What Makes a Healthy Face?
New research suggests that skin color is less important than facial averageness when it comes to judging health.
What makes a face appear healthy? It’s a question psychologists have been grappling with for decades.
Early research focused on face shape. So-called “good genes” and a childhood environment free from disease and malnutrition are key to the development of a symmetrical, average, and sex-typical face shape. Some researchers think of these traits as indicators of long-term health. A man’s masculine face may be evidence that he was able to withstand the immunity-sapping effects of testosterone. A symmetrical face, or a face that is close to the population average shape, may show that our immune system was able to fight off infections that might otherwise have disrupted our ability to grow according to our genetic blueprints.
However, recently researchers have become more interested in face color, and how variation in the redness or yellowness of our skin can make us appear sick as a parrot or as fit as a butcher’s dog. In contrast to shape cues, color cues are thought to signal more recent health. Anyone who has ever come down with an acute bout of food poisoning, only to find their face turn bile-green, will know what I’m talking about…
Alex Jones of Swansea University in Wales, in research published recently in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, has combined these two approaches in an attempt to determine what matters more for a healthy appearance: shape or color?
Jones took facial photographs of over 100 young women, and then had the women complete a questionnaire about their health. Afterwards, he measured the symmetry, averageness, and femininity of all of the faces, as well as their skin color. Jones measured skin color as seen by the human eye, which is sensitive to the dimensions of red/green, yellow/blue, and light/dark. A group of 22 men and women rated each face on its apparent health using a 7 point scale.
What did Jones find? Consistent with his expectations, average and feminine faces were rated as more healthy. However, although women with average faces did report being more healthy, femininity was unrelated to reported healthiness. So, we are right to judge average faces as more healthy, but relying on feminine facial features such as large eyes and a small jaw when judging health may be misguided. If this is true, why do we do it? Jones speculates that femininity is so linked to a woman’s attractiveness that we may be fooled into making all kinds of positive assumptions about a woman based on her femininity. “She’s so attractive,” we think, “that she simply must be healthy too!”
When it came to facial skin color, the story was different. The results indicated that no measure of skin color affected ratings of apparent health. Nor were the women’s reported health scores related to their skin color. In other words, we don’t use skin color to judge a person’s healthiness, and skin color doesn’t tell us whether a person is healthy. This is surprising given that previous studies have suggested a redder and yellower face is more attractive and healthy. However, as Jones points out, those studies often manipulate facial color using computer graphics software, whereas Jones looked at real faces. Perhaps by boosting the redness and yellowness of a face, we can make it appear healthier, but the strength of natural differences in facial color are insufficient to affect health judgments.
Further studies by Jones revealed that the skin color change associated with eating carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables, which are known to increase the yellowness of the skin, has an effect on perceptions of skin health that are 8.5 times smaller than the effect of facial averageness.
It seems that when we judge a person’s health, we are inclined to rely more on face shape than face color, and that consequently we weigh long-term health more heavily than recent health.