The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Facial Beauty

There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion. --Francis Bacon, Essays: Of Beauty

Look at me, I'm handsome like anything and I haven't got anybody to marry me yet. --Gary, age 7

Tracy's wearing: Nude lipliner, Crystal Pink and Cine Beige lipsticks; Seamless stick makeup in Champagne; Peach Spice satin powder blush; transluscent loose powder; Nude Scene eyeshadow and 2000 Calorie mascara in Rich Black. All made by Max Factor. --Elizabeth Gaynor (describing Max Factor consultant, Tracy Warbin's face; 2000:13; see below, Makeup)

Perception. Qualities or features of the human face which excite aesthetic admiration, attraction, desire, or love.

Usage: Though facial beauty is "in the eye of the beholder," some qualities, features, and proportions are universally esteemed:

Cuteness I. In the 1930s, researchers isolated specific "cute" features in the resting face, seemingly favored by human beings in every society. A set of youthful features and proportions (e.g., wide-set eyes and full lips set upon soft, smooth, unblemished skin) appears to be attractive both in male and female faces. Existence of an infantile schema was originally identified in mammals (including Homo sapiens) by Konrad Lorenz (1939).

Cuteness II. "The infantile/diminution response could have evolved from the responses of adults to infants. It is a fact that youngsters are cared for and protected in virtually all mammalian and bird species, some amphibian, reptilian, and fish species, and among the social, and possibly nonsocial, insect species" (Omark 1980:56).

Eyes and cheekbones. Across cultures (based on a study of Japanese and U.S. observers' judgements of female attractiveness), high cheekbones, a thin lower jaw, large eyes, and a shorter distance between the mouth and chin (and between the nose and mouth) are preferred as "cute" qualities in men's and women's faces alike (Perrett, May, and Yoshikawa 1994).

Jaws. The size (a. normal, b. vertically excessive [i.e., "too long"], or c. vertically deficient [i.e., "too short"]) and placement (a. normal, b. prognathic [i.e., protruding], or c.retrusion) of the upper and/or lower jaws affect our perceptions of facial beauty as well. Cross-culturally, e.g., bimaxillary prognathism (protruding upper and lower jaws) is less attractive than either normal or bimaxillary retrusion. Vertical deficiency is more attractive than vertical excess; and normal jaw occlusion is more attractive than either retrograde or protruded lower jaws (Kiyak N.D.).

LiteratureWe have spoken of Pearl's rich and luxuriant beauty; a beauty that shone with deep and vivid tints; a bright complexion, eyes possessing intensity both of depth and glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy brown, and which, in after years, would be nearly akin to black. --Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter)

Love at first sight. A research team led by Knut Kampe of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London, has determined that eye contact with a pretty face (one judged to be attractive by the viewer [on variables such as radiance, empathy, cheerfulness, motherliness, and conventional beauty]) activates a pleasure center of the brain called the ventral striatum. Kampe's research, published in the journal Nature (2001), found that the brain-imaged pleasure response (which appears in a matter of seconds after viewing the face) only shows when mutual eye-contact is established, and does not show when looking into an attractive face whose eyes are averted or turned away.

Lower face. Anthropologist Donald Symons has suggested that in women, a thin, pointed jaw and a small lower face are products of high levels of estrogen (i.e., the qualities suggest, "I am full of [feminine] estrogen and free of [masculine] testosterone: I am fertile"). Symons proposed that essential beauty is averageness (in a test of his hypothesis the composite images of averaged photos were rated as "most attractive" by college-student observers; Langlois and Roggman 1990).

Masculine fierceness. Compared to the powerful, wide jaws and broad dental arch of our ancestor Homo habilis (who lived in what is now northern Ethiopia ca. 2.3 m.y.a.), our own face has relatively shrunken, infantile features crouched beneath an immense and bulbous forehead. Yet "fierce" traits--larger eyebrow ridges, lower-set eyebrows, and bigger jaws (i.e., than those of women)--are still attractive in men (esp. in tandem with cute features).

Makeup. To cover blemishes and wrinkles--to highlight the infantile schema (see above, Cuteness I), men and especially women have used facial cosmetics for millennia. 1. "'Lead has been eroding European women's skin for at least 3,000 years,' claims a team of archaeologists who recently discovered 50 grams of toxic face powder in a 3000-year-old tomb in a Mycenean cemetery in Greece" (Anonymous 1994B:1655). 2. Its composition " . . . --80% calcium carbonate and 20% lead sulfate hydrate--is similar to that of preparations used as cosmetics throughout history" (Anonymous 1994B:1655). 3. "Finely ground green malachite, a particular favorite [in Ancient Egypt] from 4000 B.C. on, consists of oxide of copper--lethal both to bacteria and fly eggs. The exaggerated eye makeup that we associate with Queen Cleopatra in Hollywood spectaculars was originally of this nature" (Barber 1994:201).

Medicine. "About four years ago cosmetic surgeons began injecting Botulinum toxin (Botox) into people's faces to reduce frown lines, forehead lines and crow's feet. It works by paralyzing tiny facial muscles" (Hamilton and Weingarden 1998:14).

Philosophy. Beauty: "The sensible condition of aesthetic excellence considered to arouse the keenest pleasure" (Flew 1979:39).

Symmetry1. Another preferred trait may be facial symmetry between the right and left sides. In a review of symmetry in mate selection, researchers found that animals from scorpion flies to zebra finches showed a preference for symmetrical patterns and shapes (perhaps because asymmetry is a sign of weakness or disease; Watson and Thornhill 1994). College-student ratings of young adult faces reveal that vertical and horizontal symmetry are attractive features (at least in photographs). 2. In another study based on the subjective ratings of judges: "The more symmetric twin of a pair was consistently rated as more attractive, and the magnitude of the difference between twins in perceived attractiveness was directly related to the magnitude of the difference in symmetry" (Mealey, Bridgstock, and Townsend 1999:151). 

RESEARCH REPORT: In a study utilizing Asian, Hispanic, and White judges, the most attractive female faces had larger, wider-set eyes, smaller noses, narrower facial breadths, smaller chins, higher eyebrows, larger lower lips, larger smiles, dilated pupils, and well-groomed, fuller hair (Cunningham et al. 1995).

Neuro-notes. Research by Dan Ariely (MIT Sloan School of Management) and Hans Breiter (Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston), published in the November 2001 issue of the journal Neuron, indicates that in men, female beauty stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain as those stimulated by food and cocaine.


Photo of unnamed sculpture (Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA) by Doreen K. Givens (copyright 2007)