Just before 11 on a Sunday morning in February 2000, I find myself driving south in Beverly Hills en route to a celebrated church.
My friend Sandra has breathlessly told me that the church's leader is renowned among New Agers. Judging from my visits to her San Diego church, I earlier decided that the church follows as its First Commandment "Whatever Works." (Because her church seemed so forgiving that it had banished the very idea of Sin, I had started calling it "The Church of the Holy Go-For-It.")
Two blocks from the building, the backed-up traffic signals that my companion is right: Perhaps a thousand New Agers are walking to the front door. I finally find an open parking spot two football fields away from the building, from which we make our trek to the church and our seats.
Several seconds after we sit down, two women sit down next to us.
Over the next 70 minutes, I glance at the two women several times. I am not drawn by their faces, but by the palpable warmth between them. I deduce that they are mother and daughter. Nothing else about them seems special.
After the ceremony, Sandra and I inch from our seats and into the crush of 1100 people oozing toward the exit doors. I see the fair-haired mother and daughter in front of us. Halfway to the exit, Sandra leans in toward me.
"Do you recognize her?" she whispers, in a tone that suggests that I should.
"Should I?" I reply.
"Of, Yes! That's Christina Applegate. The t.v. star. Married With Children."
"A t.v. star?" I say. "Her?"
I responded that way because in real life--or at least on that Sunday of my real life--Christina Applegate looked like a girl you might run into on almost any block of Ames, Iowa or Spokane, Washington. Everyone says that Christina Applegate is pretty. And like every pretty woman, her face displays one signal trait.
It is remarkably average.
Christina Applegate has an average nose: it's not big or little. Her eyes are a little bigger that average and her eyes are slightly grayer than typical brown eyes. She has pretty but not perfect skin that is a shade lighter than average, but not more luminous. Thanks to Hollywood's makeup artists--and "artist" is the apt word--Applegate's generally average features become very attractive to most of us.
We find most attractive those things that look familiar, including faces. (This clearly is an adaptive trait. Our species could not have survived if human beings weren't wary of unfamiliar faces; they could belong to an enemy or intruder.) We like eyes that are an average distance apart, and average-sized noses that are the average distance from a woman's top and bottom lips.
Cameron Diaz, as a useful example, possesses an almost perfectly symmetrical face, a slightly larger than average nose, attractive but not unusual eyes, attractive hair, a light but familiar tone of skin. But most people do not describe Diaz as uniquely beautiful, almost certainly because of her one far-from-average feature: her mouth. When Diaz grins, her mouth seems to begin at her left ear and end at her right.
We tolerate larger-than-average mouths, however, because of their sexual connotations and because they make possible something else Cameron Diaz has: that enormous smile that makes The Cheshire Cat look blue by comparison. Smiles comfort us; they signal "I am a blessing and not a danger," and they radiate optimism, an attitude to which we are strongly attracted.
(As confirmation, go to Google and study the "Cameron As a Ten" images. In every "beauty shot" she is not smiling. Her unsmiling mouth looks smaller and--as you just guessed--almost average.)
At this point at least one reader has rebelled, having a flash on the image of one startling beauty: the actress Penelope Cruz. Cruz has unusually dark skin, unusually large and seemingly black eyes, ebony hair, and a much longer than average nose with a very prominent tip very close to her top lip.
Nothing about her is average, and Ms. Cruz looks stunning.
But are we truly and totally attracted to faces like hers? Woody Allen, who directed Cruz's Oscar-winning performance in Vicky Christina Barcelona, told a Vanity Fair reporter something that echoes
what many people feel in Cruz's presence: discomfort.
"I cannot take her face in all at once," Allen said. "It's too overwhelming."
Just days after I first wrote this, I walked to check out some apple fritters from my Lund's grocery store, and was stopped by a magazine cover. In front of the check out was the newest issue of People that featured its annual pronouncement of the Most Beautiful Person in the The World. Their choice?
Why? It's because she perfectly combines remarkably average features--and a face filled with average features, the ones most familiar to us, looks beautiful. Her face is simple, smooth, easy on the eyes--a collection of average features nicely assembled on a face that you might see one day in Ames or Spokane.
We so strongly prefer the average and familiar that scholars have given that preference a name: koinophilia. That word derives from the Greek koinos (usual) and philos (love), and literally means "love of the usual."
So it is true of our preferences for beauty, too: We love what seems familiar to us.
An important postscript: These findings suggest that millions of women today are making major mistakes. They are buying breasts and lips that are much bigger than average, and teeth that are much whiter. And while they may be right in thinking a woman cannot be too rich, they are foolish to think a woman cannot be too thin, and therefore much thinner than average--unless they are doing all of this for other women (which is likely, given that most women dress for other women.)
If these women are trying to appeal to men, however,as they are heading in the wrong--the too big, too little, too white, and too perfect--directions.
For those who need further evidence of the beauty of "averageness" and the averageness of beauty:
Langlois, J.H. & Roggman, L.A., Musselman L. & Acton, S. (1991). A picture is worth a thousand words: Reply to "On the difficulty of averaging faces." Psychological Science 2, 354-357. Langlois, J.H. & Roggman, L.A. & Musselman L.(1994). What is average and what is not average Langlois, J.H. & Roggman, L.A. 2002). What makes a face attractive and why: The role of averageness in defining facial beauty. In G. Rhodes & L.A. 6.
Apicella et. al. (2007) Facial Averageness and Attractiveness in an isolated population of hunter-gatherers. Perception, 36, 1813-1820.
Koeslag, J.H. (1990). Koinophilia groups sexual creatures into species, promotes stasis, and stabilizes social behaviour. J. Theor. Biol. 144, 15-35