Beauty has been described as lying in the eye of the beholder. Science over the past 15 years has greatly advanced our understanding of this most basic of human abilities. Before explaining how we rate attractiveness, first I should explain what we know about how we perceive and remember a face.
How do we each have the ability to differentiate between a million faces?
Our current understanding is that we develop a template male and female face from which all other faces we encounter are compared. The memory of a face is the sum of all the differences from the mean face. We recognize a new face by immediately appreciating its subtle differences from the stored average face. Interestingly, since we primarily see faces only in a vertical orientation, we develop these skills only in the same orientation. Try recognizing celebrity faces in a popular magazine with it turned upside down. It’s surprisingly tough.
Also interesting is that this skill, which until recently was believed to be a uniquely human ability, has now been identified at least in primitive form, in animals and even bees. Evolved to near perfection, this process is nearly instantaneous for us and is likely the most efficient method of describing a face. Computer science engineers are still trying to improve on facial recognition technologies for security systems by trying to better understand and emulate how we analyze the facial images.
Beauty and Facial Recognition go hand-in-hand
Beauty appears to originate from the identical process of facial recognition; the closer the face is to the mean template, the more attractive the face appears to be. Interestingly, the more attractive a face, the more difficult it is to remember it. Perhaps you’ve noticed this trend in the media or with the latest swim suit models?
There are also various non-average characteristics, which include symmetry and signals of youth and fertility (read “sexy”). In essence, it goes back to evolutionary theory, that we all seek out these physical characteristics in our mates so as to give our own offspring the greatest genetic advantage. The sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen are believed to weaken the immune system, however any individual healthy enough to sport high levels of sex hormones must have health to spare, signalling a good choice of genes. That is the current theory anyways.
“You Asians all look alike!”
Many Asians growing up in mostly Caucasian communities have heard this before. I certainly have.
Well in 1994, I took a trip to China with my Caucasian college roommate. While stopping for some water in a small village, I remember being puzzled when an elderly Chinese woman commented that all the foreigners coming through looked alike. Now it all makes sense to me. I spent much of my childhood growing up in the United States and went to a nearly all Caucasian boarding school in Connecticut. To her, in an environment where she was only exposed to other Chinese faces, she was exquisitely trained at differentiating between other Chinese, but had trouble with my Caucasian friend.
Likewise, Caucasians inexperienced at analyzing Asian faces might find it difficult to differentiate between Asians. They’re eyes have not been trained to see the subtle differences because their mean templates represent the average features of a Caucasian, and all the Asian faces perhaps far exceed the sensitivity of their perception skills.
For many Asians who have spent much of their lives in certain mixed Asian populations like Los Angeles, differentiating between various Asian ethnic groups, eg Korean vs Vietnamese vs Japanese and even between southern and northern Chinese faces, is easy and instantaneous.
Why are some Asians attracted to non Asians and visa-versa, especially in cities with a more mixed population?
And why are Hapa faces perceived generally as more attractive?
What has happened in larger urban American cities with a very mixed population, and as the result of international sharing of media, is the shift in sensitivity and specificity of the template face. We can now understand how this average template influences not just recognition, but our perception of what is attractive.
A study done recently in Australia found that both Caucasians and Asians found that a 50:50 racially blended mean face generated either genetically or by computer morphing was perceived as more attractive than the mean face most resembling their own.
What does this mean? Unfortunately, more and more people will become unhappy with how they look. Inevitably, Asians will desire less Asian features, and similarly, non-Asians will desire Asian features. Ultimately, everyone around the globe will generally agree that the most attractive faces possess features that most resemble the average of all of our faces. The most attractive will be at least one quarter Asian, or as Kip Fulbeck calls “100% Hapa”.
Westernizing Cosmetic Surgery’s Growing popularity
To achieve these new goals of attractiveness, a growing number of Asians each year are requesting that surgeons make their facial features more Caucasian. PTFE, silicone and other volume augmenting substances are carved or injected into certain regions of the face, while other regions have bone and soft tissues excised. Although patient satisfaction is always relative to expectiations, the outcomes rarely seem natural.
Why is this so?
The human ability to analyze a face so far still greatly exceeds the precision of a surgeons scalpel when combined with the variability of individual healing. Creating Caucasian shaped brows, eyelids, or noses will appear out of harmony in the setting of Asian cheekbones and jaw contour. Even fractions of a millimeter can be generally perceived, resulting in facial imbalance and making it immediately appear surgically altered.
Do Asians who want “double eyelids” want to be more Western?
The most common cosmetic surgery in young Asians is “Double Eyelid” surgery. Unlike true Westernizing surgery described above, the goal of “double eyelid” surgery is to create a lid crease configuration that resembles the natural appearing crease found in other Asians.
Although the “single eyelid” or a lid without a crease, is a uniquely Asian feature,reports estimate that only about one half of Asians are born with a “single eyelid” conformation. Other Asians are born with a lid crease, but develop the “single eyelid” conformation later in life and visa versa. The configuration can change within the course of a day as the result of just some morning lid swelling or edema. I personally have a natural visible lid crease over my left eye, but a “single eyelid” configuration over my right.
What is a “double eyelid” and how is the surgery performed?
Why do Asian eyes appear so differently than Caucansians and African Americans?
The Asian periocular anatomy is very different from that of a Caucasian or African American on many levels. Firstly, the shape of the orbital bones make a tremendous impact on the 3D shape and angle that the eyelids slant. In an Asian, the lateral orbital rim, or the rim of bone that can be felt at the outer corner of the eye, sits on average 3mm more anterior than Caucasians, and 5mm more anterior than African Americans (Migliori and Gladstone 1984, Tsai et al 2005). This difference in the skull shape primarily explains the highly angular corners of Asian eyelids compared to the more rounded outer corner in Caucasians and African Americans
Secondly, the fibrous band of tissue called the tarsus, that gives the eyelids their smooth contour, is significantly narrower in the Asian patient (6-8mm) than in Caucasians and African Americans (10-12mm). The upper edge of the tarsus is where the fine filamentous attachments fix the skin to the eyelid creating the lid crease. The normal height of the eyelid crease for Asians or non-Asians corresponds to the height of the upper lid tarsus.
Another difference is the additional layer of fatty tissue in Asian eyelid that is not found in either Caucasians or African Americans. This extra layer of fat helps to separate the eyelid skin from the muscle and tarsus, which is typically firmly attached in Non-Asians. By increasing the thickness of Asian eyelids, this layer may prevent a lid crease from forming at the upper border of the fibrous tarsal edge.
In young patients, the lid either has a fold or does not. It is an all or none.
Let me illustrate with a odd but I think pertinent example. What I were to ask you to average in your head the average distance between two eyes of a pool of facial images, but I added to the pool an equal number of digitally altered faces with only one eye, that resembled a cyclops. Would the average be a face with eyes unnaturally close together, or would your brain automatically separate the two pools and average them independently?
When considering the previous example for Asian eyelids, somewhere between “no-lid-crease” and “with-a-lid-crease” to me still seems to sits on the “with-a-lid-crease” side of the equation. That is my belief of why Asians surrounded by half of their Asian peers with a lid fold, still perceive the lid crease as attractive. It also explains why Asians who spend all their lives surrounded by only other Asians might still desire the cosmetic procedure to create a crease for them.
Why do some Asians have it and others don’t?