The Greeks had a formula for it, modern-day academics have computerised it, supermodel culture demands a response to it. Is beauty in the eye (or the genes) of the beholder? .TEXT: If the face fits: Jamie Easom, above, is happy enough with her looks but would consider plastic surgery if she ever thought she needed it; model Lorraine Pascal, right, doesn't believe that she's beautiful and resents people who put her appearance before her personality
what is perfect beauty? Is it universal and timeless, something we respond to innately; or is it a subjective "look" that is defined solely by fashion? Nature or nurture, our reactions to the drop-dead gorgeous elite have been constant throughout history. Certain aesthetic proportions will always provoke in both sexes a mix of envy, admiration and attraction, which is what the fashion and advertising industries rely upon.
Culturally, beauty denotes happiness, money, success and power; it's the thing that most women aspire to possess and all men aspire to get close to. Trying to quantify this magic formula has been a perennial, if futile preoccupation. The ancient Greeks believed that beauty relied on certain mathematical proportions. Plato argued that all things beautiful could be divided into thirds with the brow one-third of the way from the hairline, the mouth one-third of the way from from the brow, the point of the chin one-third of the way from the mouth. Medieval experts expanded this theory, dividing the face into sevenths.
More recently, computer research has thrown up a set of absurdly precise measurements that supposedly provide the blueprint for good looks: each eye one-fourteenth as high as the face and three tenths its width, the distance from the middle of the eye to the eyebrow one-tenth the height of the face and the nose occupying no more than five per cent of the face.
Mathematical modelling of this type is of course reductive and overlooks the truism that real beauty often relies on certain idiosyncrasies, even imperfections: Audrey Hepburn's nose, Cindy Crawford's infamous beauty spot, and even Claudia Schiffer's eyes and teeth, observed by one discerning male journalist in this month's issue of GQ: "Never mind that your eyes are too small and deep-set, your teeth too prominent ... because when all this is assembled in front of the camera, you are suddenly perfection itself. You know how to make those eyes come-to-bed. You know how to pout." And so on, the hormonal eulogy continues. There's no mystery to Claudia's "perfection". In blonde-bombshell tradition, she combines innocence and vulnerability with sexuality. The oldest and most powerful formula in the book, according to evolutionary psychologists. Dr Glenn Wilson, psychologist at the University of London and author of Love and Instinct believes that the baby-doll "protect-me-I'm-so-weak" appeal is still the principal defining factor of beauty - at least in women. "Attractiveness increases when the female face resembles certain infantile features: big eyes, small nose, smooth skin. These provoke a protective instinct in the male."
It seems depressingly simplistic to suggest that sexual chemistry is dominated solely by atavistic instincts - and highly chauvinistic ones at that. "It's the, 'I'm-helpless-share-your-catch-with-me' kind of thing. I'm sure it's all still going on underneath," says Wilson happily, "however politically correct we like to consider ourselves. Beauty is not a matter of fashion - it's biological and timeless." It may also be culturally universal. Last year, psychologists in Japan and at St Andrew's University, Scotland, used computer generated composite images of about 60 different photographs of faces. They created the "average composite" from the most attractive faces and an "enhanced composite" with exaggerated features - bigger eyes and lips, higher cheekbones in the female group; bushier eyebrows, broader jaw, more rugged complexion in the male group. The enhanced images were perceived to be the most desirable: the Japanese felt the same way about the British faces and vice versa.
In the recently published book Sex Appeal, the Art and Science of Sexual Attraction, father and daughter team Douglas and Kate Botting also found that similar features are attractive across all cultures, especially when they indicate youth, health and fertility. "Whatever the society," says Douglas. "Whether it's shades of black to white, the paler versions of all skin colours are preferred - it suggests youth and health because the skin darkens on certain parts of the woman's body when she has babies.
Biologically, men don't have the same sell-by date, argues Douglas, and their attractiveness is defined in different ways. "With a woman, beauty is like a medical check list: shiny hair, good teeth, all these things imply the woman is at her fertile potential," he says. "A man has to show he's strong, able to protect and provide."
Along the same lines, Wilson argues that culture can never affect what we are instinctively programmed to perceive as beauty. "Vogue-type models are not usually attractive to men - they've effectively had their figure taken away from them so they don't have to compete with the clothes."
Such an archaic and cliched view of beauty and sexual attraction tends to by-pass the influences of modern culture. If health is so vitally attractive why is it that certain images of men and women smoking are so sexually alluring? If fecundity and curves are so appealing, why do we admire the slimness of the supermodels? How does Botting's and Wilson's evolutionary blonde-caucasian babe fit - if at all - with a multi-cultural society? Clearly, what we view as beauty cannot be reduced to a set of biological impulses. Our tastes and responses also reflect the mood of a particular culture. On one hand we still have Pamela Anderson, but on the other, traditional notions of attractiveness are being challenged on all fronts, particularly in style magazines such as The Face.
When Corinne Day's stark black and white photographs of super-waif Kate Moss appeared in their fashion pages, the images provoked heated debate about anorexia. Emaciated-looking Moss was the antithesis of the healthy, fecund babe Dr Wilson would cite as biologically irresistible. In this month's issue, a male model sports an A-line skirt, and court shoes. Ashley Heath, associate editor of The Face explains: "We're working in a highly sophisticated popular visual medium. What we're trying to do is something more interesting within that context. If we're presenting models that do look different, I hope we're pushing forward the boundaries of commercial fashion."
Since commercial fashion eventually assimilates the alternative look, androgyny along with ethnic beauty has entered the mainstream. Oriental, Asian and Siberian super-models have also risen to the top, as fashion editors and model scouts compete desperately for the Next Big Thing. "I'm not interested in someone with perfectly symmetrical features," says Sarah Doukas, managing director of top London model agency Storm. "I like someone who's got a slight edge to them."
The Nineties beauty supposedly has to exude something more. "I do look at faces that I may have liked two years ago and say 'no'," says Doukas. "There're oodles of drop-dead gorgeous girls around but now there's got to be slightly more interest than that - it's the one with personality that will get places." But we all know beautiful people don't rely on personality in the same way that plainer mortals do: character may be an added bonus in the fashion world, but never an essential trait. If that were so, Claudia's sex-kitten image would have lost its appeal long ago.
FACE FACTS: JAMIE EASOM, 27,
MARTINI GIRL FINALIST
"I'M HAPPY WITH my appearance although I feel I could do an awful lot of work with it. But I try to do the most with what I've got and there's nothing I particularly hate about myself. I often get comments on my hair because it's long and blonde - I do sometimes get worried there's a bimbo tag attached to it because of it's length. I've never felt other girls are threatened by me. I see myself as easy to talk to and outgoing, so I hope people would look beyond what they see. I would never be able to describe myself as pretty or gorgeous. I think those terms carry connotations - such as vanity - that I don't like. I believe personality is more important. Saying that, the idea of my looks fading does worry me. I have no qualms about going to a plastic surgeon when I get older - I wouldn't mind having liposuction or a boob job after I've had kids.
"People have suggested that I shouldtake up modelling but I'm not sure that I could keep my weight down or if I'd need an extra inch or two in height. I'm always flattered when people tell me I should model - it's a real ego boost. I don't think looks alone have helped me, although I have derived confidence from my appearance."
FACE FACTS: LORRAINE PASCAL, 22, MODEL
"I KNOW MODELS always say this but it's true: at school I was always seen as the ugly duckling. My mother would always tell me I was attractive while I was growing up but I never really took any notice of her.
"I certainly wasn't getting that reaction at school. When I reached 16, I started to get more of a 'following' and began to think maybe there was some truth in my mother's words.
"I do tend to get a lot of people coming up and trying to talk to me at restaurants, airports and so on. They might be doing it out of the goodness of their hearts; because they find you attractive, but after a while it gets really irritating. At first the attention is fun but then it gets boring, having to put up with all these different chat-up lines.
"As soon as a man comes up to me, I put up this defence, like: 'Oh yeah, what do you want?' I think I'm a very intelligent, interesting person but when someone comes up to you, they don't know that. They're probably after you for sex and that's about it. It comes with the job but after a bit I don't feel flattered by it. When I'm not working, I try to dress extremely casually. I'd prefer not to be noticed; it's nice to just blend in with everyone else.
"Everyone in modelling gets stereotyped in some way and my particular pigeonhole is being black. Although things are moving slowly, I still don't see black girls in advertising. There's been a marginal change since Naomi but if you look through 50 magazines you'll be lucky to find one advertising campaign done by a black woman.
"I really and truly don't think I'm beautiful; I don't think most models do, unless they're very big headed. Although they get compliments, unlike other people they also have to put up with rejections and knockdowns like: 'Your looks aren't right for this job.' I think I look OK for a model, but it's been quite a difficult idea to come to come to terms with. Especially when you've gone for so long knowing you're not very attractive."
Lorraine is with Storm Model AgencyReuse content