Universal Attractiveness and the Meaning of Our Chins

Photograph by Getty Images

The judgment is built into the descriptors: strong chin or weak chin. Just think of the famed Romney mug. Or Dudley Do-Right, his jaw roughly the size and shape of a Christmas ham. Sure, he was an idiot—that was the joke!—but the chin signaled that he was a good guy, and that he was irresistible.

There are scientists who study attractiveness. Not chemists designing scents for L’Oréal, but biologists and anthropologists who theorize about what attractiveness means. Mostly they look at animals, examining traits like peacock tails and behaviors like bighorn sheep duels or fruit fly courtship dances. But sometimes they look at people, too, and some argue that beneath cultural fads, evolution has ingrained in humans certain inescapable biases about beauty and physical prowess.

The correlation with penis size grabbed headlines this week, but universal facial attractiveness hypothesis may be the prime example. It postulates that all human beings, whether in feudal Japan or modern-day Minsk, find certain facial characteristics attractive because they correlate with qualities that make for good mates. Studies show that people tend to find symmetrical faces more attractive than asymmetrical ones, for example, and facial symmetry has been found to correlate with desirable qualities ranging from intelligence to good health and high testosterone in men. (One can debate whether high testosterone is always a great thing, but it was a good bet in the theoretical Paleolithic environment where these tendencies evolved.) By contrast, mutations and even certain diseases tend to make faces less symmetrical.

The limited research literature suggests that strong male chins both attract mates and predict future professional success. Broad-chinned West Point cadets generally attain higher ranks than their narrow-chinned classmates. One explanation: The extra layers of bone that develop a broad jaw require high levels of testosterone, so a cosmetic jawline is a visual testament to virility, like the peacock’s resplendent but unwieldy tail.

Still, there’s hope for the weak-chinned, according to a paper published April 3 in the online journal PLOS ONE. Dartmouth researchers studied 180 male and female skulls from around the world, measuring different mandible curves. If all humans were hardwired for certain ideas about chin beauty, then there wouldn’t be significant regional variations, but there were—native Australians were a particular outlier. The average Eastern European chin is not the average West Asian chin is not the average South African one.

That’s just one not-very-big study, of course, and this sort of data has its limits. It’d be nice to know, for example, how the dearly departed owners of those skulls had done on the dating scene, or how many were brigadier generals. But it reminds us that clever evolutionary rationales for human behavior remain unproven. It may be that future generations look back on ours—in which medical professionals perform chin augmentation surgeries—with incomprehension and pity.

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