Beauty Treatment: Pretty Young Things

Does cuteness last?

By Jena Pincott, Rebecca Searles, published on November 1, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Baby looking at her reflection in mirror

A cute baby isn’t hard to spot: Look for a bulbous forehead, big eyes, and luscious cheeks and thighs. Infants with these qualities are rated as cuter than those with sunken foreheads, small eyes, and skinny legs. Most babies rank high on the cuteness scale, and research confirms they steal our hearts: Adults smile and gaze longer at cuties than at less-adorable babes. Attractive infants are perceived to be more sociable, easier to care for, and more competent than their homely peers. They inhibit aggression in adult men. They’re nurtured more.

But do the cutest babies turn out to be the most attractive adults? The presumption is that good looks remain stable over time. Research has shown that adult attractiveness can be predicted as early as age 5. But until now no study had tracked attractiveness from infancy.

Researchers sifted through high school yearbooks and found 108 graduating seniors who featured photos of themselves as infants. They asked several hundred college students to rate the individuals—as babies and as teens—for attractiveness.

The upshot? There was no correlation between attractiveness in infancy and in adulthood. In both males and females, some ugly ducklings turned into swans, some beautiful babies grew gawky, and some babies simply retained their looks. Cuteness—or homeliness—in infancy does not predict future attractiveness. “Hormones and skeletal growth at puberty will mediate changes to facial appearance,” explains researcher Marissa Harrison.

The study, published in Infant Behavior and Development, included an interesting side finding: While the raters were likely to agree about which infants were attractive, they often disagreed about which 18-year-olds made the cut. Why? The gold standard of baby beauty—the forehead, the eyes, the thighs—is universal (and common). These preferences are hardwired in us to elicit care and protection. The perception of adult beauty, in contrast, is tempered by culture.

“Everyone is more or less a beautiful baby,” Harrison adds. “This doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a beautiful adult. I was going to call the article, ‘Even you must have been a beautiful baby,’ but there is not a great allowance for humor in academia.” —Jena Pincott

Dolly Pardon

When a woman says she’s sorry, how likely is she to be forgiven? A male victim is most likely to forgive a pretty offender, but a female victim finds a less-attractive girl’s apology most convincing, according to new research published in Personal Relationships. The reasons are evolutionary: By accepting a hot girl’s apology, men keep open the option of pursuing a relationship. But women view beauty queens as competition and see little value in mending the relationship. —Rebecca Searles