Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder?

We are often told by society that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” So according to this idea, the definition of “beauty” differs when it comes to different individuals. But through personal observations of mine, I want to question this idea a bit, and expand on the implications of this.

To start off, we have to define what “beauty” is. When it comes to defining what type of people are beautiful, we might go two routes: one of them being based on pure asthetics such as their face, body composition, and height, while others see “beauty” as more a manifestation of a person’s personality and traits.

So if we were to define how “beautiful” a person was based soley on their outer-looks, I would make the claim that people can make a general consensus whether someone is very attractive or very unattractive. If we show someone a picture of Jessica Alba, I bet close to 99% would call her attractive and beautiful. However if we asked the same people whether they thought this person was attractive (refer to picture below), I bet 99% of people would call that person unattractive.

Jessica Alba- an "attractive" person

But how do we come to this general consensus if a person is generally attractive or unattractive? How can beauty as a physical trait be so apparent and obvious? Is it something that we are trained through society through the media (television, internet, movies), or something that we are born innately with?

An "unattractive" person

Let me present you with something interesting that you may not know. It is called the golden ratio and it is a ratio that shows up all the time in nature. Nobody can really explain why it is, but the number is: ~1.618. For example, the ratio between the length of its petals and the width of the petals, the ratio of the distance between the spirals in a seashell and its circumfence, and countless other examples in nature.
A few years back, I watched a fascinating documentary on TLC called “The Human Face.” The documentary tried to learn about all the aspects of the human face, and tested this “Beauty in the eye of the beholder” hypothesis. Through their studies, they used the golden ratio to construct a wire-model of an “perfect face” face with “ideal” proportions and they put that translucent model over the face of many famous people. For notoriously attractive people like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, the skeleton fit almost perfectly. When it was put on a picture of someone who looked typically “unattractive,” the wire model didn’t fit at all.

So the thought of beauty being translated into a simple number is quite disturbing. We always are told that beauty is something that we have a personal choice to make; not something that is so concrete in something as cold as a lifeless number. But I will bring more examples of the golden ratio.

In many famous renaissance paintings as well as ancient art, you can see the golden ratio being employed everywhere. From Gothic Cathedrals to paintings of nature, you will see this number pop over all over the place. Even in photography this number is extremely present.

There is a compositional “rule” in photography called “the rule of thirds.” According to the rule of thirds, for a photo to look balanced and appealing, you have to make sure your image abides by a grid that is split into thirds.
So although this rule doesn’t apply 100% of the time to all photographs, I would say it applies close to 95% of the time for landscape photographers. If you look at any great landscape photograph (or painting), you will see that the sky, the land, and the foreground will be split into thirds. Either that or the foreground will take up 2/3rds of the image while the sky takes up 1/3 of the image. This “rule of thirds” is also derived from the golden ratio.

The rule of thirds gridlines superimposed on an image

Going back to the example of photography, I would also say that generally speaking, people have a general consensus what a “good” photograph is. It is a combination of composition, subject matter, as well as color or contrast. I am part of a world-class photography forum called Fred Miranda and usually the number of comments you receive are directly proportional to how “beautiful” your image is. Although there are other factors such as how many people may know you on the forum and so forth, you will generally get more comments on how visiaully appealing your image is.

So does the majority define what beauty is? Or is it something more individual? If we define beauty as merely physical attractiveness, I would come to the conclusion that it is something universal and empirical. However if beauty is defined by one’s inner beauty, something that we can’t measure like the kindness of one’s soul or someone’s personality, I would say it can indeed vary from individual to individual. The proportions of one’s face can be measured, but how deep their heart goes cannot be measured by any instrument.

So I’m not writing this to make you lose faith in the idea of beauty as being cold, lifeless, and definable by numbers. However it is just a philosophical idea that has been running around my head for a while and I just wanted to throw this question out there.

So do you believe beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.