I always get suspicious when people compliment me, and especially when it’s on my looks. It can only mean that they want something from me... I’m not insecure or anything, but I don’t consider myself to be remarkably attractive. And I’m not arrogant into saying I’m not hideously unattractive either. I just am, dangling somewhere in between pretty and ugly. But what’s pretty and what’s ugly, we can rightfully ask ourselves? As for pretty, a simplistic answer would be pointing at People Magazine or TV shows like The Next Top Model. But although we clearly can’t take our eyes off these people, it wouldn’t be realistic to compare ourselves to them. With regards to ugly, any answer will be wrong. We are all beautiful in our own way. Although, in all honesty, there’s no denying that some people are primarily beautiful from the inside. Let’s just say that the outside packaging isn’t everyone’s best selling point. But what seems ugly to me might be pretty to someone else, and the other way around. So what’s the correct answer then? Quantitative predictions and testable explanations is what we need. 

Scientists aren’t known for being the prettiest of people, but they were the ones who dared tackling the topic first. While fashion models were standing in front of the camera, they were secretly making notes in the background. They observed thousands of pretty people who never bothered looking back, but it didn’t harm them. They instead satisfied themselves with the statistics they got out of it. When data were summed up and total means got compared for significance values, things got interesting. The main result was that symmetric faces score highest. The discussion material explained that it might be because we relate asymmetric faces to weak facial muscles, premature aging and womb-related trauma. Results also showed a positive bias towards lush-coloured cheeks and well-nourished faces. Scientists theorised that it’s because we correlate colourful and full cheeks to a healthy lifestyle. That’s one point for us and zero points for The Next Top Model: skinny ain’t so pretty after all.

But there’s way more to it. Of significant importance to the conception of beauty is the size and arrangement of facial features. As an explanatory example: beautiful eyes are overlooked when a hawk shaped nose is blocking the view, and having a delicate nose becomes irrelevant when eyes are way too far apart. Deep set eyes, hanging eye lids, outlandishly large teeth and unusually thin lips aren’t very favourable either, case studies have shown. Data analyses also demonstrated that the distance between the eyes should preferably be under half of the width of the face, and that the length of the nose mustn’t be longer than the total width of the face. Equally significant, the distance between the eyes and mouth should preferably be one-third of the height of the head. The forehead is a problem on its own, or statistical value rather to say. Too long ain’t good, and too short definitely ain’t. The same goes for chins. Cheeks are a bit easier on the statistics, as long as they aren’t too chubby. In contrast, high cheekbones, small ears and strong eye brows significantly favour the face. So essentially, although we shouldn’t judge people on their looks, we do it anyway, for reasons that are now scientifically known.

The scientists published impressive papers on their fascinating findings, but received little attention over it. Which leads us straight to the next issue: people seem to care more about looks than about knowledge. We don’t need science to tell us what facial features are pretty, make-up is what we need! Likewise, we know more about Kim Kardashian than about Yuval Noah Harari, and spend more money on fashion than on literature. Scientists weren’t sulking over it though, but instead saw it as an opportunity. Their next obvious research topic was on the origin of shallowness, and data became numerous. The discussions of peer-reviewed articles based on significant correlations drawn from the results of their data, explained that people unwittingly presume that pretty people are kinder, happier, and more successful than not so pretty people. Teachers rate their assays higher, bosses forgive their poor performances more easily, and friends show a higher threshold towards their unethical behaviour. It’s why handsome men get away with cheating and how pretty women talk their way out of speeding tickets. Juries and judges even tend to give pretty people lighter sentences. Although unjust, we treat them differently because we are simply impressed by their beauty.

Nevertheless, we cannot measure all pretty people by the same standard. Studies show that there are significant differences in the perception of beauty between cultures and races. For instance, white people favour skinny bodies whereas black people like curvy bodies, and Asian people prefer white skin whereas European people admire tanned skin. It’s because beauty often relates to wealth. Being tanned historically meant that we were poor peasants working the land (which is still the case in Asia), but nowadays means that we can afford lengthy holidays on sunny beaches. Likewise, African men idolize voluptuous women because it’s considered a sign of prosperity. In Europe, however, food is unlimited and skinny became trendy because it shows the discipline to go to the gym and the luxury to afford organic food. And it’s not only wealth, but status as well that influences beauty. For instance, people traditionally fancied stretched necks in Thailand, feather decorations in Papua New Guinea, and lip plates in Ethiopia, because it represented their hierarchy. These days, we like suits, diamonds and fancy cars. So in the end, all perceptions of beauty are based on what culture has indoctrinated us with. It might not be a bad thing: when you’re perceived as ugly in one country you can try your luck in the next.

One last issue needs to be clarified, which scientists haven't yet managed to proof statistically. It’s that being pretty is different from being attractive. The most stunning looking people can be unattractive, and the oddest looking people can be attractive. Beauty can appear or disappear in an instant, as soon as people open their mouth. Because ultimately, looks don’t show kindness or empathy in people, or give away their sense of humour. What we also find attractive is confidence, passion and intelligence, which might mean that we aren’t so shallow after all. People even get prettier over time once we start to take a liking to their personality. Someone that would’ve never caught our eye on the street can suddenly become  beautiful, just by getting to know the person. Finding an ugly person attractive has its advantages as well, considering that rejection is unlikely and competition will be minimal. That’s actually why I prefer my boyfriends not to talk in public; I wouldn’t want to risk other ladies falling for their spectacular personality. It’s why I don’t obsess about my own looks either; they must clearly be dating me for other reasons. See, I don’t need to be pretty, I rather be spectacular.