As my father would have said, “I think I have seen it all now.”
    My culturally-observant daughter who informs me about parts of our modern life that I might otherwise miss sent me an article by Sarah Kershaw in the New York Times addressing the nature of human beauty. What makes us find one person beautiful but another one with similar physical attributes — say, blond hair and blue eyes or smooth skin and curly black hair — less attractive? 
    {mosimage}Scientists are studying this, and a group of computer scientists in Israel have come up with a computer program featuring a “beautification engine.” The program has taken more than 200 measurements between facial features — eyes to nose, eyes to mouth, nose to hairline, and the like, to try to determine which configurations people find most attractive when we look at someone else. It then takes ordinary human faces, like yours and mine, and applies these ideal distances through the magic of computer technology. This is not a program that airbrushes fine lines or changes hair color. It is more like plastic surgery by computer, lifting an eyelid here and plumping up a lip there, theoretically making faces more attractive.
    The online version features human faces which have been put through the beautification engine. One woman with a long face looked dramatically different, many of us would say more attractive. She is quoted as saying she preferred her regular old face.
    I could hardly tell the difference in several of the faces, including those of a young Marlon Brando in a military uniform and those of a mature Woody Allen with serious bags under his eyes in both photos. Mid 20th century French sex symbol Brigitte Bardot’s lips got less plump, and while her beautified self looked just fine, I prefer the original bombshell. A note beside several pictures which were not much different after beautification speculated that those faces were already so naturally well proportioned that they did not need realignment.
    There is no question human beings find some of us more beautiful than others, but why. Scientists say attributes of beauty are common even among people of different cultures, races, ethnicities, ages and genders. Apparently, we all agree that symmetry of features, youthfulness, smooth and clear skin, and hair and eyes of a vivid color make people attractive, sometimes even beautiful.    
    There is no question we all want to be beautiful.
    A peek into the cosmetics drawers and bathroom cabinets of women around the globe will demonstrate that. I read magazines in the grocery store checkout line, and a recent perusal told me this is true even in hard times. I read an article on how to give yourself a pedicure when you cannot pay for a professional one.
My concern is not that we all want to be attractive.
    It is the importance we have attached to it, sometimes at the expense of other qualities which I believe are ultimately more important in human life and certainly more enduring.
    I was astounded several years ago to learn that a perfectly lovely young woman I know had been given breast augmentation surgery by her parents for her high school graduation. The message she and her friends must have received from the gift is that large breasts are important in life and that the body she was born with was not good enough to go forward into adulthood. {mosimage}
    I am equally astounded when I visit local schools and see elementary school girls in what look like quite grownup outfits, sometimes even provocative outfits. In high school, I have seen girls teetering along terrazzo floors in stiletto heels that are not only dangerously high but also damaging to their still developing feet.
    I am also astounded and occasionally embarrassed by the clothing of some young adult women whose desire to be attractive has led them to dress as if less were more.
    Looking at the photos of the people who have been through the “beautification engine,” I realized that most of them, even enhanced by pleasing facial measurements, still look like real people. Some were younger, some looked healthier, some more made up, but each could have been someone we might run into somewhere — well, maybe not Marlon and Brigitte. 
    They look much the way nature made them, which to me, is the point. We all arrive into this world with certain physical attributes, and I am all for playing up the best ones and down the ones we like less.
The danger, of course, is falling over some ill-defined edge of what is both healthy and attractive into a place where the search for beauty becomes more than the search for what makes a positive and productive human being.
    Nancy Etcoff, psychologist at Harvard Medical School, put it this way to the Times. “Everyone wants to look better. And we keep taking it further and further….There is a whole generation of girls growing up who think it’s normal not to look the way they really look.”

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