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Looking Good
Our obsession with physical appearance may not be so shallow, after all

By David Von Drehle
Sunday, November 12, 2006

I spotted her across a crowded room , 15 or maybe 20 years ago. She stood as if frozen in grace and time, poised in a shaft of light that seemed calculated to flatter her lustrous skin and full, moist lips. She had a regal air and great serenity, even as people circled her and stared frankly, women as well as men. Her beauty stunned me like a mallet to the head.

I slowly made my way toward her. I felt a strong desire to reach out and touch her slender neck, just below the ear, but of course I didn't. I hadn't even learned her name. Also, she was sealed inside a clear display case. And she didn't have an ear -- or nose, eyes or hair for that matter. Just her neck and the lower half of her face.

The vision that struck me so powerfully that day was a fragment of a once-complete bust of an Egyptian queen, possibly Nefertiti. This masterpiece of highly polished jasper is more than 3,300 years old and resides in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When I caught my first heart-stopping glimpse of her, she firmly settled in my mind the question of whether physical beauty is real or simply a creation of society and the media. Her lean neck, high cheekbones, smooth skin and bee-stung lips transcended the miles and millennia between her reign and that of Angelina Jolie or Tyra Banks.

Stephen Marquardt, a reconstructive surgeon in Southern California who has made a career of studying beauty, would say that my response was hard-wired. Marquardt is one of a number of doctors and scientists probing the machinery that connects perceptions of beauty with human evolution. Beauty, they theorize, is the name we give to certain signals processed instinctively by our animal brains. It isn't invented by Hollywood or fashion magazines so much as it is programmed into our DNA.

For example, a number of studies have shown that faces judged to be beautiful, regardless of culture, are highly symmetrical. Nature seems to have a bias in favor of balanced pairs -- two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two wings. Two recent studies found that greater symmetry in men corresponds with more and faster-swimming sperm.

A Polish researcher named Grazyna Jasienska recently designed an experiment to determine whether symmetrical women have higher levels of the key reproductive hormone estradiol. In the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, her team reports the results. They compared the left and right ring fingers of 183 Polish women between the ages of 24 and 36. Women whose fingers differed in length by more than two millimeters formed the asymmetrical group. Their average estradiol levels were 13 percent lower than the symmetrical group average.

When the scientists screened out rural women, whose economic status and harder lives could skew their hormone levels, the difference in average hormone levels between symmetrical and asymmetrical urban women rose to 28 percent.

Marquardt's work has an artistic spin to it. Like Euclid, Leonardo da Vinci and Le Corbusier before him, the doctor became fascinated with the possibility that beauty itself could be quantified. His instincts told him that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. "I didn't find that to be true," he explains in an interview. "Guys seem to agree. They may argue over whether they prefer Michelle Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger, but you never hear anyone say Roseanne Barr." He had always been mathematically inclined, so, beginning in the early 1970s, Marquardt set out to compile the measurements of beautiful faces. He focused on people who were paid for being attractive -- movie stars and face models. His colleagues scoffed: "Every doctor I talked to told me I was nuts," he recalls.

At the same time, Marquardt was reading everything he could find on earlier searches for the elusive key to beauty. Between his reading and his measurements, he began to home in on a simple mathematical formula known as the Golden Mean, or Golden Section.

The Golden Mean is a ratio that appears to connect (in some uncanny way) with all sorts of sensually pleasing creations, man-made and organic. Many readers today are familiar with the idea from Dan Brown's blockbuster The Da Vinci Code , but Marquardt had developed his theory long before the book was written. The Golden Mean and the related mathematical sequence known as Fibonacci numbers lie behind such elegant shapes as the spiral seashell of the chambered nautilus and the five-pointed star on the American flag. The same principle also predicts such phenomena as the perfect arrangement of petals on a flower to maximize the surface area exposed to the sun.

Picture the ratio in its simplest form: two lines. The first line is an inch long, and the second approximately 1.618 inches. (The exact length of the second line is called phi, and like its more famous cousin pi, it goes on endlessly after the decimal point.) The ratio of these two lines, 1 to 1.618, is the Golden Mean.

What's so golden about it? Well, suppose you joined the two lines -- call them section one and section two. Their combined length, section three, is 1.618 times longer than the second section by itself. Which, you'll recall, is 1.618 times longer than the first section. Now combine section three with section two, and sure enough -- the combination is 1.618 times longer than section three by itself.

And so on. The most famous representation of the Golden Mean is Leonardo's drawing "Vitruvian Man" -- the one with the nude fellow inside a circle, arms and legs outstretched like spokes in a wheel. The golden ratio is everywhere: the distance from the top of the figure's head to the middle of his chest is 1.618 times the length of the head alone. The distance from the top of his head to his navel is 1.618 times the distance from his head to the middle of the chest, and so on. But others have perceived the ratio in the architecture of the Pantheon, the bones of the fingers, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the very structure of the DNA molecule itself (the length versus the width, among many other measurements).

Marquardt still takes delight in his own discovery that the combined width of the two upper front teeth in a model-perfect smile is 1.618 times the height of each tooth. Eventually, he decided to use phi to build a template for the perfect face. With a computer, he generated a number of shapes using key facial features (pupils, corners of the mouth, bridge of the nose, etc.) as endpoints. The triangles, pentagons and decagons that resulted were all based on the 1:1.618 ratio. Putting that all together, he created a "mask" of ideal beauty. He called the finished product his "beauty mask" or "phi mask."

The real test came when he assembled hundreds of pictures of acclaimed beauties, from today's superstars back in time to Nefertiti herself. His "mask" fit with uncanny precision onto face after face after face -- white, black, Asian, Hispanic, ancient, contemporary. In the distances from jaw to brow, from lip to nostril, from nose to eye socket and so on and so forth, he found, again and again, that magic ratio.

"We believe that it is not strictly an image of 'beauty,'" Marquardt explains on his Web site, "but actually an image of humanness." Moths use smell to locate other moths to mate with, he says. Dolphins find other dolphins by sound. We find human mates by looking instinctively for the Golden Mean, and the more closely a human conforms to this proportion, the more "beautiful" -- that is, ideal for mating -- that person appears.

The idea seems rather New Age-y, even daffy, until you see how neatly that mask slides over those beautiful faces. Then you understand why his findings are discussed at scholarly conferences and cited in academic journals. Your mother may have told you pretty is as pretty does, but Marquardt and his calipers say she's wrong.

I thought Cupid aimed his dart

Deep into my fevered heart;

Instead the arrow's lusty path

Was predetermined by . . . math.

My jasper heartthrob in the art museum also rattled my belief that today's Americans are more obsessed with physical appearance than previous societies have been. I had taken this belief for granted until then, and it's hard to shake off entirely. The number of cosmetic procedures performed on Americans has risen roughly 500 percent over the past decade, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, and last year 11 million procedures were done. (For the record, the vast majority of these did not involve Mary Tyler Moore.) These procedures averaged more than $1,000 a pop, not counting the intangible costs -- the needle stabs, scalpel incisions, anesthesia, stitches, bruising, swelling and so on.

Operations involving jabbing, scraping or polishing were most popular: Botox injections, Restylane shots, laser hair removal, facial peels -- that sort of thing. Patients going under the knife were partial to liposuction, breast enlargements, and eye and nose jobs.

But no frontier of the body went unscrutinized. "As my feet settle into middle age, their unfortunate condition is such that public exposure is no longer an option," Betsy Berne bravely confessed to Vogue readers recently. Berne visited with Manhattan podiatrist Suzanne Levine, whose foot-beautification program includes "extensive buffing, whitening of nails using Levine's exclusive bleaching agent . . . laser rejuvenation to lessen the appearance of spider veins . . . mesotherapy to reduce heavy ankles; microdermabrasion . . . injectable fillers to plump up worn balls of the feet and to resculpt misshapen toes; laser hair removal; and ambulatory surgery."

In the age of tootsie tucks, who could be surprised that a publicity photograph of the latest anchor of CBS News -- a post made legendary by portly Walter Cronkite -- was electronically altered to shave off a few pounds? Or that in Hollywood, even the frizzy-haired frump and plain-Jane salesclerk roles go to such notable beauties as Cameron Diaz ("Being John Malkovich") and Claire Danes ("Shopgirl")? America reportedly spends $33.5 billion a year on cosmetics and fragrances, $15 billion on health club memberships. Billions more at hair salons and nail salons and back-waxing emporiums. And the infinite varieties of blue jeans. All the straightening, capping, lasering and bleaching of teeth. The special razors to give a young man the perfect stubbly face. The designer shoes, designer socks, designer skivvies and shirts and blouses, designer jackets and sweaters and eyeglass frames and jammies.

As Calvin Klein might say: obsession.

Is ours any greater obsession, though -- given the differences in societies and technologies and resources -- than the obsession that focused the riches and skills of ancient Egypt on creating a bust of a beautiful queen? Her husband, the all-powerful Pharoah, could have ordered up another sphinx, pyramid or sarcophagus, but he decided to immortalize this woman's appearance. He summoned an artist of unsurpassed skill and gave him the tools and time he needed. No Vogue editor, no Hollywood studio, ever poured more into memorializing a face.

Is it any greater obsession than the one Homer describes, in which the thousand ships were launched to bring the beautiful Helen back from Troy? Any greater than the one that caused the leading citizens of Florence to purchase an enormous block of marble that would -- after decades of false starts by other artists -- be carved into an ideal young male form by Michelangelo and named "David"?

Beauty is an eternal obsession, the Italian brainiac Umberto Eco explains, though the obsession finds new channels and expressions according to time and place. "Beauty has never been absolute and immutable, but has taken on different aspects depending on the historical period and the country," he declares in his History of Beauty -- a sumptuously illustrated book that makes you think every philosophical tome might benefit from pictures of good-looking naked people.

The question, then, is not whether we are more obsessed today than ever before, but what today's modes of obsession might tell us about ourselves.

Consider an advertisement that appeared this summer in key fashion magazines.

Three figures are shown against a vague, gray background: two beautiful young men and one beautiful young woman. Their feet are obscured by wispy fog, as though they might be walking in a cloud. All three are facing away from the camera. Each one is the proud owner of a well-shaped tush, easy to discern, because two of them are wearing tight jeans, and the third -- one of the fellas -- is clad in a loincloth that covers just half his loins.

Besides the loincloth, his only adornment is a pair of fluffy white angel wings. This angel is standing between the mortals in jeans and has a wing around each one. Maybe he is comforting them through a dark night of the soul. Maybe they have died in a terrible accident and he is taking them to heaven. But whatever he's up to, the woman has hanky-panky on her mind. She is reaching to lay a hand on his celestial rear. The startled angel swings his head to look at her, and what do you know? He has the profile of a Greek Adonis.

The ad team for Diesel jeans packed this picture full of enough symbols and allusions to choke a grad student. But one striking fact about it is that images used by Greek philosophers to exalt their gods (curly-haired Adonis, seductive Venus), and later used by Renaissance popes to promote Catholicism (near-nude angel, curvy Madonna), are now employed to sell $200 jeans in 300-page fashion slicks.

In those earlier eras, physical beauty was treated as a gateway to higher virtues. "What if man had eyes to see the true beauty -- the divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed," Socrates muses in Plato's Symposium. Physical beauty, to Plato, was but a shadow of ideal beauty; the reason to gaze on a beautiful body was that it might inspire contemplation of the ideal. This concept held sway over Western aesthetics for much of 2,000 years. The rippling abs, coiled calves, full breasts and buns of steel in the work of Phidias of Greece and Michelangelo of Italy make today's Abercrombie & Fitch kids look prudish and wan. But the purpose of those erotic creations was (in theory, at least) to lead viewers toward a Platonic divine. The beauty of youth was but a step toward the beautiful Truth, and so every canvas was an allegory and every hottie a god or goddess. No history records the names of the gorgeous models who posed for those statues; instead, we know them as Diana or Mary, Achilles or David.

Today, beauty doesn't sell ideas or religions; it sells products and lifestyles. Obvious, perhaps. But what are the implications? For one thing, this change in the purpose of beauty has had the effect of democratizing beauty. Looking good is no longer the exclusive province of gods and near-gods. Everyone can join in.

When an image of a beautiful woman holding a supine man is painted on an altar piece or carved for a chapel, it is understood to be Mary holding the body of Jesus. These are not ordinary people; to believers, they are the Queen of Heaven and the Son of God. People don't typically see them and think, "I'd like to look like that," or, "Where can I get those clothes?"

But a similar image of a man resting in a woman's embrace, presented in a magazine or on the side of a bus, is usually trying to convey the opposite message. It's saying, "This could be you."

What's more, beauty is now a mass phenomenon, almost as ubiquitous as electricity or water. Hard to remember, but high-speed, high-quality color printing is only about 50 years old (the same is true for color television). Our world, in which ordinary people view hundreds of lifelike, full-color, drop-dead gorgeous images daily, is entirely the product of that brief period. For most of history, ordinary people saw few, if any, deliberately beautiful images in their entire lives. Paintings and sculptures were for palaces and cathedrals; most human beings until recently lived on farms or in isolated villages. If they visited town and saw a beautiful statue in the square, the sheer rarity of that experience would heighten the sense that this beauty was in no way related to their common lives.

Now, movies and television give us beauty as an everyday experience. We watch stories set in offices, schools, hospitals, neighborhoods just like the ones we inhabit ourselves. We're encouraged to relate as peers to the beautiful people who act out these stories. That's my life up on the screen! Or, I feel as if Julia Roberts and I could be best friends. Or, why can't the boys at my school be more like Zack and Cody? Other media, using still more beautiful models (airbrushed and Photoshopped), cheerfully explain to us how to eat, exercise, dress and groom so that we can be beautiful, too.

Democratizing beauty has all sorts of effects . The one that gets talked about the most is a negative. Studies suggest that the more saturated society becomes with images of beautiful people, the less satisfied we are with our own bodies. Somewhere between half and three-quarters of young women in America, depending on the survey, are unhappy with the way they look. Young men are catching up. Obsession with appearances is blamed for maladies ranging from eating disorders to steroid abuse to depression.

Author Naomi Wolf made a splash as a young woman when she theorized that beauty was a "myth" fostered by society and the personal appearance industry to keep liberated women insecure and shopping. Modern women were gaining more power in the workplace, in politics and in their personal lives, Wolf maintained, but beauty was their Achilles' heel.

She was followed up by another bestselling author, Susan Faludi, who asked what was up with all the weight-lifting, body-waxing, bulge-obsessed young men in America. Their fixation on appearance, she explained, could be traced to society's failure to honor such traditionally masculine achievements as fatherhood and physical labor.

Since those indictments were published in the 1990s, other trends have emerged to make some people wonder whether beauty is really so oppressive and morbid. Anorexia was the danger that haunted Wolf's book, but in fact the epidemic among Americans today is the opposite: obesity. Perhaps for most Americans, images of beauty have become so commonplace that they are like the weather -- everyone talks about it, but nobody ever does anything about it.

In his History of Beauty , Eco rejects the idea that Americans are tyrannized by rigid and impossible standards of beauty. Having traced thousands of years in which the ideal body types celebrated by artists waxed and waned -- the women going from full-figured to gamine and back again; the men fluctuating between lithe and muscular -- the Italian philosopher concludes that today's mass media have no "unified model, any single ideal of beauty. They can retrieve . . . models from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s . . . the Junoesque opulence of Mae West and the anorexic charms of the latest fashion models; the sultry beauty of Naomi Campbell and the Nordic beauty of Claudia Schiffer . . . George Clooney with his short hair, and neo-cyborgs who paint their faces in metallic shades and transform their hair into forests of colored spikes."

Ours is a culture in which "60 Minutes" profiles an actress from India, Aishwarya Rai, as "the most beautiful woman in the world"; other candidates proposed by assorted media for that title include the African American Halle Berry, Asian American Lucy Liu, Mexican-born Salma Hayek and German-born Heidi Klum. Eco luxuriates in the variety, hailing "the absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty."

But how does this "orgy of tolerance," as Eco puts it, coexist with the rigidly intolerant rules of visual symmetry? Here we run into the difference between those closely related concepts of beauty and fashion. Beauty speaks to our instincts; fashion is more calculated. For most of history, clothing, cosmetics and even preferred body types have been signs of class.

Take skin color among Caucasians, for instance. It's no accident that rich women (and sometimes men) powdered their faces stark white in an era when the typical poor person labored on a farm. Suntanned skin was the mark of poverty. But with the industrialization of Western life, the poor moved indoors to work in mills and factories. They lived in cramped, dark tenements in newly packed cities. As poor people turned pale, cosmetic powders turned bronze. Now a tanned look was a token of leisure time, a hint of yacht clubs, lawn tennis and afternoons by the pool. You can read similar messages in clothing styles: Hoop skirts and powdered wigs were obviously not designed for physical labor. Even body types: Plumpness can signal wealth in a country of starving people. At other times, skinniness delivers that message. The Duchess of Windsor's famous remark, "One can never be too rich or too thin," could only be spoken by a person who never endured a famine.

For most of history, images of beauty itself were a sort of class marker. The jasper queen at the Metropolitan was immortalized for her looks, yes -- but also because she was the queen. You need only to spend a few minutes in the galleries of a good museum to see that for many centuries artists found their subjects almost exclusively among kings, popes, duchesses and princesses. Whether they were beautiful or not.

Why would an artist, who knows beauty when he sees it, paint a homely rich person when he could spend his days with a peasant beauty? Economics. Someone has to pay the artist. There were no magazine publishers, advertising firms or pinup calendar makers. Art required rich patrons, and they wanted pictures of themselves. Displayed in town squares and guild halls, these images were propaganda for the ruling family or class. Displayed at home, they stroked the owner's vanity.

What would have happened if the artists had set out in search of beautiful nobodies? They might have had a long hunt. Life was rougher then. Work was physical and grinding. Disease and injury were routine and disfiguring. Nutrition was poor, dental care virtually nonexistent. Today's profusion of beautiful faces can be interpreted as a sign of human progress. More people are living healthier lives and enjoying the resources necessary to maintain their beauty. And anyone -- rich or poor, black or white or brown, woman or man -- in today's America can dream of citizenship in the democracy of beauty. For most, of course, it will never be more than a dream, but it is the dream that sells mountains of diet books, lagoons of face cream, acres of Calvins and boatloads of Botox.

An Epilogue

For all this theorizing about the big embrace of America's beauty obsession -- whether we call it democracy or use one of Eco's fancier term, "syncretism" -- there is one quality we will not abide.

Age.

This dawned on me as I tried to test the claim that today's beauty ideal is dangerously skewed toward skinny. You hear this all the time from critics of the fashion industry, who rightly point out that the stick-figure look known as "heroin chic" is unattainable for most people, short of malnutrition. At the recent Madrid fashion week in Spain, organizers took the unprecedented step of banning severely underweight models.

These critics sometimes refer longingly to earlier times, when Rubensesque nudes and Marilyn Monroe bombshells rang the beauty bell without starving themselves. When I really studied those earlier pictures, though, it struck me that the issue isn't really weight, but maturity. The 17th-century women of Peter Paul Rubens are often described as plump, but notice the slender waists and hourglass figures. They aren't fat; they're grown-ups. They are women who appear to have borne children. Something similar appears in the Greek and Roman marbles. Older gods remained fit and powerful, but their bodies were broader and fleshier; Zeus wasn't trying to fit into the same jeans he wore when he was Mercury's age.

Our era is sexually candid but chronologically dishonest. A recent ad for anti-wrinkle cream in a major fashion magazine employed a model who appeared to be in her teens. Countless ads for men's underwear feature slim bodies, taut as a Renaissance Saint Sebastian. The skivvies, bulging like a one-pound bag toting a two-pound puppy, shout all man. But the inevitably hairless bodies whisper still boy. The most widely circulated magazine in the country is published by the AARP; its standard cover image is a movie star or other celebrity who has managed, with the help of a stylist and modern technology, to look 20 years younger than the truth.

If today's Americans are uniquely obsessed, it's not with beauty, but with youth. The aging baby boomers who have shaped so much popular culture for such a dreadfully long time are now pondering age spots, varicose veins, worry lines and droopy breasts. Vogue's August effort was titled "The Age Issue," but it could have been called "The Fear of Age Issue." Along with the article on cosmetic surgery for feet, ("I will always feel young as long as I can wear heels"), the magazine promoted human growth hormone for "an ageless body," detailed the merits of vascular surgery for younger-looking legs ("the bruises have faded almost completely within two weeks") and explained why a 48-year-old woman decided to get braces on her teeth -- for the second time.

"How sad it is!" lamented the handsome young Dorian Gray. "I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day in June." As Oscar Wilde knew, an aging person's obsession with looking young has less to do with beauty than with the realization that beauty dies.

Time waits for no one, no matter how many sets of braces one wears. The struggle to preserve the physical bloom, whether through single-minded obsession or through artifice, is a fight that can never be won, for human beings are made of flesh, not stone.

David Von Drehle is a staff writer for The Post's Style section. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 11 a.m. ET.

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