They’re only looks, but people attribute way too much importance to them. It’s a fascinating – and also disappointing – topic, though, the way we are all influenced by outward appearances.
Look at these. Most of these photos are recent (2009-2017); only four are older (three from the 1990s and one from 2003). In one of these photos, I had just cried. Can you spot it? Most people like this photo a lot, though. There is one other photo that I took 12 hours earlier. A lot of people like that one too. When you’re done looking, go read the previous post!
Our facial appearance influences how we feel about ourselves – and other people’s faces influence who we choose to approach or avoid and who we’d like to form romantic relationships with. At a glance, a face reveals a wealth of information about how we are feeling, or the kinds of behaviours we might be about to engage in – but what does it say about us when we aren’t expressing emotion? As it turns out, it’s more than you could imagine.
The face is a biological billboard and we are expert readers, always interested in what it has to say. We are attracted to healthy-looking faces and avoid those who are unhealthy –- think of the sensation you might have had the last time you were on the train or a bus near someone who looked unwell – but it is the question of what makes a face look “healthy” in our eyes that is the most intriguing.
There are many historical examples of people altering their facial appearance to appear healthier. Things like the influence of body mass index (BMI) on face shape, or the smoothness of skin texture play a role in how healthy we are viewed to be, but it is actually facial colouration that seems to be the most important.
But it is yellowness that seems to be particularly relevant for health, and for good reason: people with yellower skin tend to have healthier diets, rich in fruit and vegetables. The organic pigments in these foods, known as carotenoids, are hugely beneficial for health, and seem to be responsible for producing that desirable healthy glow. Intriguingly, tanning also increases skin yellowness and makes faces appear healthier, but the yellowness conferred by carotenoids (as a result, perhaps, of a healthy diet) is preferred to the yellowness brought about by tanning.
The secret to a healthy appearance isn’t as simple as eating more fruit and vegetables, however, it’s a bit more complicated than that – and healthy face colouration may be more nuanced than previously thought. Skin conditions such as dark circles under the eyes or rosacea, a condition which causes the skin to flush and redden, cause great concern to sufferers – Google searches of treatments or remedies return millions of hits. Both these conditions are also localised to areas of the face, which suggests colours in certain areas of faces could be relevant for looking healthy. Might these patterns of colour in faces, rather than the colour of the entirety of facial skin, be more relevant for looking healthy?
To answer this questions, we asked observers to rate faces for how healthy they thought they were, and calculated the colour differences between faces seen as very healthy and very unhealthy. We used Caucasian faces for the comparison, but there is some evidence that suggests how the overall skin colours of yellowness, redness, and lightness are seen as healthy in non-Caucasian faces too: it seems that everyone, regardless of race, finds these tones to be healthy.
Our research found that while yellowness across the whole face was a contributor to looking healthy, confirming earlier findings, lighter skin under the eyes and redder skin on the cheeks seemed to play larger roles. That colouration, in those areas, seemed to account for a lot more variation in health ratings than skin yellowness.
We subtly changed photographed faces to have lighter under-eye skin and redder cheeks – and also the reverse effect: darker under-eye skin and greener cheeks. Asking people to pick which they found the healthiest revealed a strong preference for the former pattern.
Interestingly, when we reversed the location of the colouration – lighter cheeks and redder under-eyes or darker cheeks and greener under-eyes – there was no clear preference. Given the wealth of research showing lighter skin and redder skin across the whole face is perceived as healthier this result was surprising. What this work suggests is that lightness and redness in our facial skin is seen as healthy, but only when it is under the eyes or in the cheeks, respectively.
In a final study, I looked at which facial area and colour was seen as the healthiest. While having redder cheeks and light skin under the eyes came out as looking equally healthy, dark skin under the eyes made people think the faces looked quite unhealthy, even more so than sickly-looking greener cheeks.
It is no surprise that cosmetic products such as concealer and blusher are so popular, since they increase a healthy looking colouration in the areas that matter the most to health perception – but nothing could ever beat a good night’s sleep and regular exercise.
Once there were two tomato growers. One was called James and the other one Gordon.
Gordon was very disappointed with his tomatoes. Every day, he would go to them and water them and check how much they had grown. Sadly, his tomatoes stayed pitifully small. He would twist them and squeeze them to feel if they were at least ripening a little bit, and accidentally dislodge one from the vine on occasion. It would drop to the ground and rot away.
Gordon felt something had to be done. So he purchased the best fertilizer he could find, with the right amount of potassium and all the other nutrients a tomato could wish for, and placed it in front of his tomatoes. He told them: “If you grow really really well, I will give you this fertilizer as a reward. This shall be your motivation.” It seemed to have no effect on the tomatoes. If anything, they were only growing at an even slower pace.
Gordon became even more dissatisfied with his tomatoes and started withholding water to see if that would convince the tomatoes to grow. But all that happened was that the tomato plants became infested with pests and he had to spray them with pesticides. (“Damn, that stuff is expensive,” Gordon grumbled.) It was too late. The tomato plants turned yellow and started dying. Gordon got very frustrated and kicked at the plants.
James, on the other hand, adored his tomatoes. He loved them! Every day, he went to them, and removed all those little sprouts from the armpits of the tomato plants and enjoyed that typical spicy tomato smell. That way, all the nutrition went to the little tomato fruits, not into making sprouts. He watered them every day, and made sure the quantity of water was just so.
He took care that they got the right amount of nice warm sunshine and on days without sunshine, he would provide artificial sunshine. He also gave them the right amount of fertilizer whenever they needed it. His tomatoes became famous. Everyone admired them. They were so beautiful, so healthy! His tomatoes seemed to be shining with joy. It was almost as if they loved James back and wanted to make him really really happy.
Gordon commented that life just is not fair and that there is nothing you can do about it and also that James had started growing his tomatoes a year earlier, hadn’t he, and that there were no pests at James’s location, and probably also a lot more sunshine. He knew it! Life ain’t fair! And he had never liked James much anyway.
James was not aware of Gordon’s grumblings at all. He found more than enough joy in caring for his tomatoes.
The above is from my e-book FCQ. It’s available from Amazon and other retailers.