Carola Long: Beauty's in the eye of the researcher

The impulse to create one rule for attractiveness is quite sinister
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The Independent Online

All the single ladies (as Beyoncé might say), are you looking to meet Mr Right, or Mr Right Now, or any other partially correct males who have stepped out of the pages of a dating manual? Then forget about sparkling wit or wearing something chic, because pseudo-science has come to your rescue once again, like a knight in a shining lab coat.

A study by experts at the University of Leeds has helpfully calculated that for a woman to maximise her appeal to men she should reveal 40 per cent of her flesh. The findings were based on work by four female researchers who observed women at one of Leeds's biggest nightclubs. They noted what female clubbers were wearing and how many times they were approached by men asking them to dance. (Asking them to dance? Is this Gone with The Wind?)

They ascribed percentage values to different areas of the body and discovered that women who revealed around 40 per cent of their skin attracted twice as many men as those who covered up. However, women who bared more than 40 per cent attracted less attention, because, according to psychologist Dr. Colin Hendrie who led the study, that suggests, "general availability and future infidelity". So nothing to do with the fact that clubs are really hot then.

Clearly this is a ridiculous survey with about as much subtlety as one of Simon Cowell's putdowns. For a start, its additional observation that sexy dancing and tight clothing also helped to attract men is hardly revelatory. It's one nightclub in one city, and the way women dress and men's responses to them varies hugely between cultural tribes and postcodes, while the assumption that women are passive creatures waiting to be approached is highly patronising.

But it's hardly an isolated nugget of research. Barely a week goes by in which some boffins attempt to uncover the secret of what determines attractiveness, and surprise, surprise it's often focused on women. Another study unveiled in the past few days found that a woman's skin tone was more important than facial symmetry in determining her physical appeal. The findings sound as if they have some validity, but they also miss the myriad subtleties that make someone alluring.

One of my personal favourites in the long canon of dispiriting weekly survey – along the lines of why the Fibonacci sequence proves that Angelina Jolie is a modern-day Helen of Troy and the rest of us are blotchy, asymmetric frumps – was one about an android that could determine how attractive a woman is. Who wouldn't queue up to have a robot bark at them in a Dalek-style, "No, thanks, not be-fore an-oth-er Smir-noff Ice?"

In some ways the impulse to create one rule for attractiveness is quite sinister. It suggests a desire to iron out individuality, repress those dangerous femme fatales that are ruining society and reduce women to a set of scientific criteria that they either pass or fail.

Try as they might though, these disco-loving scientists working with just a calculator and a copy of FHM will never be able to reduce the complex and delightful alchemy of attraction to a mathematical formula: not least because it's all subjective anyway. Thank goodness for that, because no one wants to think they missed out on meeting the love of their life because they were 61 per cent covered up.