When technology and beauty intersect, interesting things happen. In this case, a group of software engineers has developed a technology that, among other effects, reveals quite a lot about how our biology affects how we perceive what is beautiful. Daniel Cohen-Or of the Blavatnik School of Computer Sciences at Tel Aviv University headed up a team that created a “beauty machine” that can take anyone’s face and, by applying a set of mathematical principles, supposedly make it more beautiful. You can read the story here.
“Beauty can be quantified by mathematical measurements and ratios,” says Cohen-Or. “It can be defined as average distances between features, which a majority of people agree are the most beautiful,” he said. “I don’t claim to know much about beauty. For us, every picture in this research project is just a collection of numbers.”
Reductive? Maybe, but there’s some truth to that statement, and let’s address. First of all, it’s true that humans are hard-wired to be attracted to certain physical qualities that suggest physical health and therefore the ability to either bear or father children. That’s “innate beauty,” the appreciation of certain characteristics that is woven into our DNA.
This computer software draws on that tendency by applying mathematical modeling to automatically adjust the distances between features like the mouth and the chin or the eyes and the nose. The result is greater facial symmetry, something humans are proven to find beautiful. So in a purely biological sense, it’s hard to deny that the faces shown in this story are more beautiful. We love symmetry.
We think this kind of thing is really cool. Its developers say that it could be useful to plastic surgeons by showing them the ways they can make their patients as attractive as possible. Now, before you tell us that computer modeling of the perfect face has all sorts of unhealthy implications, we know. After all, the core of the technology is changing the distance between facial features, and as far as we know, there’s no surgical technique that will allow a surgeon to move your eyes farther apart or widen the lower half your face. It’s true that we don’t want to promote the idea that one needs a perfect face to be truly beautiful; that’s antithetical to who we are as doctors and as women. But at the same time, it’s a good thing to be more aware of why certain qualities strike us as beautiful.
Gravity and trauma decrease symmetry and make us less attractive. Perhaps this technology can be used to help women experiencing reduced facial symmetry (for whatever reason) to work with their plastic surgeons to identify small changes that would help them increase their self-perception of their own beauty—and as we know, feeling beautiful is the most important part of being beautiful to others. We might not even be talking about surgical interventions here; as we age symmetry is decreased due to the reduced elasticity of the skin, and non-invasive procedures such as Thermage can improve that symmetry by tightening the underlying skin structures. But making important changes all starts with knowledge, and if this amazing software provides that knowledge, bravo to the engineers.
The key is to do the best we can with what we have and not become preoccupied with a “perfect” face that doesn’t exist and can’t exist. In the end, it doesn’t matter as much as we think: we (and you) know many women who are far from the beauty ideal who have paired off with partners who adore them for their total beauty—not just their face and body, but their kindness, intellect, wit, passion, sexiness, creativity, the whole package. Here’s hoping that this technology finds its rightful place in the beauty firmament: helping surgeons reconstruct severely damaged faces, guiding women toward small improvements that will enhance their lives, and teaching computer modeling to design, animation and special effects professionals, while letting the rest of us glory in our marvelous imperfection.
Inner beauty is a major focus of what we do in both our medical practices. For a psychiatrist, that’s obvious: so much of the work is directed at helping patients discover ways to cope with life’s problems and to bring out the strength and self-esteem that lies at the core of inner beauty. It’s less obvious for a dermatologist, but equally valid. Yes, that area of medicine is about the outer beauty of the skin, but often concerns about what’s outside mask issues about the inner self: a crisis of confidence, fears about aging or a troubled relationship, worries about body image or social conformity. In any case, it’s very difficult to help a person become truly beautiful if you are only addressing the problems on the exterior.
That’s why we particularly love this poem from writer Sam Levenson, which reflects the essence of what we talk about when we mention Inner Beauty—that true beauty stems from seeing beauty around you, reaching out to others, and having a restorative, healing, loving attitude toward life. The poem:
For attractive lips, speak words of kindness. For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people. For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry. For beautiful hair, let a child run his/her fingers through it once a day. For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone. People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of each of your arms. As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands; one for helping yourself, and the other for helping others.
In our book, The Beauty Prescription, we talk extensively about something we call “Beauty 911.” It means that when life knocks you flat with a tragedy or a bad turn of events, it’s important to devote a little of your time and strength to letting yourself be beautiful—to taking care of yourself. This may seem trivial when faced with something like the collapse of a relationship, a financial catastrophe or a frightening health problem, but who made the rule that hard times were supposed to be endured with stone-faced stoicism? What’s wrong with breaking the tension by spending an hour getting your hair blown out, buying a great pair of shoes or laughing with a friend until you feel nauseous? Nothing, we say. In fact, giving yourself permission to care about your inner and outer beauty during a period of great stress is probably one of the healthiest coping mechanisms we’ve ever heard of.
It’s all about control. We live with a tentative, fragile illusion that we’re in control of our lives, but we’re really not. Most of life is a roll of the dice. We can’t control the stock market, the actions of other people, the weather or the DNA in our cells. So when something happens that shatters our neat, controlled bubble, it’s devastating. We feel like we’re floating without moorings, utterly vulnerable and alone. In fact, it’s important to remember that while we may cherish the idea that we control the outcome of each day, there are only two things we can control: how we prepare for what happens and how we respond to what happens. When something destroys your sense of peace and predictability, it’s essential that you regain some small bit of control that you can hold onto. Focusing on your beauty gives you a little of your control back.
Let’s face it, even if you’re diagnosed with cancer and facing rough treatments, you’re still the one in control of what you eat, how you dress and how you look. No one else can make those decisions for you. Even if your home is foreclosed upon, you can still get your nails done and make sure your makeup looks perfect. You can and should take time to meditate, work out, moisturize, and do whatever you must to look and feel as good as you can. Beauty is a pillar anchored in bedrock that you can cling to when everything else seems to be pitching in the wind. You say, “Well, at least I know I look great!” It’s not a solution to your problems, but it’s something that can help you make it through the day…and some days, that’s all you really hope for, isn’t it?
Trauma also tests our inner beauty. It’s easy to blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault and to wallow in guilt. This can cause self-esteem to take a dive and pull you into a dangerous downward spiral. It’s just as vital to tend your inner beauty: spend time with a Beauty Buddy, be with friends, talk with a therapist. Find ways to become more objective about what’s going on and you’re likely to find that, even if you share some responsibility for what’s gone wrong, it’s not all your fault.
Beauty treatments are great for boosting your inner beauty and are also wonderful antidotes for the harmful effects of the stress hormones that flood our bodies during times of trauma. Just having your toes done and being around other women in a supportive setting releases oxytocin, creating feelings of warmth and bonding. And what could be better than a massage to knead away the tightness and exhaustion that come with life’s trials? We know women who have gotten cosmetic treatments right before therapy for cancer, because knowing they looked their best was part of their act of “girding for battle,” going into the fight with guns blazing. More power to them. Confidence, self-esteem and inner peace are critical if you’re going to make it through life’s tsunamis. Beauty 911 is something none of us should be afraid of dialing.
We like to talk about inner beauty, but outer beauty matters, too, especially as a bellwether of health. And when it comes to skin health, nothing is a greater concern than melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanoma is strongly linked to sunburn during childhood and adolescence, but it can strike women (and men) in areas that rarely receive any sun exposure. Melanoma is a difficult cancer to treat; after years of research, the only reliable treatment has been to surgically remove the malignant growth before it becomes more than one millimeter thick. The World Health Organization estimates that there are about 48,000 deaths from melanoma around the world each year.
So it’s pretty exciting to read about a newly released study from the University of Bonn, Germany, in which a “designer molecule” fights melanoma in two ways at the same time. In one line of attack, the molecule acts like a virus, which alerts the body’s immune system to power up and start attacking the tumor cells. In the other line, the molecule uses an aspect of RNA discovered in 2006 by two Nobel laureate scientists to “switch off” a specific gene in the tumor cells, essentially driving them to suicide more reliably than if you’d forced the cells to watch 24 straight hours of reality TV.
The disguised-as-a-virus approach tricked the immune system of the research subject (in this case, a mouse) into aggressively attacking its own malignant cells as though they were an infectious body, while the suicide strategy took advantage of a natural self-destruct mechanism that exists within all cells and keeps them from becoming out-of-control cancer cells. The bottom line of this experiment was that in mice, the double-assault tactic inhibited the growth of melanoma cells that had metastasized to the lungs, and even shrank or eliminated secondary tumors. The researchers caution, however, than what works in mice doesn’t always work in humans, and that more work and study is needed. Fair enough. But it’s safe to say that after years of having nothing but surgery in our arsenal to fight this dangerous cancer, any new advance is a reason for hope.
In the meantime, limit your sun exposure, wear sunscreen, and be sure to get a skin check every year from your general practitioner or a dermatologist. In fact, if you go to your dermatologist for something as routine as Botox, have a skin check while you’re there. Having a suspicious mole removed once in a while is infinitely preferable to enduring melanoma, no matter how much you like the idea of bronzed skin. That’s what self-tanners are for. That way, you can ensure that you stay healthy so you can enjoy being beautiful. And by the way, if you can only afford one skin care product, make it a moisturizing sunscreen with an SPF of at least 45.