Pretties Week Begins!

Pretties comes out on November 1, just over a week away, so it’s time to begin the celebrations!

For those of you who don’t know, Uglies and Pretties are set in a world in which cosmetic surgery is not optional. The society has lots of theories about what makes a face the right kind of pretty, and this week I’ll be discussing the science behind those theories.

So let’s start with . . . face averaging!

One of the ways scientists generate fake pretty faces is to visually average the general population. Basically, you stick a lot of pictures of faces into a computerized blender and morph the results together. See how the third face is pleasanter to look at than the first two?

It is believed that averaged faces tend to be more attractive because it’s good to have a wide variety of genes from across the local population. People with a wider set of ancestors are (by definition) less in-bred, which means they’ll have more disease resistance and other neat superpowers like that. So we’ve evolved to think that people with genetically average faces are good mating material.

So how do we know what’s average? Answer: By looking around at the people where we live.

The faces above are from a German University, which is why they’re white. In a recent University of Western Australia study, however, researchers found that in a mixed-race society, the faces considered most attractive have mixed racial characteristics.

Australia’s population is composed mostly of Asians and Europeans, so when reporting the study the Sydney Morning Herald chose a model with Scottish, Spanish, Phillipine, and other Asian ancestry to make their point:

A definite hottie. Of course, the US version would have more African ancestry and probably more Latin American in the mix as well.

Anyway, averaging faces is only one technique that the Pretty Committee in Uglies uses to create beauty. And of course in the real world, we find all kinds of extremes attractive, as well as personality, accomplishments, and shared personal history. We’re just talking about statistics here, not individual preferences.

For me, averaging (especially by computer) often leads to a bland beauty. Like, say, these two faces composed of 64 Germans each:

Generic + Vaguely Creepy = Yawn

14 thoughts on “Pretties Week Begins!

  1. The Australian “hottie” has a name—Michelle Lee. She’s, um, in trouble right now.

    Actually, all the average German faces creep me out and are somehow less interesting than the non-averaged out faces.

  2. Yeah, the perfect plastic people are definitely sliding into the uncanny valley. They need to add some texture back in after the averaging. It’s unfair comparing the airbrushed androids with Miss Germany when Miss Germany’s not allowed to wear makeup.

    Still, who knew the average beautiful German has dark hair and dark eyes and could pass for a Turk? Hilarious!

  3. the first average, when it’s just an average of two, looks okay, but the final two (avg of 64) is super scary — like mannequins.

  4. british south asian artists group “moti roti” did a project called “fresh masala”, which was about cultural syncretism expressed in physical and vocal mixing. in one component of the project, they used facial morphing software to morph photographs taken on-site in galleries of people who identified as “asian”. they came up with a british generic “asian” and then combined american “asians” into a more international generic “asian”, which was much less south asian looking.

    (the website has the final photo only of the british version. btw. they morphed both men and women together for this one, hence the shadow on the upper lip and the androgynous look. i have the american morph if you want to see it.)

    here’s the link:

  5. I think any reservations one has regarding the average faces have more to do with the limitations of computer rendering than with the validity of the averageness hypothesis.

    Note that the university website has a page juxtaposing an average face generated in 1990 with one generated today. The 1990 average face is quite blurry, but few would cite that as evidence that average faces are bland or uninteresting. Average faces generated even earlier, using purely photographic techniques instead of computer imaging, are blurrier still, but they still tend to support the averageness hypothesis.

  6. David and Diana: Yeah, there is an uncanny valley thing going on. They’re right on that border btween real and, um, programmed.

    Claire: Cool link. Having the real faces on either side seems to help my uncanny valley reaction. And for some reasons there’s a bit of expression on the “Malasa” averaged face.

    Ted: I didn’t mean to suggest that average faces (at least in the sense of genetically mixed ones) are inherently uninteresting. That’s why I threw in the picture of the very interesting-looking Michelle Lee.

    But my guess is that any set of faces generated by a calculated program of averaging alone–whether by computer, photo techniques, or surgery–would generally wind up creepy. And that’s my supposition in Uglies, that the pretties are creepy (or that we would find them creepy) because of the aesthetic constraints that society imposes on its surgeons.

    Of course, our society can be aesthetically challenged at times too, which is how we would up with those scary kids I posted about eariler.

  7. What a coincidence! My sibling was just talking about this topic recently! About when a bunch of people are mixed together, the result is a better looking person. The computer faces look just like The Sims characters.

    Going back to the last post about the limecat, I never knew it was called a pomelo! I just ate one last week. Tastes like a lemon with the texture of a grapefruit. But the one I had didnt have much juice in it.

  8. Scott, I don’t know how you thought up such an amazing and intriguing plot, but I, being an aspirering writer, am very jealous. I can’t wait for Pretties to be out.

  9. One of the scenes that most sticks out in my mind in Uglies was when Tally split Shay’s face into the two sides, then mirrored it, to make two symmetrical, but very different-looking Shays. The pretties would be creepy to us, but probably not to people who have been conditioned their whole lives to find them perfect, just like our whacked out expectations of female body types don’t look as weird to us as they should.

  10. I wasn’t specfically responding to your comment, Scott, but to the general complaints about the averaged faces.

  11. Corn: Cool. I’ve never had one. Maybe in Australia this summer . . .

    Hannah: I think Pretties is out! I hear that people have had copies delivered from Amazon. Don’t know about stores yet, but it could be available.

    Diana: See my next post about symmetry. The whole conditioning thing is totally true. That’s my fear, that people will get used to really creepy faces by the time I’m old and grizzled, and I’ll have to walk around looking at them and ranting, “In my day, faces were blah, blah, blah . . . ”

    Sorry, Ted. And I think you’re right that the averageness hypothesis seems to work pretty well, even when the technology is crappy.

  12. I thought this was interesting, and it’s sort of related. Time magazine had a poll on “aging gracefully,” asking which of various public figures were aging well. Pix of contestants here:

    In the (completely uncontrolled) poll, Paul Newman (80) came out on top, with Toni Morrison (74) and Martha Stewart (64) tied for second.

  13. I fell in love with Uglies and I’m so excited about Pretties! I just started Peeps and it’s crazily intriguing. You’re an incredibly awesome writer with such ingenius plots. I’m thinking of studying to be an author when I go off to college next year and I just wanted to tell you that you’re such an inspiration to many.
    Happy writing!

  14. Hmm… yeah, it could be a genetic variety thing, or it could be that people in many contemporary societies love “average” and are freaked out by difference… maybe it’s a biological imperitive or maybe it’s just that people are prejudiced… MOR all the way!

    I think the whole people being attracted to racial mixture thing is interesting, but I wonder how much just has to do with what’s hot at the time. Ten years ago the stereotypical good looking Australian was blonde haired and blue eyed, and it’s (only very slightly) dark with black hair/brown eyes… people back then could have argued I guess that there was a multicultural Finnish/Swedish mixture there and now they can argue there’s a multicultural Asian/Spanish thing happening but I can’t help but wonder if it’s just that those racial characteristics (stereotyped to begin with) happen to coincide with the new groove.

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