Nobody does science reporting quite like British tabloids, and let me be very clear when I say that that’s a good thing. The United States definitely has it’s own unique way of being bad at science communication but the Brits will always have a place in my heart for a particular brand of press release-ology. Let’s call it PRology. It’s what happens when capitalism has sex with science and makes a baby, but by “sex,” I don’t mean it’s consensual and the baby isn’t quite right and actually you know what? This metaphor has become extremely problematic so I’m just going to move on.
I lived in London for a short time but became quite adept at spotting PRology, often from headlines alone, which is how I managed to identify this one just based on a Tweet from ENews: “Robert Pattinson Is the World’s Most Beautiful Man According to Science.”
I thought, wow, that’s PRology, and from an American media outlet! So I clicked through and the first line of the article was, clear as day, “In October 2019, U.K. outlet the Daily Mail reported that Bella Hadid had been “declared the most beautiful woman in the world.” And now, Robert Pattinson has been declared the “most handsome man.””
Aha! And so my next thought was, “I wonder who sent the press release this Daily Mail article is based on? Because I know it wasn’t an actual peer-reviewed study performed by scientists.” I mean, don’t get me wrong, peer-reviewed science papers can and have been written about how it just so happens some generic-looking white man has the sexiest face of all time, but those are usually about the sexiest women and they’re published in evolutionary psychology journals and the Daily Mail doesn’t always get around to reading them.
So I took a guess: who would make money off a story like this, enough to bother putting out a press release? Sometimes it’s random shit not even connected to the “science” they’re hawking, like a grocery store or something, and sometimes it’s a marketing firm that does surveys. But in this case, I guessed that it would be something appearance related, like an orthodontist or a plastic surgeon.
Luckily, the name of the company that made up — I’m sorry, that performed — the scientific study is always in the Daily Mail article, because that’s the entire point of sending out a press release. To get your name read by millions of racists and morons.
So I clicked through to the good old Daily Mail and scrolled down until I saw it in the fourth sentence: “The list was compiled using the latest computerised mapping techniques by Harley Street facial cosmetic surgeon Dr Julian De Silva, who utilises the technology in his work.”
The press release really did its job because sentence five is “Dr De Silva, who runs the Centre For Advanced Facial Cosmetic And Plastic Surgery, in London, said: ‘Robert Pattinson was the clear winner when all elements of the face were measured for physical perfection.”
And yes, by the way, you may have picked up by now that the “science” being done here is a computer mapping the face and comparing it to the “Golden Ratio of Beauty Phi,” which was the “ancient Greeks’ idea of perfection.”
The Golden Ratio, simply described, is when you take a long and a short line segment and find that the ratio of the short one to the long one is the same as the ratio of the long one to both of them put together. That works out to about 1.618, but not exactly because it’s an irrational number that just keeps going on forever, like pi. It’s more like It has nothing to do with beauty. I mean, I don’t know, look at these line segments. Are they beautiful to you? How about this 3×5 index card? Do you want to fuck it? Because I could make it into a tiny little dildo, I guess, if that’s what you’re into. I’m not here to shame you for your Phi kink.
Okay, I’m being a little bit flippant. But just a bit. Phi, like pi, is found in nature and it is interesting and in some ways beautiful. It describes how, for instance, sunflower seeds are often packed together, and when converted to angles it can often describe how leaves on many plants spiral around. This may be due to the fact that it’s an extremely irrational number, meaning that if each leaf on a plant is spaced out according to phi, they will never stack up on each other and rob another of sunlight. It makes sense that plants that organize their leaves in this way will gather more sunlight and be more likely to live to pass along their genes.
And yes, many artists have, over the years, incorporated phi into their work, in terms of canvas size, subject matter placement, and even building size.
But people get really caught up in this stuff and there are a lot of myths about it, like how everything in nature adheres strictly to phi like a universal law. That’s not true. Sorry, nautiluses don’t actually all adhere to the golden ratio. And you can’t just slap a golden ratio rectangle spiral onto any image you want and call it perfect art. It’s a prime idea for confirmation bias — for people who want to find a pattern in something and then believe that pattern was intentional or has some greater meaning.
Enter: human beauty. Try as evolutionary psychologists might, no one has found any universal standard of human beauty that resists the fads of ages and cultures. What scientist do find on occasion is a preference for certain looks within certain cultures. In the US and UK, we tend to really love white people, with their limp hair, thin lips, thin noses, thin bodies and pale skin, as well as people who display the characteristics we tend to associate with white people. That’s who we are mostly surrounded by, that’s who makes our media, that’s who stars in our media, it’s just one big self-congratulatory circle jerk. Congrats on being white enough, Robert Pattinson, and like 98% of all our other busiest actors!
Elsewhere, a culture may prefer thick lips, thick bodies, thick hair, thick noses. Sometimes within those cultures, preferences change slightly. It’s how it works.
Hell, just look at eyebrows. I’ve had bushy-ass eyebrows my entire life, and some years the trolls tease me about it and then some years I don’t hear a peep about it. In the 80s they were in. In the 90s they were out. In the 2000s they were not to even be spoken of, let alone seen in public. In the 2010s they weren’t boxy enough. But hold on, boys, makeup.com says that for 2020s they’re back, babyyyyyy!
Eyebrows are a crucial part of how your face looks to others, and should definitely be considered in any kind of complex ratio you’re forming. But they can change, and society changes, so that there’s no way that one look is going to be eternally beautiful. Though from some of the ways I’ve seen people shove the golden ratio onto images, I bet it’s possible that each one that the “researcher” in question finds beautiful will still be considered phi. Because like I said, it’s ripe for being able to fit into whatever circumstance you prefer. Does an otherwise beautiful face not adhere to your phi standards? No problem, just measure more angles, add more data, until you find it.
Let’s say that this plastic surgeon who is advertising his plastic surgery business is right, though, that phi can measure universal beauty. Does that mean Robert Pattinson is the most beautiful man? Fuck no. Who else did he study? He only includes ten men and doesn’t bother to tell us how he picked those or who else he might have looked at, because again, this isn’t an actual scientific study, it’s a press release. That’s why, as the ENews article mentions, the same plastic surgeon said that Bella Hadid was the most beautiful woman in October of 2019 (followed by Beyonce) but three years prior the same plastic surgeon said Amber Heard, Kim Kardashian, and Kate Moss were the most beautiful. Did Beyonce not exist in 2016? Or did this guy just look at what celebrities were hot right now and put their names in a press release to sell his business? Ah, PRology.
Anyway, I’ve beaten this study up enough. Maybe I’m wrong and beauty really does correlate to the golden ratio. Oh! I just noticed the Daily Mail includes a guide for how to find your ratio. Let’s test it on a random person we all know. Like, I don’t know, Mark Zuckerberg? Let’s see, he has a nose length of 87.3 pixels and width of 52.1 pixels, giving him a nearly perfect golden ratio of 1.67 (97th percentile), and an eyebrow score of 1.6 (99th percentil), and lips of 1.69 (96th percentile), making him far hotter than stupid Robert Pattinson. You know, I always assumed it was the haircut or his personality that made Zuckerberg so wildly attractive but nope! It’s his perfect face. His perfect, golden ratio face that gets everyone so fucking horny. Look at that face. You know you want it. You can’t deny it. It’s SCIENCE.