The finding that the writers describe a small waist as beautiful suggests instead that this body part – a known marker of health and fertility – is a core feature of feminine beauty that transcends ethnic differences and cultures."

Other studies have found a link between a woman’s waist to hip ratio and her fertility which may offer some explanation as to why during evolution it became a factor in selecting a mate. The ratio, like breast size and smooth complexion, is partly under the control of estrogen, which is, of course, a key hormone in the maintenance of fertility.

There has been a great deal of work – and even more speculation – about why men and women are found physically attractive. The idea is that beauty is an indicator of genetic and developmental health. There is also some evidence that physically "attractive" people are healthier than less attractive people.

In 2004 Satoshi Kanazawa and Jody Kovar from the London School of Economics published an intriguing study in the journal Intelligence with the controversial title: “Why Beautiful People are More Intelligent."

The basic idea is that evolutionary processes have, both genetically and socially, led to what we call assortative mating, in which partners have been chosen for their strength, good health and even height: all attributes which have given their possessors a high status. I must be honest that even though I’ve seen the data, when I see and hear some of the comments of a few people in the public eye I still question the association between beauty and intelligence.

There appear to be a few features that characterize physically attractive faces: bilateral symmetry, averageness, and secondary sexual characteristics. Attractive faces tend to be more symmetrical than unattractive faces. 

Fluctuating asymmetry (FA) – random differences between the two sides of the face – is usually not found to be attractive. And this may be why: it increases with exposure to parasites, pathogens, and toxins during development. FA also increases with genetic disruptions, such as mutations and inbreeding. Developmentally and genetically, healthy individuals have less FA and more symmetry in their facial and bodily features.

Across many societies around the world, there is a positive correlation between parasite and pathogen prevalence in the environment and the importance placed on physical attractiveness in mate selection. The theory is that in societies where there are a lot of pathogens and parasites it is especially important to avoid individuals who have been afflicted with them when they select mates. 

Facial averageness in another feature that increases physical attractiveness: faces with features close to the population average are more attractive than those with extreme features. The evolutionary reasons for why average faces in the population are more attractive than extreme faces are not as clear as the reasons for why facial symmetry is attractive. Some current speculation is that facial averageness results from the heterogeneity rather than homogeneity of genes so that would mean that individuals with average faces are more resistant to a larger number of parasites. Therefore like FA, facial averageness may be an indicator of genetic health and parasitic resistance.

There is good data that infants as young as 2-3 months gaze longer at a face that adults have judged attractive rather than a face judged unattractive. And other research has shown that 12 month old infants exhibit more observable pleasure, more play involvement, less distress, and less withdrawal when interacting with strangers wearing attractive masks, than with strangers wearing unattractive masks. They also play significantly longer with facially attractive dolls than with unattractive dolls.

2-12 months is not nearly enough time for infants to have learned and internalized the cultural standards of beauty through socialization and media exposure. So the research data seems to suggest that the standards of beauty might be innate, rather than learned.

Even though there is all this evidence for a evolutionary and biological factors in beauty, it is a mistake to use such a simple model  to try and explain away all of our partner preferences.

By the time that they leave high school, most people have grasped that physical attractiveness is an important first step in attraction, but after that becomes highly
subjective: delightful but not essential.

This work also fails to take into account the attractiveness of factors like radiance, humor, attention, attentiveness, energy, self-assurance, movement, grace and gesture.

Neither can it take account curiosity, presence, charisma, compassion and spiritual awareness. All of these can be extremely attractive, but are hard to explain on simple biological and evolutionary models.

And, by the way, all of these additional factors can be learned: whatever your weight and measurements, whether you are tall or less so and whatever your age.

You can learn to develop many of the things that genetics may have forgotten.

“Beauty awakens the soul to act.” –Dante Alighieri (Italian Poet and Philosopher, 1265-1321)

“Beauty is not in the face, beauty is a light in the heart.” –Kahlil Gibran (Lebanese Poet and Philosopher, 1883-1931)

Clarity of Communication

One of the major reasons for the failure of relationships or of businesses is a failure to communicate clearly. There are also powerful reasons for thinking that much ill health is rooted in “blockages:” inadequate communication between your body, your mind, your emotions, subtle systems and spirituality.

Any communication consists of ten essential components:

  1. The integrity and mental state of the sender
  2. The intent of the sender
  3. The expectation of the sender
  4. The information
  5. The medium
  6. The context
  7. The receiver
  8. The mental state of the receiver
  9. The reaction or response of the receiver
  10. The meta-text and meta-communication of the exchange

Naturally, in a healthy communication, everyone involved takes turns being the sender and the receiver, and this interaction between you creates the overall message. I must be very clear that I’m not just talking about verbal communication, but also physical and intimate interactions, business and family discourses.

I’d also like to take the whole notion of communication a step further: meaningful communication needs for us to be consciously aware of the interaction, and we should see it not just as an exchange of information, but of energy. A charismatic individual may communicate a lot more than mere words and his or her impact may last long after the words have been forgotten. On the other hand, there is actually a technical term – phatic communion – for empty language that is purely used for social lubrication: “How are you?” “You’re welcome,” “Have a nice day.”

It really is important to be aware of all of these components of communication. A problem in any one of them can make a mess of any attempt for people to connect. Too often I see people think only of the sender, the message and the recipient, without realizing that it is the other aspects of communication that are the keys to success or failure. This is often very important in therapy: people may ruminate on something said to them, when they should be considering the context of whatever was said.

Meta-text and meta-communication refer to the whole spectrum of other components of our interactions that stretch beyond the message itself. These include the types of language that we use as well as prosodic cues. And if people are in close proximity, body language and gesture. You may well know that it is possible to tell a great deal about someone’s intentions by studying changes in the tone of their facial muscles, changes in the color of their skin and the directions I which they move their eyes when speaking. How we use certain words to fill in our communication can be as important as the main body of a communication. Something that we do all the time is to try to understand the underlying meaning or meta-text, that is often quite different form the actual words being spoken.

Whether dealing with an individual in therapy or a business that wants to perform better, there is a series of critical questions that will uncover communication problems:

  1. Do you have any communication problems?
  2. Who is responsible for it?
  3. Is there a disconnection between the mental state of any message sender and the message itself?
  4. Does the sender have a clear purpose in communicating?
  5. Are people able to understand the sender? (T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame) was said to have one of the largest vocabularies at the University of Oxford. So large that many people didn’t have a clue what he was talking about!)
  6. Is information being communicated appropriately?
  7. Is the environment conducive to communication?
  8. What is interfering with communication?
  9. How long has this been a problem?
  10. Why has the problem not been solved?

If there is a communication problem, consider starting from scratch:

  1. Any communication contains information and energy: are they both clear and pure?
  2. Is there congruence between what is being communicated and the intent of the communicator?
  3. Is there a culture of integrity in communications?
  4. Are people striving for the greater good or personal aggrandizement?
  5. What people, policies or procedures are interfering with communication?
  6. How are communications becoming degraded?
  7. What and who’s emotions are interfering with the informatyion and the energy of any communications?
  8. What might lead to the misunderstanding of a message?
  9. What systems are in place to ensure that communications are being received and understood correctly?
  10. What system of questioning is in place?

Once we understand each of the phases of communication, and that it is a dynamic exchange of energy and not just information transfer. And that ANY message or communication is subject to degradation, and that there are ways to check for and correct it, you are well on your way to abolishing many of the problems that can wreck relationships, capsize companies and ruin a therapeutic alliance.

“Once a human being has arrived on this earth, communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships he makes with others and what happens to him in the world about him.”
— Virginia Satir (American Family Therapist, 1916-1988)

“Skill in the art of communication is crucial to a leader’s success. He can accomplish nothing unless he can communicate effectively.”
— Norman Allen (American Playwright, Recipient of a Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play)

“A world community can exist only with world communication, which means something more than extensive shortwave facilities scattered about the globe. It means common understanding, a common tradition, common ideas, and common ideals.”
–Robert M. Hutchins (American Educator, and, from 1929-1945, President of the University of Chicago, 1899-1977)

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