attractiveness is distinct from sexual attractiveness. For
example, people often regard children — both human
and animal — as being highly physically attractive or 'cute'
because of their relatively large eyes, but without sexual attraction.
What is Considered Physically Attractive?
One's own culture has a strong effect in determining who a person
considers as physically attractive. As children grow up, they
learn what their culture considers attractive. Movies and cartoons,
frequently portray the villain as being ugly, whereas the protagonist
is depicted as attractive. Children are shown examples of what
is considered as beauty in the form of dolls and pictures on
magazine covers. Perception of what is considered as attractive
and appealing is also very heavily influenced by other dominant
cultures and the impact of their value systems.
Cultures Agree on Beauty
That said, cultures tend to agree on what is attractive. There
is a strong correlation between judgments of attractiveness
between cultures. Furthermore, infants, who presumably have
not yet been affected by culture, tend to prefer the same faces
considered attractive by adults. This implies that a large
part of attractiveness is determined by inborn human nature,
Strong correlations between attractiveness and particular physical
properties have been found, across cultures. One of the more
important properties is symmetry, which is also associated with
physical health. Large clear eyes are also important.
Proportion of Body Mass to Body Structure
The Body Mass Index (BMI) is another important universal determinant
to the perception of beauty. The BMI refers to the proportion of
the body mass to the body structure. However, in various cultures,
the optimal body proportion is interpreted differently due to cultural
learnings and traditions. The Western ideal considers a slim and
slender body mass as optimal while many ancient traditions and
Asian societies considers an embonpoint or plump body-mass as appealing.
In either case the underlying rule applied in determining beauty
is the BMI and hence displays how cultural differences of beauty
operate on universal principles of human evolution.
The slim ideal does not consider an emaciated body as attractive,
just as the full-rounded ideal does not celebrate the over-weight
or the obese. The cultural leanings are therefore just social
emphasis on specific phenotypes within a parameter of optimal
The attraction for a proportionate body also influences an appeal
for erect posture.
The Beauty Prototype
Besides biology and culture, there are other factors determining
physical attractiveness. The more familiar a face seems, the
more highly it is judged, an example of the mere exposure effect.
It is seen that when many faces are combined into a composite
image (through computer morphing), people find the resultant
image as familiar and attractive, and even more beautiful than
the faces that went into it. One interpretation is that this
shows an inherent human preference for prototypicality. That
is, the resultant face emerges with the salient features shared
by most faces and hence becomes the prototype. The prototypical
face and features is therefore perceived as symmetrical and
familiar. This reveals an "underlying preference for the
familiar and safe over the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous" (Berscheid
and Reis, 1998). However, critics of this interpretation point
out that compositing computer images also has the effect of
removing skin blemishes such as scars and generally softens
sharp facial features.
Classical conceptions of beauty are essentially a celebration
of this prototypicality. It celebrates the extra-ordinary (from
the latin root meaning over or extremely-ordinary) as the prototype
or most beautiful.
The phenotype of one's own mother during the early years of
childhood becomes the basis for the perception of optimal body
mass index (BMI). This shows the importance of prototypicality
in the judgment of beauty, and also explains the emergence of
similarity of the perception of attractiveness within a community
or society, which shares a gene pool.