Science Explains Why Some People Look Prettier From the Side

Ariana Grande knows what she's doing.

Ariana Grande performing on stage with her side profile visible
Getty Images / Kevin Winter

Photo-savvy people may have a sense that they look better from one side versus the other. It’s one of the reasons why some celebrities often seem to have a similar pose in photos — like how Ariana Grande always seems to be looking left.

And now there’s scientific proof that most people look better from certain angles, according to a study published Thursday in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery.

The study focused on data collected between 2004 and 2008 at the University of California, Irvine, where 240 white women between the ages of 18 and 25 posed for pictures. Each woman was told to pull their hair back into a rigid ponytail, then pose in front of a passport-blue background: once facing the camera, then facing their immediate left. None of them had any obvious imperfections: no cleft lip or cleft palate, no facial piercings, barely-there makeup — not even the hint of a smile.

After the scientists aggregated the 240 photos into 120 “synthetic facial portraits” using morphing software, they released the morphed photos into the harshest, judgiest place there is to evaluate human beauty: The original 240 headshots were rated by an internet-based focus group, who judged beauty pageant-style on a scale of 1 through 10, with 1 being the most unattractive and 10 being the most attractive.

Those same 240 photos were judged by a panel of professional beauty evaluators: board-certified facial plastic surgeons, otolaryngology (head and neck) residents, medical school students, and “authors with published work on facial attractiveness.” This illustrious team of beauty experts was presented with the paired photos of each woman from the frontal and lateral view, and then they were asked to judge them; if there was a discrepancy — say, a frontal view of a woman garnered a 7.2, but her lateral view scored a 6.8 — the participant was asked to judge what accounted for the difference.

Science goes pageant in this study, analyzing faces on and a panel to figure out what humans consider, well, hot.

Wong et al.

Based on this data, the researchers found that the front of faces were considered slightly more attractive than the side of faces, with a 6.9 average for frontal images and a 6.4 for lateral (i.e. most people can safely call themselves a 7). They also found a 75 percent correlation between the attractiveness of their lateral face and the attractiveness of their forward face.

What was considered a bit, well, unattractive? Thin upper lips, a convex nose, and a curving neck. Asymmetrical features — ears cocked to the side, a high hairline, a chin that juts out a bit, a nose that doesn’t slope down smoothly — weren’t seen as beautiful. That’s annoying, of course, and isn’t a remark on the overall beauty of the human possessing those truly unique quirks that make them beautiful. But it does explain why some people — like Ariana Grande — favor posing for photos with a certain side of their face: to hide or accentuate features, often emphasizing their front face.

Pop star Ariana Grande famously favors the left side of her face.

There’s something to say here about societal expectations of beauty, and what appears to be some standardization in what we think of as beautiful. Granted, the study was focused purely on white women who were in (arguably) their prime — a huge gap in the study that researchers promise to address in future iterations.

But that we still maintain some universal sense of beauty, even when a face’s symmetry is hidden, is indicative of an underlying sense of beauty. It’s informed the plastic surgery boom, from Hollywood to Washington’s elite. You may never have found your crooked nose or short neck problematic until someone told you that it is, or you found yourself noticing that pop culture stars tend to have a certain type of quirk-less face. Just last month, nose jobs were linked to body dysmorphia.

The science of beauty and its standardization is something that the authors are hoping to understand more in the future with men and non-white people. “We … limited the study population to white women to minimize the confounding variables that race and sex may introduce; in addition, most studies in this academic domain use women of European heritage,” the authors write. One thing is certain: Ariana Grande might be onto something with her left-side posing.

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