Beauty: Is it in the Genes or the Brains of the Beholders?

If I said Miss Universe’s face is more average than most women’s, you would think I was making a baseless comment. You would be wrong. Here is why. Humans perceive a face as beautiful based on two main facial features: Symmetry and averageness. The first one is easy to explain. If you draw a line smack in the middle of a woman’s face, if the two halves are equal and mirror images of each other, then the person viewing it would judge it to be good-looking. The second aspect of the face, “averageness” might be harder to understand. “Averageness” doesn’t mean plain looking. Rather, the face would look like a composite of many superimposed faces. It’s as if a beautiful face has extracted the good parts many faces and in doing this “averaging” has removed the bad parts.

Why do we like beautiful faces? Let’s focus just on beautiful female faces. Why does a woman look attractive if she has a symmetrical face? We have to look at this from a biological and evolutionary point of view even though in day-to-day life we don’t think in these terms. If the two parts of the face have developed equally and in a regular fashion, it suggests that she has had good body development. Good body is a product of good genes. So, she would be a good mate and is likely to produce healthy children.

What does averageness signify? According to many scientists, averageness equals heterozygosity. What it means is that the woman’s genes are well-mixed from outbreeding. If a face deviates too much from that of the average population, it suggests homozygosity, meaning genes were not mixed well which signifies a lot of inbreeding. People with well-mixed genes tend to be resistant to diseases and parasites.

So, does this mean that men are hard-wired to like a woman with certain kind of looks that automatically tells them that she is beautiful? This is the question I sought to find an answer to. Is beauty in the genes or the brains of the beholders?


A study of Australian twins by researchers at Harvard University, Wellesley College and University of Western Australia concluded that assessment of beauty is shaped by the environment of people and not their genes. I think this study explains why people differ in their assessment of what is beautiful when it comes to faces. But what about the fact that men all over the world can distinguish “beautiful” faces from “ugly” ones?

Scientists have studied what brain regions are activated when the subjects are presented with beautiful or ugly faces. But beyond saying this region is “involved” and that region is “involved” (a favorite vague word of many scientists and a pet peeve of mine), these studies don’t tell you how the brain judges something to be beautiful or ugly. Also, we don’t know to what extent recognition of facial beauty is learned.

One other problem in studying people’s brain activity to study beauty by sticking them in MRI machines is that such studies depend on photographs on a computer screen which are only two-dimensional representation of facial beauty.


I did my own informal assessment. After beginning this article, I happened to travel to New York City. On the way in Atlanta airport and in NYC, I observed thousands of female faces of all kinds of ethnicities. I came to a couple of conclusions. One, it is rare that one finds stunningly beautiful or appallingly ugly women. Two, there are other factors than symmetry and femininity to make a female face attractive. One obvious and important feature is the nose. The shape of and length of nose relative to the rest of the face. Shape of the jaw is another.

One other important aspect of beauty according to my observations is proportion. The height of forehead, length of the nose, and the height from the lower end of the nose to the tip of the jaw. To my dismay, however, I found out that this idea is not new. The importance of proportion in beauty has been around for a long time. Ancient Greeks believed that the Golden Ratio (or Devine Proportion) in human faces and things conferred beauty. According to this idea, if the length of the woman’s face is roughly 1.6 times (1.618 times to be exact) as the width of her face at the eye level, her face has a basic element of beauty. Proportion of other parts matter as well. There is evidence from research showing that other proportions than the Golden Ratio are considered beautiful in some parts of the world. The key point here that proportions of different parts in a woman’s face contribute to her perceived beauty.


Do all men recognize female facial beauty the same way at some basic level? In other words, are the brains of all men programmed to recognize certain features such as the proportion of different parts in a female face? Or do the brains of men have to learn to recognize facial features as beautiful?

According to my research on the literature, part of ability to perceive facial beauty is learned and part of it is innate. For example, scientific studies have shown that 12-month old babies prefer to look at attractive faces compared to unattractive faces. This preference is similar to those displayed by adults. So, it appears that human brains are instinctively capable of judging some aspects of beauty. In support of this idea, scientists in University of Munich and University Hospital in Geneva tested humans for visual preference using images of objects, and found that their preference for bilateral symmetry is unaffected by learning.

This brings us to the question: How do we learn to recognize faces as beautiful? As far as I can tell, people (unless they are in some kind of “beauty business”) are not explicitly taught to recognize a beautiful face. This learning must occur by osmosis. Again, let’s just focus on female faces. After all, we are bombarded with images of supposedly beautiful women. Does this exposure train us to recognize beauty? I think it teaches us to recognize certain types of female facial beauty. I am happy to report it doesn’t impair our ability to recognize beauty. To illustrate this from my own experience, when I was in a Department Store in New York, I saw a woman who had a typical “model look” (It turned out that she was a model after all). I wasn’t particularly taken in by the model’s look. Later that day on the subway, I saw a naturally beautiful woman who in my opinion was more attractive than the model I saw earlier.


After my observation on the streets of New York, I did an experiment. I measured the width of the face at eye level and the length of the face in the images of 50 different women. The women were Hollywood and Bollywood actresses, Miss Universe and Miss World winners, women on TV and some unadorned Indian village women. Among ethnicities represented were Caucasian, African, Asian, and Indian. Out of these, 15 women had a proportion close to the Golden Ratio (1.6), 20 of them had a ratio around 1.5, 12 of them had a ratio around 1.4 and 3 of them had a ratio of 1.7 or close to it. The shape of the noses and jaws varied. The only commonality I could discern was that they all had their facial proportions going for them. That is, different parts of their faces worked together to produce an esthetically pleasing effect.


So, my conclusion is that our brains can tell a well-proportioned face apart from a face where parts are out of whack. My second conclusion is that the Golden Ratio is not the only thing that makes a woman’s face beautiful. Relative proportions of different parts of the face contribute a great deal to the perceived beauty. Beauty may be in the brains of the beholders, but will we ever decipher how the electrified dance of the nerve cells pop the idea of ‘facial allure’ in our heads?

Kama Sutra and Bollywood Movies

Two of the most recognizable Indian exports to the world are Kama Sutra (Kamasutra) and Bollywood movies. The former gives guidelines for sexual fulfilment and the latter sells sex to the masses in many ways without being explicit about it. People may not know diddly-squat about India but they are aware of Kama Sutra, at least in the West. I originally come from the old country. So, it always warms my heart to encounter people from China, Russia, and East European Countries who know about old-timey Indian movie actors like Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Some can even hum Hindi songs or sing them with words that closely resemble Hindi. These days, Uber drivers tend to talk about Bollywood movies. They always ask “Why don’t they kiss in Indian movies?

I decided not to answer that question superficially but to poke around and go deep to get some satisfactory answer. The simple answer is that Bollywood movies show sex the way they do to get past the Central Board of Film Certification (aka Indian Censor Board), an Indian Government organization that issues certificates for showing the movies in theaters. Two most important certificates are “U” and “A” that correspond to “Unrestricted” and “Restricted to Adults” categories. Obviously, a movie (or film if you prefer) with an “A certificate” has limited audience. So, the movie makers in India try not get an “A” while showing as much sexual stuff as possible. Don’t go thinking that a movie with an “A” can show everything. Far from it. A typical Indian movie with an “A certificate” has probably has less graphic sex than an R-rated Hollywood movie.

My analysis will focus on “Bollywood” which is a lame ass term derived from combining Bombay and Hollywood. Now that Bombay is called Mumbai, perhaps the word should be Mollywood or Mullywood. The Mumbai film industry (Bollywood) produces Hindi movies which are widely known around the world. Apparently there used to be actual kissing in Hindi movies back in the day, like in the 1930s. It vanished from the screen until the 1990s which is when India entered the global market. India got its independence from the British in 1947 but remained a protectionist economy for the next four decades. When the Indian economy opened up, Bollywood became slightly bolder. Even now, in the so-called “liberated” era, Bollywood movies shown in theaters don’t show full lip-on-lip kissing. Forget French-kissing or tongue action. We can blame the Indian censor board for lack of proper kissing in Bollywood movies. But I think the producers also try not to show explicit intimacy because it might offend mass audiences.

Ancient Indians had such a healthy and liberal attitude about sex. Kama Sutra gives details about courtship, amorous advances, and sexual congress (copulation). It also describes oral sex performed by men on men and women on women. But then, the British came to India and stayed for more than 300 years. Indians absorbed a whole bunch of prudish British attitudes about sex. In addition, middle-class morality, which dictates matters of love and sex for many Indians, probably evolved on its own before and after India’s independence. So, Bollywood, in playing safe to avoid upsetting a large number of paying movie-goers, comes up with numerous ways to stay within the perceived boundary lines.

How does Bollywood go about showing matters described in Kama Sutra? Courtship usually begins with the leading man and leading woman (hero and heroine) running around trees or doing a vigorous workout for a dance number. Given that there are minimally five or six songs in a movie, this gives ample opportunity for showing amorous interactions between a man and a woman and to thrill the audiences without provoking the censor board to delete the scenes or enraging the bearers of morality in society. During one of the songs, suddenly it rains and the wet sari clings to the curves of the woman and the man and the woman bring their lips close and the camera looks discreetly away. In another song, when the man and the woman are dancing, the woman shakes her butt, gyrates her waist and makes thrusting motions with her hips like a man does during sex. What is the idea behind a woman imitating a man’s intimate movements? I grew up on a farm and so I understand this logic. When a heifer is in heat, she would mount another animal (cow or bull) in the herd to indicate that she is ready to be mounted.

Bollywood delivers sex through other characters as well. Usually there is a vamp (a term for a seductive woman) in the villain’s den. She dances for the visiting bad guys and the hero in disguise (which didn’t use to fool anybody, so now the hero goes as himself). Because she is a slutty woman to begin with, she is not bound by the same rules as the heroine. She can lip-synch and dance to a song with words full of sexual innuendos and make risqué gestures. In a lively dance by Katrina Kaif for a song called Chikni Chameli, towards the end of the song she says “This is just a trailer, I’ve come here to show you the whole film,” and rhythmically jerks her hip sideways and makes a gesture with her forefingers and thumbs as if she is stretching a piece of film where her thighs meet her hip. No red-blooded human male would have any confusion about what she’s talking about.

In the bedroom scenes, nowadays Bollywood movies show more than what they used to. Previously, the hero would lift the part of sari covering the heroine’s head on their wedding night while singing a song about what he is up to, and the heroine would coyly smile and avert her gaze. These days, the woman in the sex scenes bares a lot and the man is usually shown naked from waist up (maybe because nobody wants to see what’s below). The man tugs at her clothes, bites, smooches all around her neck and still doesn’t kiss on lips. The man even goes on top of the woman sometimes but without any explicit hip movements. But apparently, woman-on-top scenes are taken out by the censor board. Sometimes the man and the woman are in a shower or a pool which also is a great way for Bollywood to showcase a hot woman’s body.

Curiously, all Bollywood’s efforts to purvey sex seemed to be aimed at males. Is it because middle-class morality in India needs the women in society to be pure and innocent? What Bollywood cannot (yet) exploit and society wouldn’t admit to, is the report that Indian women watch porn and more of them do than their counterparts in other countries. Can Bollywood deliver soft-porn to women like it has been delivering it to men all these years?