Is Beauty A Science?

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 18 2012 @ 3:39pm

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano has her doubts:

Beauty science is the richest heir to physiognomy. What physiognomy attempted to do was pin down the mysteries of character and behavior, using a highly coded and essentially arbitrary system of classification. What scientists and economists are attempting to do with its glut of studies on beauty is pin down the mystery of fascination, using the highly specialized—and often subjective—tools at their disposal. … Researchers use facial characteristics to explain things like gaydar, the trustworthiness of baby-faced adults, and women’s supposed preference for manly-men, and even conscientiousness.

Whitefield-Madrano has compared the modern-day modelling industry to physiognomy:

Certainly today we wouldn’t take physiognomy seriously, if for no other reason than its outrageous racism: Typically African traits were signs of indolence, diminished intellect, and "sensualism"; American Indian features were compared more to those of animals than of humans; Asian characteristics indicated compliance and asexuality. So physiognomy is dead, as well it should be. Except, well, it’s not. 

I kept thinking of physiognomy when reading certain parts of Ashley Mears’s sociological study of the modeling industry, Pricing Beauty. … [P]hysiognomy claimed to be a science but still relied on "sense and feeling"; similarly, players in the modeling industry claim to be prizing what’s inherently stunning, beautiful, or intriguing, but they rely upon a gut sense that’s cultivated through careful calibration of taste.