Beauty Myths: Why You Shouldn’t Worry Too Much About the Golden Ratio
It is quite likely that you have heard of the Golden Ratio in conjunction with facial beauty. A quick Google search of “golden ratio attractiveness” shows that everyone from AskMen to Oprah are convinced that the Golden Ratio is the key to prettiness.
The Golden Ratio is a relationship between two numbers where the ratio of the larger number to the smaller number is the same as the ratio of the sum of the two numbers to the larger number. In other words, a+b is to a as a is to b. This can also be expressed algebraically: (a+b)/a = a/b. This ratio is a fixed number: 1.6180339… It is represented by the Greek symbol φ (phi).
The Golden Ratio has taken on an almost mystical property in public perception. It is found in the writings of Euclid, and is talked about in conjunction with Pythagorus, Plato, and Fibonacci. As a result, people strongly associate it with great thinkers and thus give it significant weight. However, there is clearly a lot of misinformation about this simple ratio in terms of the human body. Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, for example, is often shown when people discuss the Golden Ratio, even though you can easily measure the painting and clearly demonstrate that the Vitruvian Man’s proportions do not conform to phi.
Vitruvian Man c.1490
This number is rumored to be found in music, in the shells of molluscs, in the phalangeal bones of the digits, in the Egyptian pyramids, and in human DNA. Of course, the question remains: does the Golden Ratio make us beautiful?
Empirical investigations on the Golden Ratio’s role in esthetics began in the 1860s with a psychologist named Gustav Fechner. (For those of you who aren’t psychology nerds, Fechner was the person who transformed psychology into a science. He awoke from a dream with an important realization: the difference between a given stimuli [in terms of time or degree] and a participant’s response was a measure of psychological functioning. Thus, it was possible to measure cognition, and psychology could exist as a science instead of mere philosophy. The psychology department at my alma mater celebrates an annual “Fechner day” to honor his contributions to the development of psychology.) Fechner allowed participants to choose from different rectangles for the most esthetically pleasing version, and found a preference for rectangles that conformed to the Golden Ratio.
Since then, a variety of psychological studies have offered very mixed results. For those of you who are really interested in rectangles, there is an absurdly thorough paper by Christopher Green available online here that discusses the methodology and findings of over a century of studies. (If any of you are psychologists, it may be worth a skim simply because of the sheer number of names you will recognize from your history of psychology classes.) Suffice to say, there is very weak evidence that even rectangles are preferred when in the Golden Ratio, let alone faces.
Proponents of the Golden Ratio’s role in aesthetics argue that attractive faces have proportions built around phi.
This idea has gained a remarkable following despite scant evidence. You can even go download apps that will “rate” you based on how well your face conforms to the Golden Ratio. Just as absurd claims by the beauty industry gain traction when using pseudoscientific “evidence”, this idea has likely captured the public’s attention due to percieved objectivity. However, as Erik Holland rightly points out, “Using the golden ratio to describe facial beauty does not make the attempt objective.”
Perfect face golden ratio
The Golden Ratio was largely popularized by a plastic surgeon named Stephen Marquardt. Marquardt developed a mask based on the phi that supposedly represents the ideal female beauty.
Unfortunately, this mask misses the mark in several ways. First off, its construction only allows for the possibility of European attractiveness. Secondly, a three dimensional Marquardt mask has remained elusive for almost a decade… moving from a series of ratios to a actually attractive face is quite the feat. Finally, it suggests that all variations from the mask are equally unattractive. Hyper-feminized features, however, like big eyes, are consistently rated as more attractive than a mere Marquardt-approved face.
The Marquardt Beauty Mask
When I was a junior in high school, I was just as nerdy, methodological, and vain as I am now. I had a statistics project, and I decided to analyze the extent to which human faces conformed to the Golden Ratio. As you can imagine, narcissistic high schoolers were very eager to participate. Although I can’t seem to find the damn raw data anywhere (I swear it’s not d!), I can summarize my findings: faces don’t conform very well to the Golden Ratio. Some people’s faces did, and they were perfectly attractive people. However, the people who blow your mind by attractive they are? Those people didn’t fit well at all.
Using the miracles of photoshop, I decided to play around with the Marquardt mask to see if I could get better results than I did with my high school measuring tape.
Needless to say, I did not fit into the mask. I did attempt to photoshop myself into a more Golden Ratio-y lady, but the results were not exactly attractive (due mostly, I am sure, to my terrible photoshop skills).
If you are still despairing that your face isn’t quite 1:1.618, let me ease your worries. A huge variety of studies have uncovered absolutely no link between Golden Ratio adherence and facial attractiveness. In addition, a study by Alfred Linney and colleagues found that fashion models have just as much diversity in facial features as the general population.
I also played around with the Marquardt mask and some celebrity photographs. Some celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie (if you excuse the lips) fit remarkably well. Others, like Reese Witherspoon, were barely any closer to fitting the mask than I am. What’s more, I doubt any of us would want to eliminate some of the features that prevent these women from fitting the mask. I doubt many of us think Angelina Jolie would look better if you trashed her sigature lips. There’s a lot more than one way to skin to a cat/beauty is in the eye of the beholder/other cliche that is remarkably accurate.
But what about all those amazing places we have found the Golden Ratio! It is in the fabric of our planet, no?
of all, many of the places the Golden Ratio is supposedly found are
outright false. For example, if you take the time to actually measure a
nautilus, the quintessential example of the Golden Ratio, you’ll find
that the ratios actually range from 1.24 to 1.43. As Clement Falbo notes, “It seems highly unlikely that there exists any nautilus shell that is
within 2 percent of the Golden Ratio, and even if one were to be found, I
think it would be rare rather than typical.” Finding the Golden Ratio in a few individuals of a few species does not an universal number associated with beauty make. Indeed, it would be shocking if the Golden Ratio never occurred in nature. I think people who fixate on the few instances that the Golden Ratio does appear fail to recognize how many things there are out there to measure. As Penn Jillette would put it, “Once you’re crazy and know nothing about numbers, the chances of
finding something psychotic and hateful in a Scrabble factory explosion
are hovering just around 100 percent.” Even on the human face, there are so many potential measurements that it shouldn’t be a revelation if one ratio comes close to fitting.
This beauty myth is based on bad science, bad psychology, and really bad math.