Beauty: Form and Symmetry

by Michael Sones

Christy Turlington, a supermodel and acknowledged as one of the most beautiful women in the world, has attributed much of her success as an advertising icon to the perfect symmetry of her lips. Proportion and symmetry in an object seem to be nearly always essential to our visual perception and experience of that object as being beautiful. A balance and proportion of parts in relation to a whole is essential for symmetry. Symmetric objects are usually more pleasing to look at than asymmetric one.

Even human infants have a preference for looking at symmetrical patterns rather than nonsymmetrical ones. The association of symmetry with beauty and form is an ancient one. The word symmetry originates from the Greek ‘sum metria’ which means ‘same measure.’ A fifth century B.C. Greek sculptor, Polykleitos, is apparently one of the first to have used the term.

Most plants and animals are symmetrical while many inanimate or man made objects are not. Symmetry in animals seems to be of a left-right nature rather than up-down. This is called bilateral symmetry. It is thought that the power of gravity and a necessity for fluid and sometimes rapid motion are responsible for the evolution of this in animals. If animals were asymmetrical, that is, if they had two legs on one side and one on the other, it would be very difficult for them to balance or to move very fast. This would not aid their adaptation to the environment. An animal could not escape quickly from a predator if it hobbled and wobbled. Another form of defensive protection, such as the armour of the armadillo or the quills of the porcupine, would be necessary. A lion has enough trouble as it is catching a gazelle, never mind if it had only three legs. If a giraffe had tiny little legs with a thin neck near the ground and a great big body up in the air it would look very funny just before it toppled over.

Think of the beauty of the horse’s symmetrical form and its evocation of intelligence, power, and speed and how these are linked with both the hunt, freedom to roam, and the ability to escape from danger.

Symmetry is also an indication of both youthfulness and health. Human males whose bodies are more symmetrical with even length limbs are more attractive to females than non-symmetrical males. Symmetrical flowers are more attractive to bees because they have more nectar. Symmetrical animals tend to survive longer than asymmetrical ones so symmetry seems to be a sign of overall fitness. It can also be a sign of greater fertility. A study found that women with large, symmetrical breasts tended to be more fertile than women with asymmetrical breasts. Symmetry is also often a sign of physical health in that a blemish or defect can highlight a potential disorder or disease. Facial asymmetry is an indication of aging. The ‘Proportions of Man’ by Leonardo is a famous work illustrating human symmetry.

The recognition of something having a pattern seems to bring about almost an intuitive or instinctive aesthetic response. Generally we prefer the rhythm, repetition and thematic variation of patterns to the chaotic and irregular. If something has a pattern it is easier to spot the out of place and therefore possibly dangerous.

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