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The Cyberspace Evolution of Beauty

The Cyberspace Evolution of Beauty

Researchers using CGI images found that beauty evolves in two steps.

Explaining attractiveness

Symmetrical faces and bodies are nice to look at. Men prefer a specific waist-to-hip ratio. People with a Body Mass Index within a certain range are more often perceived as beautiful, and tall people are generally judged as being more attractive.

Explanations of beauty abound. Yet, all of the above examples focus on a single trait. Human bodies, and what it is that makes them beautiful, are more complicated than that. It’s a puzzle of traits, all fitting together to make a unique person.

So, is there one factor that determines what makes a body beautiful, or do several of them work together to forge the Venuses among us?

Virtual seduction

Methinks it is time for a test. But a simple questionnaire is insufficient for testing the appeal of various interlinked traits, and discovering the complex web of preferences that underlies what we find beautiful.

Enter cyberspace.

With an innovative approach, researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia decided to study this topic by developing CGI images of female bodies. These imagined bodies were put together based on data from 273 real American women. Eventually they ended up with a set of 20 CGI bodies.

This first generation of bodies had variations in 24 traits such as height, bust size, waist, girth, and so on. Then, with the help of online volunteers, these bodies evolved over eight generations. They managed to recruit thousands of participants for each generation, totalling almost 60 000 for the entire experiment. Each participant of the online survey was presented with a sample of 20 bodies from a certain generation. The ratings they gave then shaped the next generation. Now they’ve got variation (which is inheritable) and selection criteria (not every trait combination makes it into the next generation).

The perfect recipe for evolution.

Beauty is…

… complicated.

Upon crunching the numbers and assessing the final generation, the researchers found that beauty generally evolved in two steps. At first, selection produced slenderness, especially a narrow waist and long legs. After most bodies were slender, the second stage of selection seemed to focus on shapeliness, specifically a more substantial bust. So can we conclude that female beauty is long legs, narrow waists and sizeable chest areas?

Perhaps. But there’s more to it. If you’re not one of the winners of the genetic and/or environmental lottery, don’t despair just yet.

The eye of the beholder

After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Personal preferences also play a part in what is and what is not beautiful. Indeed, the researchers note that it’s not just one trait, but the integration of several traits that influence how beautiful one is considered by others.

The experimenters also remark that their results are the average of thousands of voters. Some people are more attracted to one combination of traits, others to different ones. Another recent study supports this beholder effect. In this study, researchers based in America and Australia questioned twins (both identical and non-identical) about their preferences for facial features. In other words, do twins find the same faces equally attractive?

The answer is no. While the ability to identify faces seems largely based in genetics, the main influence on what an individual finds attractive appears to lie in environmental factors. So, what you and others find beautiful does have biological roots (first study), but the specific preferences are strongly shaped by your unique path through life (second study).

The average beauty standard is just that: average. No matter how you look, chances are somewhere there’s someone who thinks you’re the most beautiful person in the world.
The trick is to find them…

Brooks, R., Shelly, J., Jordan, L., & J.W. Dixson, B. (2015). The multivariate evolution of female body shape in an artificial digital ecosystem Evolution and Human Behavior, 36 (5), 351-358 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.02.001
Germine L, Russell R, Bronstad PM, Blokland GA, Smoller JW, Kwok H, Anthony SE, Nakayama K, Rhodes G, & Wilmer JB (2015). Individual Aesthetic Preferences for Faces Are Shaped Mostly by Environments, Not Genes. Current biology : CB, 25 (20), 2684-2689 PMID: 26441352

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