The Straddler review

Blending Me Softly

In 2008, a group of scientists and researchers led by Dr. Brian J.F. Wong of the Department of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) attempted to catch a rainbow in their hands.  Wong and his UCI colleagues sought, through their study, “Evolving Attractive Faces Using Morphing Technology and a Genetic Algorithm,”[1] to establish a “tool to define or identify the attributes of the ideal attractive face.” 

The study began with a sample set of 250 images of actual women’s faces (volunteers on the Irvine campus who agreed to be photographed).  These images formed the basis of the first “generation” of 30 synthetic faces, which were produced using morphing software.[2]   Each of these 30 faces was then assigned a number from 1 (unattractive) to 10 (most attractive) by a volunteer rating squad comprising seventeen 18- to 25-year-olds.  Every member of the rating squad was “enrolled in a seminar taught by the lead author,” which “focused on beauty and aesthetic surgery,” and which, the study claims, possessed them, at least “in theory,” of “a more erudite approach to gauging attractiveness.”  There were, however, some implicitly and explicitly acknowledged drawbacks: seventeen is a small number when it comes to focus groups, two-thirds of the group were female, the “demographics of [the] evaluator group reflect[ed] the socioeconomic and ethnic composition of undergraduates at [UCI] and mirror[ed] the demographics of [UCI’s] geographic region,” and “the ethnic composition of the evaluator[s] ... was not identical to the subject population’s.”  (The subject population had its own problems: “There were few African-Americans [sic] student volunteers in the study, as they make up less than 2% of [Orange] county’s population.”)

After the first 30 images of the parent generation were rated, the images were subjected to an algorithm in which the highest-rated faces were more likely to survive (as the foundation of another morph) to the next generation of 30 synthetic faces—that is, in the vocabulary of the study, to “mate.”  Each resulting synthetic hybrid was then itself rated according to attractiveness, successively weeding out the “unattractive” and mating off the “attractive.”  By the fifth “generation,” the women had developed an unsettling similarity, as if each were part of a puzzle in which the images are identical save one tremor of the artist’s pen.

The study duly notes this fact: “[I]n the parent generation, the faces are heterogeneous in distinct contrast to the later generations where there is profound convergence of features.”  (A quick digression: that—science aside—the elimination of variation should be the product of any activity undertaken in any field of endeavor in Irvine, California should come as a surprise to no one who has ever spent more than ten minutes in Irvine, California.)   Further, “vestiges of frank ethnicity drop out” by only the third generation. The faces become “eerily similar” by the fourth generation.

Implicit in the study is the notion that an intrinsic standard of beauty exists independent of discrete considerations of human reality such as politics (of every sort), cultural norms, and personal experiences—and it excludes from consideration the possibility that feelings of physical attraction are mutabable and capable of changing even within single encounters between individuals.  At best, Wong et al privilege the notion that while the former considerations might produce variations capable of distorting data, an averaged mean of facial beauty can be determined which will fit the criteria of most everyone.  Indeed, this goal is essentially announced: “We propose that using our algorithm, a population of synthetic faces evolves and iterates toward at least a local maximum to provide a glimpse of the elusive perfect face.”  But what does this mean?

One could not be faulted for detecting an aroma of bad faith around a study that was presented by, and seemingly developed for, among others, practitioners of plastic surgery[3]—one of the more dubious activities orbiting around the medical nucleus of health promotion.  (While lauding some of the effort that went into them, Wong et al dismiss earlier studies striving towards definitive aesthetic determinations as “of limited value to the artist, esthetician, marketing executive, or surgeon.”)  But even abstracting away from the problematic cultural context in which Wong et al operate, and to which they presumably contribute, it is noteworthy that their study—ostensibly performed pursuant to the rubrics of the scientific method, but whose analytical and theoretical rigor is so immediately suspect—should ever have progressed beyond barroom hypothesis.  The postured sobriety of the study’s claims and the austerity of its straight-faced subtitle (“A New Approach to Determining Ideal Facial Aesthetics”) are analogous to the studied solemnity of the reverent funeral guest who is also the murderer.  Its process and its results echo the snake-oil, pseudo-scientific past of phrenology—and in the end, it, like phrenology, is ultimately more telling of the psyches of its practitioners and their society’s mores than it is of what is elemental and unmediated in human behavior and desires.

Of course, lumping phrenology in with a discipline like, say, evolutionary biology (of which the study under consideration is a bastardized version) would be a bit unfair—but it is worthwhile to note that the overweening influence evolutionary biology[4] enjoys in our own times provides broad cover for studies based on questionable premises.  (Wong et al get it right—in an understated way—when they say “hypotheses rooted in evolutionary biology are speculative, but have been the intriguing subjects of academic and popular cultural debate;” but then they jump into evolutionary biology’s sandcastle on a cloud and build their own cozy guest quarters.)  More like guesswork conducted on the ramparts of received ideas than illuminating analyses, the studies (like the one we are considering here) evolutionary biology has spawned quietly beg questions rather than answer them.  Their underlying philosophy resembles a grotesque mutation of the Rousseaueian idea of the “noble savage.” 

It was Rousseau who claimed that human nature is essentially good and decent, and that society’s institutions are primarily responsible for its corruption.  The authors of the UCI study promote the analogous, though spiritually inverted, notion of the “noble Venus”—a claim that the workings of society muddy what is true and objective about physical beauty.  Studies like these—which, the irony cannot be lost, are the products of a particular, and not inevitable, organization of society—insist that actual criteria for attractiveness can only be uncovered by ridding ourselves of the troublesome trompe l’oeils placed in front of the natural by the social.

The problem with a study like Wong et al’s is not that it attempts to throw light on mysterious realms of human experience, but that it seeks to take well-worn shortcuts in order to reduce what has for so long been irreducible.  Exercises like these point up a desire to be free of bothersome contingency and the apparently ineluctable fact that the unquantifiable exists in human life—they betray a discomfort with what is so muddled and messy about human affairs, including asymmetries of power; the activities, interminglings, and contestations within and between cultures; unexpected variation; and the unforeseen and unforeseeable.  More troublingly, and not at all unrelated to the discomfort just discussed, their results resemble Potemkin villages both in their lack of substance and in the way in which they serve already existing infrastructures of power.  They present “objective findings” garnered by the most subjective of means as a yardstick by which to measure one’s own “self.”  Pretending to get to the bottom of things while merely reinforcing what already exists, the cart tells the horse what’s what.

Studies like this promote a “scientific”—and therefore apodictic—elimination of alternatives, and ride in tandem with the unavoidably coercive nature of commercial culture→which operates through gross simplification→the necessary precursor to commodification→the necessary precursor to profit-making. 

When it comes to physical beauty, American commercial culture, at its most elemental, begins with a simple premise: women are beautiful when they are young, slim, and light skinned.  From there it allows for a degree or two of complexity.  In general, the fuller the better is the rule when it comes to breasts—but small breasts are permissible, especially if they accent or evoke a pubescent quality.  Faces should be pretty, though precisely what this means is (precisely because of the number of elements involved) less easy to elucidate (which is what creates the need for a study like “Evolving Attractive Faces Using Morphing Technology and a Genetic Algorithm: A New Approach to Determining Ideal Facial Aesthetics” in the first place).  “Despite the importance of beauty in our own cultural, social, and economic fabric, rigorous definitions of beauty are lacking, and this is especially true with respect to facial aesthetics.”  But even if we continue to live in a benighted age in which “ideal aesthetics” have not yet been definitively determined for the face in toto, each one of the great number of potential flaws in each part of the face is a bonanza for commercial culture and the myriad goods it produces to help female consumers counter the dangers of the Greek fleet’s thousand ships remaining moored in harbor at Aulis not because of dead winds and an angry deity but, what is worse, because of the indifference of men.

Young, slim, light skinned, breasts conforming to the guidelines discussed above, a pretty face.  (You may be attractive if you have some of these traits, but you’re no 10 unless you have all of them.)  Think of the presentation of female film and television stars, pop singers, and broadcast journalists in the United States.  It is reasonable to assume that these attributes would exist as elements of feminine beauty for some members of a given society even were commercial culture absent from it.  (After all, we suspect—although we cannot be sure—that our individual notions of the beauty of an individual result from a milieu in which biological predispositions, seminal experiences, power relations, and cultural conditionings combine to form the basis of our subjective predilections.  But just how these various elements can be teased out and quantified is beyond the reach of any human algorithm.)

But some is not enough for commercial culture, which loudly trumpets its standards as natural and then insists that these narrow values be adopted by everyone. 

Commercial culture and the “science” behind something like the UCI study (the guilt for which does not elude the hands of evolutionary biology) are not-so-secret lovers.  Like a sinister rewriting of The Gift of the Magi, they sell our human possessions so that they never run out of gifts to give each other.  By acknowledging only one synthetic hybrid face from a lineup of 250 actual faces, Wong et al bolster commercial interests by formalizing an abstract ideal into one real—but actually unreal because entirely synthesized—image.  A handful of possible “beautiful” traits—small nose, high forehead, wide-set eyes—are hewn and recast as the only possible conditions for the existence of a truly beautiful face, thus setting up a system of objective valuation for something which is, in actual fact, the quintessence of subjectivity.  Similarly, in order to better delineate the permissible boundaries around the field of what is physically beautiful in, say, women, consumer strategists must preclude the possibility that real, wholly realized beauty can exist in an older woman, or in a large-framed woman, or in a woman with an unconventional face, or in a minority woman,[5] and so on (and to the extent that it is permissible to recognize an incomplete measure of beauty in a woman of one or more of these types, such recognition is perforce accompanied by a tacit, and disclaiming, understanding that the beauty under discussion exists only within the context of a “fetish” category (the least subtle, but by no means only, example of this indemnifying fetishization occurs in the course categories of pornography: older women become “MILFS,” “Cougars,” or “Grannies;” African American, Asian, and Latina women are exoticized with their ethnicities (or shorthand equivalents) never far away from the description of the acts in which they are engaging; heavier women become “Large Ladies”)). Ultimately, commercial strategy precludes the possibility that true beauty can exist at all.

Once it has successfully codified the few permissible elements of beauty, commercial culture goes about exaggerating them to absurd extremes, until the newest young starlets resemble nothing so much as a synthetic composite of consumer preferences gleaned from questionnaires collected at the end of a focus group—or perhaps like the “eerie” consummate woman, the “noble Venus” at the end of five “generations” of selective hybridizing.  In sum, commercial culture, strutting the red carpet with the too-often cheap, and always speculative, discipline of evolutionary biology (or one of its harlot offspring) on or off of its arm, makes of beauty what it makes of culture in general: synthetic, profit-making caricature.

The editors gratefully acknowledge the research contributions of Catherine Kron to this review.



[1]Wong, Brian J.F., Koohyar Karimi, Christine McLaren, and Wen-Pin Chen. "Evolving Attractive Faces Using Morphing Technology and a Genetic Algorithm: A New Approach to Determining Ideal Facial Aesthetics." Laryngoscope. 118(2008): 962-974. [All emphases ours]

[2]The morphing software used was STOIK Imaging, LTD’s Morphman 2000.  Microsoft’s PowerPoint even got into the act in order to ensure that “all faces…were scaled to the same size”

[3]“With the rise of mass media throughout the 20th Century, art, popular culture, and fashion converged, and defining facial beauty became relevant to marketing and advertising.  The economic impact spurred serious academic inquiry.  With the rise and increasing acceptance of cosmetic surgery during the 1990s, defining facial beauty has become even more relevant to surgeons.”

[4]Which is different from, and not to be confused with, the science of evolution.

[5]Commercial culture, ever tolerant, does allow for the beauty of some minority women—but only to salute them for the skill with which they simultaneously safely play to type and emulate the majority race.

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