Meet Florence Colgate. She is an 18 year-old resident of Deal, Kent, England, the equivalent of a high school senior. She might be the most beautiful woman in the world, according to both “science” and Gawker editor Neetzan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman made this declaration because, apparently, Zimmerman does not know how to read. “Science” may have been misquoted, as it was probably too busy with things like the Large Hadron Collider to worry about who is the fairest of them all.
Now, Colgate is a phenomenally attractive young woman. Almost into the realm of otherworldliness, if photographs are to be believed. I’m also sure she is a very nice person. She’s getting hate on her Facebook page that she doesn’t deserve. But really, the whole world? Doesn’t picking a blond, blue-eyed, English girl as the most beautiful woman on all of planet Earth seem a bit convenient?
I’ll set aside the questions of the various racial and gender implications of this selection, because others can undoubtedly address those issues with greater knowledge than I ever could. I would instead like to address the undue violence that this story has done to the concepts of journalism and science.
The Daily Mail’s Paul Harris first reported this story across the pond, and Gawker’s Zimmerman imported it for us Americans. It is not uncommon for something to get lost in translation when a story is re-reported for another country’s audience. That said, there is no excuse for what happened here, since the United States and the United Kingdom speak the same language. The only issue I had reading the Daily Mail article was with the fact that Colgate works at a “chip shop” (it’s a store that sells fish & chips. You can Google the rest on your own.)
Here’s what the Daily Mail said about Colgate:
Leonardo Da Vinci spent a lifetime trying to paint one. Scientists and mathematicians have puzzled for centuries over what makes one, while cosmetic surgeons have amassed fortunes striving to create one.
And Florence Colgate? Well, she simply has one.
The 18-year-old student is blessed with what is described as the perfect face. It matches an international blueprint for the optimum ratio between eyes, mouth, forehead and chin, endowing her with flawless proportions.
In theory, that needn’t necessarily cause her to appear anything more than symmetrical (in which department, incidentally, she is also faultless).
But the blue-eyed blonde’s mathematical dimensions have just added up to success in a competition to find Britain’s most naturally beautiful face. [Emphasis added]
Here’s what Zimmerman wrote at Gawker:
Is This the World’s Most Beautiful Woman?
Science suggests 18-year-old Florence Colgate just might be.
The ratio of the distance between her ears to the distance between her pupils is nearly 2:1 — the scientific ideal. Furthermore, the distance between her eyes to her mouth is just under a third of the distance from her hairline to her chin — another measure of perfect pulchritude. [Emphasis added]
Leaving aside the fact that no one should ever use the word “pulchritude,” do you see what Zimmerman did? “Britain” suddenly became “the world.” Even Queen Victoria at her most imperial probably never though of extending Britain’s influence that far. “Most naturally beautiful face” also somehow became “most beautiful woman.”
The whole shindig was concocted by a British cosmetics company for a TV show, which, let’s face it, is a very British thing to do. Colgate was selected from a pool of 8,000 applicants. People living outside the United Kingdom appear to have had no opportunity to enter the competition, so the real “most beautiful woman in the world” might be living in Bhutan, the Amazon rainforest, currently-besieged Timbuktu, or Austin, Texas for all we know.
As for the selection process itself, the Daily Mail makes no mention of the involvement of any team of scientists with experience in the field of beauty research. The only major criteria were apparently photos showing the subjects with no makeup, and no one with any cosmetic surgery on the face (sorry, car accident victims, you’re no longer naturally beautiful.) The science, such as it were, came in during the bad journalism phase of the story.
Both Gawker and the Daily Mail zoomed past the responsible science depot straight into hack territory (terrible metaphor, sorry). The Daily Mail tosses out a bunch of figures to demonstrate how certain ratios of distance between body parts on the face equal beauty.
[I]t is the scientific definition of beauty – not to mention a healthy portion of beauty genes from her mother – which gave Florence the crown.
A woman’s face is said to be most attractive when the space between her pupils is just under half the width of her face from ear to ear. Florence scores a 44 per cent ratio. Experts also believe the relative distance between eyes and mouth should be just over a third of the measurement from hairline to chin. Florence’s ratio is 32.8 per cent.
Singer Shania Twain and actresses Liz Hurley and Jessica Alba are ranked among perfectly formed celebrities.
Gosh, a Canadian, a Brit, and an American all made the top list. How original. At least none of them are blond, right? Diversity!
How do you suppose they got these figures? What sort of control group did they use? How did they know whom to put in the control group if the point of the experiment is to identify beautiful people? Is it possible that someone started measuring faces of people he found attractive (because I can only imagine a dude coming up with this idea) until he found a pattern? They certainly did not use the Golden Ratio, so where did it come from?
Perhaps I will go look all that up and do a proper scientific analysis of the methodology used to come up with this whole “ratio theory,” something for which I have no training or qualification. I would definitely like to know if the judges for this competition actually measured the distance between the pupils, and from mouth to eyes, of all 8,000 entrants in order to select Colgate as the winner. The alternative, of course, is that they picked her because she’s really pretty.
Any good news story written by a non-scientist about a scientific topic should get quotes from an actual scientist knowledgeable in that field. This is not a good news story, but they tried to get a quote from a scientist anyway. That just made the whole thing worse.
Let’s take a moment and review. A British cosmetics company declared an 18 year-old pretty blond girl to be that country’s most “naturally beautiful face.” The Daily Mail bollixed up the story by trying to add in some sort of scientific justification, and Gawker tried to apply Colgate’s beauty to the whole freaking world. Out of 7 billion people, roughly 3.5 billion of whom are women, we are to believe that a cosmetics company, reviewing the faces of 8,000 Brits, found the most beautiful one?
Surely the Daily Mail’s Harris will talk to someone who will temper the rather obvious racial overtones of this farce, right? Nope, he talked to this person:
Carmen Lefèvre, from the University of St Andrews perception laboratory in the School of Psychology, said beauty is strongly linked to symmetry. ‘Florence has all the classic signs of beauty,’ she added. ‘She has large eyes, high cheekbones, full lips and a fair complexion. Symmetry appears to be a very important cue to attractiveness.
“Large eyes.” If that is the global standard, I guess the most beautiful woman is not somewhere in Bhutan after all. My regrets to the roughly 2 billion women of Asia.
“Fair complexion.” Really? No, I’m serious, really? What is this, 1820? “Fair-skinned” people currently make up twelve to thirteen percent of the total human population. There are more people of Han Chinese ancestry living in China than there are white people in the whole world. This beauty standard is more than a little unrealistic. (Maybe she was only referring to the United Kingdom, which is ninety percent white, but it is still a remarkably limited view of “beauty.”) If you feel threatened or oppressed by the world’s demography, I feel for you but don’t care. Here, stare at Zhang Ziyi for a while. You’ll feel better.
Seriously, though, what tenured scientist would ever claim that a “fair complexion” is a scientifically valid standard for objectively assessing beauty? More to the point, who is Carmen Lefèvre?
Even, smooth skin is perceived as a beauty ideal. Women spend huge amounts of time and money on trying to live up to this ideal. But why are we so interested in an even skin texture? It is probable that smooth skin tells us more about someone than just youthfulness. Health, lifestyle and upbringing do also reflect from your skin. The aim of my PhD is to understand the more previse [sic] influence that health and lifestyle have on perceivable skin texture. This includes both retrospective analysis and longitudinal studies. Furthermore I aim to establish which skin texture components are perceived as negative. For instance, are red blotches better or worse than pores?
I am based in the Perception lab and am supervised by Professor David Perrett.
She’s a Ph.D. candidate at the University of St. Andrews who evidently did not proofread her own bio page. (“Previse” is a word, but not an adjective. I think she meant “precise.”) I’m not going to pick on Ms. Lefèvre any more than I already have, except to say that I hope her studies give her greater wisdom as time goes on. I doubt that she intended to speak for the whole world, any more than Florence Colgate set out to do so. Who knows why the Daily Mail quoted her.
Maybe blond, blue-eyed women are still the ultimate standard of beauty in Great Britain. That point can be debated ad nauseam, I am sure. Here are two possible rebuttals, though:
Seriously, though, be attracted to whomever you want. Screw the psychologists.
UPDATED (04/26/2012): In all this discussion of female beauty, we have forgotten about people like Zeddie Little, a/k/a Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. My mistake.
Photo credits: ’Florence Colgate’ [Fair use], via Facebook and Gawker; ‘ZhangZiyi Amfar’ by Wang Long Wei [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; ’ZhangZiyiFeb06′ by Caroline Bonarde Ucci [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; ‘Carmen Lefevre’ [Fair use], via University of St. Andrews; ’Freema Agyeman 2007′ by DavidDjJohnson at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; ’Karen gillan signing’ by By MangakaMaiden [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons; ‘Ridiculously Photogenic Guy / Zeddie Little - Image #279,276 [Fair use], via KnowYourMeme.