No examination of human aesthetics is complete without discussing facial symmetry. If there is a universal standard of human beauty it is this; people have a marked preference for symmetrical well-proportioned facial features. These preferences are observable in infants as young as 4 months.* The big question is then, what advantages does facial symmetry confer?
On a very basic level, many genetic, congenital, and hormonal conditions affect the proportions and symmetry of our faces. The most readily available example is Down syndrome, which is readily identified through a number of structural changes to the face. What’s particularly interesting about Down syndrome is that when it occurs in other species, similar changes happen to their facial features.
Furthermore, people who have symmetrical faces have not suffered significant facial physical trauma. This can subtly signal numerous qualities to those around us. In a paleolithic world filled with danger, an unmarked face indicates some measure of physical dexterity, after all, someone who survives without significant facial injury has the physical prowess to protect their face.
Facial symmetry can also indicate how social someone is. There is evidence that humans perceive symmetrical faces as being associated with agreeableness and social adaptability.** This could be a case of the tail wagging the dog, however. People with high facial symmetry may get more social opportunities by virtue of their beauty, which allows those people to practice in varied social situations more frequently, and through this practice, become more socially adaptable.
As we age, our faces change, appearing to be less symmetrical. It’s not that our faces become less symmetrical, but rather that the aging process accentuates natural asymmetries already present in our faces. Consequently, high facial symmetry is strongly associated with youth, which will be the subject of our next post.