‘The Atlas of Beauty’ hopes to redefine looks

Not just a pretty face: These portraits were taken in Germany, Iran, and China. © Mihaela Noroc

Can beauty be defined, or is it in the eye of the beholder? The photographer Mihaela Noroc has travelled the world, photographing ordinary women to challenge “unachievable” beauty standards.

Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc does not have quite as many instagram followers as Kim Kardashian West. But she is certainly trying. “The famous people of our planet have set this unachievable and fake beauty standard,” she says. “But slowly, slowly, I think the message of natural and simple beauty will be spread around the world.”

To help make this happen, four years ago Noroc quit her job and began to travel the world. She has been to 60 countries, seeking out ordinary women and photographing them. By showing the diversity of women’s beauty, she hopes to give everyone “confidence that they can look the way they look and be considered beautiful”.

Now, 500 of her portraits have been published in a book, The Atlas of Beauty.

But what, exactly, makes someone beautiful? Many people have tried to define it, but pinning it down can prove tricky. As the artist Andy Warhol once said: “I always hear myself saying, ‘What a beauty!’ but I never know what I’m talking about.”

To solve this problem, the ancient Greeks worked out a mathematical formula for beauty, based on the “Golden Ratio”, named phi. This is based on measurements of the distances between a person’s eyes, nose, lips, and so on. More recently, Dr Stephen Marquardt used a similar ratio to create an ideal beauty “mask”. He says its proportions match those of beautiful people across cultures and time, from Angelina Jolie to Cleopatra.

Meanwhile, scientists have argued that a culture’s most “average” face tends to be considered its most beautiful. If someone is asked to choose between digital composites of five or twenty faces, they tend to think the latter is more attractive, as its features are the most familiar and symmetrical.

There could be a genetic explanation for this bias: “average” faces tend to have more diverse genes, leading to stronger immune systems.

The women in The Atlas of Beauty have been praised for their “natural” good looks. But can we ever pinpoint what makes someone beautiful or not?

Pretty woman

“Of course,” argue many people. Some faces are clearly more pleasing to look at than others. We have always known this, and we have even come close to explaining how and why it is true. It is great that The Atlas of Beauty is celebrating beautiful women from all cultures and backgrounds, but its models were chosen for a reason.

Others think beauty is not just about appearances — including Noroc herself. Everyone finds different people attractive for reasons they cannot always explain; and plenty of people who are considered beautiful do not fit the scientific “ideals”. What really makes someone beautiful is the confidence to be themselves. Anyone can be gorgeous once they know this.

You Decide

  1. Which of the three women above do you think is the most beautiful, and why?
  2. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or can it be defined?

Activities

  1. Write a definition for what makes someone beautiful in ten words or less.
  2. Choose a time or place different to the one in which you are currently living. Research its beauty standards, and then produce a short presentation comparing them to those in your own culture. Be sure to include lots of pictures.

Some People Say...

“No living thing is ugly in this world. Even a tarantula considers itself beautiful.”

Munia Khan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Lots of people have tried to scientifically define what makes someone beautiful, leading to some of the theories mentioned above. Usually these studies lead to a preference for symmetrical faces which are close to a population’s average. Similar trends can also be found elsewhere in nature: young female swordtail fish prefer mates with an equal number of stripes on both sides, for example.
What do we not know?
Exactly why this is the case, or whether it is down to nature or nurture. It may be an evolutionary trend that means creatures with healthy genes are also more attractive, and we are genetically programmed to notice. It may also be that we learn to find more “average” faces attractive, based on the faces we are exposed to throughout our lives.

Word Watch

Instagram followers
Kim Kardashian West has more than 100m, while Noroc is on 220,000.
The Atlas of Beauty
This was published by an imprint of Penguin Books in September 2017. It costs £21.
Phi
Represented by the symbol Φ which roughly equals 1.618. It is found when a line is divided into two parts. The longer part divided by the smaller part must be equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. The ratio is often found in nature (such as human faces), and is thought to have been used in the designs of ancient architecture like pyramids in Egypt and the Parthenon in Greece.
Dr Stephen Marquardt
The “Marquardt Mask” is based on mathematics as well as analysing attractive faces throughout history and culture. He says beauty is “universal”, and that the same ideal characteristics are found throughout different races, genders, and classes.
Average
Not average as in “not particularly special”; average as in the mean.
Composites
Lots of different faces layered on top of each other using computer graphics. The more faces, the more “average” the final result becomes.

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