How many milliHelens do people with out-standing faces have?

Professor and statistician, David Spiegelhalter told us in The Times last week that “the science of attractiveness is a growing field, despite the lack of an agreed unit of measurement” and he went on “the milliHelen, the amount needed to launch one ship, is still disputed” http://understandinguncertainty.org/node/1057

And all around me (maybe you too?), I see the human face in all its glory being discussed – Simon Jenkins “Faces are in, and must stand as proxy for biography, gossip and sex” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/18/faces-appearance-analyse-value) which argues that Kate Middleton’s face is “a window on the self-absorption of an entire people” – the British!

And let’s not forget the evolutionary scientist who came out with the finding that attractive couples are likely to have daughters than are plainer couples, a thesis which Spiegelhalter strongly disputed on methodological grounds but which was the subject of acres of newsprint, streams of tweats (what is the collective term? ‘a tirade’ or ‘a soundbite’?) and endless TV and radio discussions.

Last but not least is the recently-acclaimed new website for so-called ‘ugly people’ (http://www.theuglybugball.com) – and I think it is this, despite its horrendous but probably appealing title that gets closest to my position.

Where do I stand?

It’s a long debate but it seems to me that often our use of language around this subject lets us down. Beauty and non-beauty are objective realities measurable with the aesthetic face values of the day – Mona Lisa may still be beautiful but I am not sure she is by today’s norms. One of the goals of our face equality campaign is to challenge these face values so that less negativity and more value is attached to scars, asymmetry and out-standing looks.

Attractiveness is an altogether different human quality which has many dimensions, physical and chemical. It is stirred (or depressed) by the way that someone moves and talks, by their mood and gestures, their touch and proximity, their aromas and aura – and perhaps, above all (although not to someone with a sight impairment) by the immeasurable quality of their eye contact.

A snapshot of a face can convey only a little of what makes someone attractive – which is why, for someone with a disfigurement, the fear about their photo is that it will prompt others to make face-value judgements. The ugly bug website gives the lie to that reflex because all visitors expect to suspend their cultural assumptions and look for attractiveness not just a pretty face!

So I am not surprised that the milliHelen as a measure of attractiveness has yet to be defined but I suspect the researchers need to think laterally and consult the least likely candidates, those with out-standing faces – they might float a few boats too!  It reminds me of Nichola Rumsey’s research years ago when she found that the best (most attractive?) market researchers were likely to have high social skills and facial disfigurements! (sorry cannot find the link right now)

PS: for those of you who have not seen a great film about the making of our children’s Face Equality campaign, see Billboard Kids now at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rfmyc

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