Help me calibrate my sense of female beauty.
July 4, 2009 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Help me calibrate my sense of female beauty.

Can anyone point me to a source of pictures of random women at various ages.

Ideally I could select an age and a number of pictures and would be given a page with pictures of randomly sampled women at that age. I realize that it's the randomly sampled that will be the problem, the closer to random the better. Clothed preferably, but unclothed would be ok too.

Some sort of academic study about beauty would be perfect, though I'd be happy with an amateur approach. I'm trying to get a better sense of average attractiveness in spite of media exposure and living across from a sorority row.
posted by pseudonick to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Precision: I don't know if you are trolling or completely misunderstanding the question, I think that link is the opposite of what pseudonick is looking for.

For unclothed, I found a link on metafilter a while back that showed average bodytypes and genitalia, both male and female, with a pretty wide range of examples. I will keep looking for it and post back here if I find it.

It may be a bit difficult to find a selection of faces that is not either curated with some prejudice toward attractiveness or self selecting for flattering pictures.

Also, you could just go to a mall, a parade, or other crowded public places and just people watch, unless there is a reason you specifically need photographs.
posted by idiopath at 10:59 AM on July 4, 2009

Illustrated BMI categories

Also, it might help to quit thinking of beauty solely in terms of proportions and abstract ratios, and instead focus on what people's expressions tell you about their character. I'm not religious in the slightest, but when I spent time with some nuns working at a hospice, I was struck with how some of their faces radiated an incredible kindness, sensitivity, good humor and zest for life. They had zero makeup on, but their inner beauty was unmistakable.
posted by aquafortis at 11:00 AM on July 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

In my experience at a school with a large sorority population, sorority girls weren't naturally prettier on average than non-sorority girls, they just spent way more time on hair and makeup, and wore a lot more makeup than most girls did to class. They also wore short shorts every single day most of the year and had tan shiny legs.

I would suggest watching The Human Face BBC documentary. It's a four parter and it's hosted by John Cleese (and also features Elizabeth Hurley). They address what things people find attractive in faces and why. This series is also available on Netflix instant viewer.
posted by ishotjr at 11:04 AM on July 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

*Note, The Human Face isn't just about beauty, but that is one of the topics they cover heavily.
posted by ishotjr at 11:05 AM on July 4, 2009

Photographic Height isn't sortedvby age, but does feature a large number of people organized by hetght and weight and may be a useful reference.
posted by cCranium at 11:13 AM on July 4, 2009

I'm trying to get a better sense of average attractiveness in spite of media exposure and living across from a sorority row.

Um... need a roommate?

Seriously... I had a horrible-in-retrospect mental hobby when I was a teenager. Every time I saw a woman (any woman, twelve through a hundred and nine) on the bus or in the street or at school, I'd mentally note whether she was more or less attractive than my current girlfriend. It was like a little counter in my brain that would just click. I couldn't stop doing it.

I couldn't stop doing this, and the "score" would just stick in my head like some kind of thumb-twiddling background process, so that after a week or two, I'd have "937 no, 17 yes" stuck in my head... 938... 939...

I think I was trying to convince myself that yes, my current girlfriend was really 99% exceptionally attractive. Some kind of insecurity I'm sure.

I'm glad I broke out of this 'program' sometime in my early 20's (sorry in advance if I've just infected any reader with the mind virus), but while it was running, it did give me a pretty quantitative understanding of what average was.
posted by rokusan at 11:20 AM on July 4, 2009

You could always try resetting the background noise levels on your meter to zero by submitting to a week or two of voluntary blindness. While this exercise won't entirely dispel the mass media mythology we have all learned to worship, it will temper it somewhat with other sensory inputs, and you may emerge with new eyes (I take 'em where I can get 'em!) for what makes an attractive totality, which will then begin to inform your opinions of what it physically attractive.
posted by EnsignLunchmeat at 11:29 AM on July 4, 2009

Alumni reunion photos. A lot of these are probably posted. Google "class of 'YY" where YY is the year.
posted by musofire at 12:09 PM on July 4, 2009

Thanks for all the topical responses. Musofire's solution is excellent. I can't imagine anything better short of a large academic study tailored to my needs.

EnsignLunchmeat: That sounds tempting and potentially rewarding but probably too challenging for me. Have you tried it for a week?

I don't believe attractiveness can be objectively measure either. Maybe beauty was a poor choice of words, I want to have a more accurate conception of the physical distribution of bodyshapes for women around my age of 28. Being in graduate school doesn't help much either as most of my exposure is to undergraduates who keep averaging around 20, while I keep getting older, that's why I included the sorority row comment.
posted by pseudonick at 12:27 PM on July 4, 2009

Hang out with women more. Make female friends who share your interests. Not only will you expose yourself to a wider variety of people and lose your mental exoticization of female beauty, but you'll get to know people based on their personalities and how they treat others, and I think that can influence how attractive you might find someone.

I'm totally pulling this out of my ass, but I wouldn't be in the least surprised if there were studies to back me up: I believe that how much you like someone "on the inside" directly influences your perception of their looks.

And get off sorority row. You don't have to move, but go hang out in different neighborhoods with diverse populations. That will help you more than any academic studies or photo sets. I've found that my self-esteem can take a noticeable boost or hit depending on how looks-oriented the people surrounding me are. If I go to a grocery store in a yuppie neighborhood and most of the women are thin, tanned, impeccably coiffed, and wearing heels and $180 jeans, it's hard for me not to feel dumpy - but if I go to a grocery store where people are just wearing whatever they threw on, I feel much more comfortable.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:16 PM on July 4, 2009

Idiopath might have been talking about the Everyday Bodies Project over at VaginaPagina in livejournal. I don't think it has males in it, though, and I'm pretty sure it requires an LJ login to see it, but it's an interesting project. Needless to say, it's NSFW.
posted by cobain_angel at 1:21 PM on July 4, 2009

Not exactly what you're looking for, but might have some relevant stuff.
posted by wireless at 1:21 PM on July 4, 2009

The Human Variation Project seems to be out of comission for the moment, this was the link with average human bodies that I was alluding to above. I found it on This page, which also has some related content.
posted by idiopath at 1:37 PM on July 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

pseudonick: I'm trying to get a better sense of average attractiveness in spite of media exposure and living across from a sorority row.

I've found that the only way to really effectively do this is to (a) cut off media exposure for a long period of time and (b) make sure that you're exposed to a wide variety of (real, living, breathing, face-to-face) human beings. Sincerely, you'd be amazed how quickly, if you stop watching television and popular contemporary films, you'll readjust.
posted by koeselitz at 2:40 PM on July 4, 2009

I wouldn't be in the least surprised if there were studies to back me up: I believe that how much you like someone "on the inside" directly influences your perception of their looks.

I agree. I know from experience that it works this way for me. I've often wondered if there's been any research done on this subject, but if there is, I've never been able to find it, and am not even sure what keywords would be effective in locating it.
posted by velvet winter at 2:46 PM on July 4, 2009

Re: velvet winter
I think the cognitive bias you refer to is a case of the Halo Effect. Sadly it works the other way as well.

I don't want to get sidetracked by discussions of beauty and attractiveness. I just want to get a better understanding of what the distribution of body shapes and sizes in women my age looks like and ideally with the most random sampling possible.
posted by pseudonick at 3:26 PM on July 4, 2009

Thanks, pseudonick. Sorry for the mini-derail!
posted by velvet winter at 4:04 PM on July 4, 2009

This isn't exactly scholarly, but something like hotornot might help you to figure out how your opinion of attractiveness compares to the general consensus. You can select an age range and then after you rate a profile, you'll see the person's average rating. I'm sure there are plenty of similar applications on facebook as well.

Rating communities on LiveJournal might be interesting as well. However, I don't know if you'll find the right demographic there.
posted by necessitas at 4:26 PM on July 4, 2009

i'm going to disagree and say hotornot is a poor general consensus.. just trying a few guy ratings, even creepy old guys drinking alcohol or whatever have scores >5
posted by mezamashii at 11:04 PM on July 4, 2009

Although this is somewhat off what you're asking for, since you expressed interest in the notion of a period of experimental "blindness" I'll share a personal anecdote.

You have a massive and exquisitely detailed sample of random human beings at your disposal, located in a place we call "outside". They're out there, people, largely unfiltered (despite our best attempts, often), all shapes and sizes, ages, whatever genetics gave them to work with. You just go out there, open your eyes, and look around.

Many years ago I decided to make my best attempt at engaging in a period of media "blindness," largely motivated by the feeling that my metrics of personal appearance were all out of whack due to the influence of media. Part of the inspiration was that this was way back in the stone ages of the internet, where the limitations of my computer and dial-up internet access made preventing the loading of images in my browser (Netscape Navigator, natch) the only sensible option for making surfing feasible. This made me think how it might be nice if you could as easily shut off ALL mediated images in life, at least from time to time.

Another influence was something from Adam Smith's (this Adam Smith, not that one) underrated and sadly out of print (but easily found used) book about consciousness, Powers of Mind. The book discusses many mental disciplines that Smith experimented with; one of these was basically an attempt to turn off the "internal judge" that is constantly attaching value judgments to everything you observe - so you might see a fat person (possibly looking back at you from the mirror) and you try to replace the reaction of "look at that fat slob, what a lazy undisciplined jerk" with "there is a human being of average height, he has a large amount of adipose tissue." Of course doing this especially initially comes off as pretty forced and artificial but it can be a very interesting exercise in how much we attach unnecessary (in that they don't really add anything to our conscious lives) value judgments to our observations. Like all disciplines involving attempting to short-circuit mental chatter, it is much, much more difficult to practice than it is to sketch out in text.

So I attempted my best effort on a blackout of media images. It was easier at the time in that I didn't own a television, and as I say I didn't see images on the internet anyway. I avoided magazines, even tried to avoid looking at billboards and such. And I just opened my eyes and looked around me, trying to see the people I coexisted with with as little judgment as possible. I kept this up maybe two or three months.

I like to play with my mind, and have attempted many odd exercises of this sort, and this experiment is one of several that I would say had a pretty significant and lasting impact on me. Although I am a fully mediated individual these days I have never wholly lost the recalibration of my visual sensibilities that I experienced at that time. We can quibble over the boundaries but it is absolutely true that beauty is largely a social construct, you need only ponder popular icons and imagery of various cultures and times to see how fungible it is. Among other things I discovered a wholly different set of ideals and proclivities in my brain that had a lot less to do with the social (and even "classical") norms of what constituted a beautiful person. I think I became more inclined to see the beauty that honestly anyone has within them, I pondered how much whether a person seems beautiful or not can change based on what they appear to be projecting of their own internal self-concept. I found that there can be extraordinary beauty in things that might be considered fundamental impediments to beauty - scarring, deformity, serious birthmarks of the sort that can't be hidden or downplayed by hairdos or makeup. We are fascinating creatures. We are worth a second look. I'll say, I got caught staring a lot during this period.

Since I'm meandering along at great length anyway I'll note one other little influence. Even more years ago my exceptionally smart and insightful sister noted to me something about Steve Martin's light-hearted romantic comedy take on Cyrano - Roxanne. The film engages in a fairly subtle visual exploration of beauty: camera angles and expressions serve to highlight the "ugliness" of the "beautiful" characters in the movie and vice versa, providing a visual counterpoint to the more obvious contrast between the general intellectual and moral shallowness and moral of the attractive characters compared to the depth and compassion of the plainer ones - but the film also treats most of the characters with relative sympathy and compassion, highlighting the fact that everyone struggles with impediments and flaws, even though some are forced to wear theirs more obviously on the outside.

So - consciously trying to limit your exposure to media images might be an interesting (and much more accessible than literal blindness) counterpoint to your search for less filtered media images.
posted by nanojath at 12:58 AM on July 5, 2009 [5 favorites]

I'm totally pulling this out of my ass, but I wouldn't be in the least surprised if there were studies to back me up: I believe that how much you like someone "on the inside" directly influences your perception of their looks.

Don't remember where, but I've seen a study that supports this.
posted by aniola at 7:50 AM on July 5, 2009

I'm trying to get a better sense of average attractiveness in spite of media exposure and living across from a sorority row.

I'm been happily surprised by the effect of watching less TV. If there's a show that you really like, fine. But don't leave the TV on "for background noise" or sit through dumb sitcoms that you don't even like while you're chilling out on the sofa. Get your news from a less-noisy, less-hysterical, source than network and cable news...bonus, it gets you away from the supertan manicured news anchors.
posted by desuetude at 11:00 AM on July 5, 2009

The fact that the evil omg media puts attractive people "out there" doesn't change the level of attractiveness of anyone. All it does (maybe) is change our perspective of the true ratio of attractive people versus normal people in the real world. It's not like the attractive people on TV don't exist; they are real people too. The media didn't create weird perceptions of beauty or weird ideas about what beauty is.

Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. If someone finds someone else attractive, no amount of "media influence" is going to change that. If you look at yourself in the mirror and truly like what you see, then (in your own eyes) you are beautiful. Making beauty into some kind of hierarchy where people need to calibrate their expectations is just kinda weird.
posted by gjc at 2:57 PM on July 5, 2009

I want to have a more accurate conception of the physical distribution of bodyshapes for women around my age of 28. Being in graduate school doesn't help much either as most of my exposure is to undergraduates who keep averaging around 20

Try Wolfram Alpha: bmi, bmi female, bmi female age 28, bmi female age 28 median.

You can then combine that statistical data with photo sets like the one aquafortis linked to for a good idea of what "average" looks like.

Have you seen the facial averaging study done using hotornot? Bear in mind that facial averages often look more beautiful than the source images.
posted by topynate at 5:28 PM on July 5, 2009

topynate: averaging between faces makes the skin look smoother and the face structure more symmetrical - these are both things that almost everybody finds attractive, so an averaged face will not help at all if you are looking for an average face.
posted by idiopath at 6:03 PM on July 5, 2009

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