What do we find beautiful? Average faces, says Jill Helms, professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Stanford School of Medicine. “Most people,” she says in a talk at TEDxStanford, “when they look at a face [they consider to be beautiful], it tends to be the most average looking face.”
Researchers came across this concept of beauty by taking hundreds of photos of women from a specific place, Helms says, and creating a compositor of these faces, a most-average face. They then repeated this process in areas across the world, and combined these compositors to create a global average face — Miss Average Face World.
“Regardless of the ethnic background of the people being asked [to look at these photos], Miss Average Face World was always considered more attractive than the components,” Helms says. “Usually when you’re told you’re average-looking,” Helms says, “that [isn't] a compliment … but here you see it’s true.”
The concept of beauty is hard to synthesize, she says, but it does have its qualifications, as this study points out. “What we do know about attractiveness or beauty,” she says, “is that the hallmarks that cross all ages and all ethnic groups are symmetry and a balance in proportion.”
This preference for averageness has its sinister side, however, Helms explains, as she shows how this norm adversely affects the lives of people with not-so-average faces, especially those who have have experienced illnesses, injury or congenital conditions that affect the structure of their face. “The face [is] central to our identity,” Helms says, “… The face isn’t just a means for communication; it’s also an advertisement for our health, our vitality and our youth.”
When one’s face is different than the norm, a person often suffers immediate, likely-negative judgments about their character, abilities and societal worth, Helms says, noticing this in her work with patients exhibiting facial deformities. “If you look different on the outside, you must be different on the inside,” people assume, Helms says, “and different equals diseased. Not only physically diseased, but morally diseased.”
“Suffering of facial disfigurement has a profound effect on an individual. Not only on how they feel about themselves, but on how others respond to them,” Helms says, noting that those with facial differences often face intense social rejection and misjudgment merely because of their appearance.
Helms challenges all of us to radically reconsider what we consider beautiful, to “change our hard wiring,” and ignore the bias of perfection in symmetry and balance in order to make society a safer and more compassionate space for people of all appearances.
Watch her whole talk to learn more:
Insights from the TEDx office — why we like this talk
The speaker is an expert in her field who shares research to set up her idea — that humans value the average when it comes to appearance — and then adds to it with experience from working with a set of people marginalized by this idea. She presents a moving and meaningful call-to-action and presents her entire talk in a way that is straightforward, thoughtful and well-composed.