This paper seeks to explore how beauty is understood in mass media and advertising in modern secular culture.  There are objective and subjective standards by which a person is judged to be beautiful.  With current and ever improving technology, images of people can be manipulated to alter qualities of the photo and the subject in such a way as to increase physical beauty, however, at the expense of truth and goodness.

Objective Beauty

            The question of what make a person physically beautiful is one that has spanned generations and cultures throughout history.  It is true that what makes one attractive across time and space can vary.  For example, it is considered attractive for women in the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa to wear lip plug or for a woman in Victorian England to wear a corset.  (Biology of Beauty)  However, research shows there are objective standards by which the physical beauty of a person can be measured.  After researching multiple studies on what people find beautiful, psychologist Fredric Neuman concludes that symmetry and proportion are what makes a person objectively beautiful.  (Neuman)

Facial symmetry refers to measurements of the right and left sides of the face in relation to one another.  If one were to take calipers and measure the distance between the eyes, the placement of the nose, and the straightness of the mouth, for instance, the closer the right and left sides match, the more symmetrical the face. (Cowley)  Conversely, if one eye was slightly lower, for example, the face would be asymmetrical and, therefore, less objectively attractive.  Proportion refers to the size of the features in relation to one another.  Beautiful people tend to have features in more appropriate proportion to each other.  It would be disproportionate and less objectively beautiful to have an overly large nose compared to smaller features on the face.  (Cowley)

Geoffry Cowley’s piece, The Biology of Beauty, reinforces Neuman’s conclusions that symmetry and proportion make one objectively beautiful from a broader scientific perspective.  (Cowley)  He cites several studies, beginning with animal studies that have been conducted in order to determine how animals choose mates. (Cowley)  Symmetry and proportion indicate good health which correlates to healthy offspring. (Cowley)  From the animal studies, certain researchers went on to explore whether the same might be true for humans.  Several studies have been done using various methods, resulting in the same conclusions – human subjects are most attracted to symmetry and proportion when judging the beauty of another human.  (Cowley)  To further prove that this attraction was not the result of conditioning, similar studies were done on babies aged 3 to 6 months and the conclusion found that the infants gazed longer on the more symmetrical facial images.  (Cowley)

In terms of bodily proportion, human biologist Charles Feng cites studies that determined a woman’s waist-to-hip ratio had a relationship to her physical beauty.  (Feng)  Cowley cites the same studies and shares the same concluding thoughts as Feng.  Women with a low waist-to-hip ratio – .6 to .8 – are more attractive regardless of their weight because it is a biological indicator of fertility.  (Feng, Cowley)  Men are also subject to similar proportion judgements with strong jaws and eyebrows considered more attractive by women.  (Cowley)

Research also shows that while symmetry in a face is considered beautiful, the features tend to be proportionately average.  In a study that combines attractive faces to make composite faces over and over until the highest score is achieved, the result is always a symmetrical presentation of average-sized features.  (Neuman).  Averaged-sized features like the nose, eyes, and chin are all seen as more desirable. (Neuman)  Neuman states that this result is because it is never attractive for something to be an extreme.

Technology seems to have fallen in line with this objective understanding of beauty.  Multiple apps have been developed to determine a person’s beauty.  In one example, a user uploads their photo and the app uses measurements to analyze the face.  The user is then given an attractiveness rating as a result of the symmetry of his or her face. (

Symmetry and proportion are objective standards of beauty that span time and culture.  Scientific studies have shown that regardless of nationality, age, and other differentiating factors, images of models with better symmetry and proportion are consistently rated at more attractive.  (Cowley)  While certain physical qualities are simply beautiful as they are, some markers of the beauty of the person are subjective.  Particular physical characteristics, personality traits, and other idiosyncrasies are within each individual person, making them more attractive to particular individual other people.  The evolutionary purpose of this is so that every person might find a mate for themselves and can procreate.  (Nueman)  These subjective standards of beauty can also change according to factors such as culture, era, and age.  People can also take advantage of tools to enhance subjective standards of beauty such as the use of make-up or a corset.

Secular psychologist, Eric Wargo, links the idea of Beauty to Truth and Goodness.  He states that the stereotype “beautiful is good” holds true in that it can be used as a measure of a person’s capacity as a romantic partner and mate.  (Wargo).  He also concedes that beautiful people tend to be more successful and are generally treated better.  (Wargo)  According to Wargo, the fact that beauty is good means there is truth in beauty.  The more beautiful the person, the more truth there is in the good that comes from their beauty.  (Wargo)

Wargo concludes his piece by highlighting some things that contribute to perceived beauty that are within a person’s control.  Studies show that women are more attractive when they wear makeup than when they do not.  (Wargo)  Sleep deprivation also contributes to depleted attractiveness.  (Wargo)  Multiple psychologists also note the effect that smiling and confidence have on the perceived attractiveness of an individual.  (Wargo, Neuman)  For these reasons, it can be argued that a person’s emotions and the way they carry themselves reflect a level of truth and goodness within them.

Plastic Surgeons capitalize on this concept of beauty being true and good by helping patients more closely achieve symmetry and proportion.  Countless surgeons’ websites list procedures and methods that can be used to make a person more beautiful according to objective secular standards.  Patients only have to pay for the objective beauty that leads to truth and goodness, a better life and more success.

Finally, Neuman does state that knowing a person more deeply can change how attractive they are to another individual.  (Neuman)  If a person is unpleasant, their objective physical beauty will be much less important to someone turned off by their unpleasantness. (Neuman)  If a person’s goodness is revealed more intimately as another gets to know them better, they will become more attractive to that person.  So while physical beauty perhaps reveals a level of truth and goodness, Neuman would argue that it is hardly a complete picture.

Catholic Beauty

            With an understanding of what the secular world and modern culture has taught about what is beautiful and how it relates to truth and goodness, it is now possible to juxtapose it against what is really beautiful, true, and good.  The most beautiful, true, and good is God, so it follows that the more one reflects the beauty of God, the more beautiful one is.  Given their interdependent relationship, it also follows that the more true and good one is, the more beautiful they will be.

The theological understanding of beauty does not disagree with symmetry and proportion as being representative of beauty.  In fact, both are very much indicators of beauty as they reflect the perfection of God’s creation.  In his book, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Stratford Caldecott explains that symmetry, or “patterned self-similarity” is a “fundamental principle of beauty” in that it reflects mathematical truths.  (Caldecott p. 70)  Contained in these mathematical truths are the divine genius of creation.  Caldecott goes on to reference physicist Stephen M. Barr who explains that there is a direct correlation between symmetry and wholeness.  (Caldecott p 71)  The most whole and united being is God, therefore the symmetry found in the world and in man reflects the beauty and wholeness of God.  When looking at a human face, the more symmetrical, the more objectively beautiful based on the mathematical relationship to wholeness God intended.

Caldecott also discusses proportion, which he calls ‘irrational beauty’ because irrational numbers do not measure things, rather they reflect the relationship between things.  (Caldecott p 64-65)  An irrational relationship is most beautiful when it is what is referred to as a ‘golden ratio’, in which the ratio of two sections combined is equivalent to the ratio of the two sections in proportion to each other.  Caldecott says that this golden ratio is the ‘perfect division of unity’ and therefore a reflection of the Blessed Trinity.  (Caldecott p 67)  Again, looking at a human face, the more perfect the proportions of the features, the more objectively beautiful.

It has been revealed that mathematical truths come from divine Truth and Goodness and therefore must also be Beautiful, but there are other qualities of beauty that cannot be measured by mathematics.  These qualities of beauty reflect God in a way that cannot be quantified and are, therefore, more difficult for the secular world to measure objectively.  In his book The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, John Saward examines beauty in light of Hans Urs von Balthasar and St. Thomas Aquinas.  St. Thomas identifies three hallmarks of beauty: radiance, harmony or due proportion, and wholeness.  He holds that beauty is an objective reality in that it reflects the objective reality of the beauty of God.

The first hallmark of beauty is radiance.  Saward states that Western philosophy and poetry agree that beautiful things shine. (Loc 404) St. Thomas distinguishes between the outward beauty of a form versus the radiance that is projected from the inside.  Radiance is that which comes from the essence, or nature of the object and illuminates the senses, imagination and intellect.  (Loc 404)   Every created being reflects the radiance of the Creator because His wisdom is that which is most brilliant.  (Loc 418)  Creation comes from His ideas and His ideas are manifested into forms from nothing.  It is through the manifestation of His ideas into beautiful forms that His radiance is made known to man through his intellect.  (Loc 418)  Therefore, beauty is an attribute of being simply because it exists as a product of the most beautiful Creator.  (Loc 418)

This radiance is manifested in the Christian person through the virtues.  A beautiful person is one who acts virtuously.  St. Thomas holds that, in man, radiance comes about through virtuous conduct as was demonstrated by Jesus’ perfect virtue.  (Loc 634)  Saward explains that the Saints are examples of the radiance achieved through virtuous conduct and maintains their beauty.  (Loc 649)  For man, ultimate radiance will be achieved at the end of time with the resurrection of his body and its primary quality will be its radiance as it will be like the radiant, resurrected body of Christ.  (Loc 677)

St. Thomas’ second hallmark of beauty is harmony, or due proportion.  This is similar to the mathematical idea of proportion as explained above, but St. Thomas explores the theological understanding further.  St. Thomas defines due proportion as an image that perfectly replicates the likeness of the original.  He states that any perfect replica of a thing, even an ugly thing, can be considered beautiful because of its due proportion. (Loc 503) The perfect example of due proportion is Jesus Christ in that his is in the perfect likeness of God the Father.  Man is the only creature created in the image and likeness of God and is therefore the most beautiful of creation.  St. Thomas says, “The soul united with the body is more like God than the soul separated from the body, because it possesses its nature in a more complete fashion.” (Loc 517)  The body and soul together, harmoniously reflect the divine nature.

For man, harmony exists in virtuous behavior.  In addition to providing radiance, Saward says it provides right proportion.  (Loc 634)  Where vice and sin create discord and disharmony which are ugly, virtuous conduct creates harmony and right proportion which is beautiful.  Saward holds that temperance is the most beautiful of all of the virtues because it implies moderation which in turn implies harmony.  (Loc 649)  The beauty of the Christian is shown in the harmony of their actions with God’s will for virtuous behavior.

St. Thomas’ third hallmark of beauty is wholeness.  No human person is whole as he was intended to be at creation because of the entrance of sin in the world.  However, as a member of the body of Christ which is whole and complete, a person is beautiful for his participation in that Body. (Loc 617) Man receives grace which allows for participation in the Trinitarian life.  This grace and this participation in the divine life make man’s soul more beautiful. (Loc 634)  St. Thomas says that grace is “the beginning of glory in us.” (Loc 649)  A person is beautiful in the knowledge of his place in the Body of Christ and his acceptance of the divine grace that flows through him.

Based on the arguments presented for both theological and secular objective standards of beauty, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word was the most beautiful representation of man.  His face and body would have been perfectly symmetrical and proportionate as irregularity is inconsistent with God.  He also would have been radiant, harmonious, and whole in the unity of his body, blood, soul, and divinity.  The objective standard of beauty can only be found in him and all others are merely a reflection of that beauty according to his or her own closeness to the divine.

The Ethics of Photo Manipulation

             Beauty is attractive and beauty draws people in.  In an attempt to utilize both objective and subjective beauty to amass audiences and consumers, mass media, advertisers, and celebrities have used photo manipulation to create more beautiful human subjects.  The question lies in what constitutes the ethical use of photo manipulation techniques to convey a message versus what is unethical as it betrays the true nature of the beauty of God’s creation.

It is evident in the following information and examples that photo manipulation can be taken to extremes in order to show the human form in a perceived, idealized, subjective perception according to created social norms.  With current technology, sinful man has the power to create a sullied ideal of beauty.  It is important to note before beginning this examination that God’s Wisdom and Will can be known through human reason as it is God’s desire to be known by man. (CCC 36)  This fact can help even the secular world realize when something is amiss in creation and respond to it accordingly, albeit imperfectly.  An examination of the ethical use of photo manipulation techniques is an example of how the moral law written on the hearts of man is not reserved for Catholics alone. (CCC 1956)

In an ethical inquiry from 2012 entitled The Ethics of Digital Photo Manipulation: Alterations in Pursuit of “Beauty” author Hailey Magee examines where photo manipulation goes too far in the name of beauty and discusses the ramifications of extreme editing tactics. She argues that digitally altering photographs in order to achieve a higher perceived aesthetic value to appeal to cultural standards of beauty can be “psychologically harmful to consumers” and “narrows the scope of socially acceptable ‘beauty’” (Magee)

It is not uncommon for mass media photos to be digitally altered to create slimmed down female physiques of already arguably beautiful models.  In 2009, the fashion company, Ralph Lauren, was forced to issue a public apology after altering the image of a model in an advertisement to an unrealistic or unhealthy bodily proportions. (  Two studies by the National Center for Biotechnology Information determined that media images depicting overly thin models contributed to low self-esteem, negative body image, and eating disorders in girls and young women. (Magee).  A similar study in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported similar findings.  (Magee)  In 2011, the American Medical Association put forth a policy addressing the “the excessive use of Photoshop” encouraging the public and private sectors to work together to create policies for advertisements that discourage the altering of photos to unrealistic expectations of the human body. (Magee)

In 2008, the publication Advertising Age reported on the findings of a study which concluded that while ads featuring thin women made women feel worse about themselves, they felt better about the brand that was being promoted.  (AdAge)  The women in the study reported that while the ads did not make them feel better about themselves, they were more likely to purchase the product.  Likewise, when the women were shown advertisements featuring women of an average size, the perception of the brand suffered.  (AdAge)  The findings of this study perhaps explains to which advertisers go in order to manipulate photos – it is better for their bottom line.

Disregarding the the possibility of increased profitability and instead recognizing the harmful effects of extreme photo editing, certain secular groups have taken a stand to change the standard of perceived beauty.  In 2004 the Dove soap company launched a wildly popular campaign called “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty” as a response to the over manipulation of photos in advertising campaigns. (  The campaign features women of various ages, ethnicities, shapes, and sizes in an attempt to show that beauty is not reduced to a specific type.  In 2012, as the result of a petition which began because a 14 year old girl was concerned with the body disillusionment experienced by her friends, Seventeen Magazine promised to “never change girls’ body or face shapes” and only “feature real girls and models who are healthy.”(Magee)  These examples demonstrate how, following the moral law written on their hearts, even secular companies and agencies have addressed the unethical and unrealistic editing of photos.

Magee continues in her essay to explain that there are ethical uses of photo manipulation techniques and that the methods are not inherently bad.  She states that so long as the manipulations are used to serve reality rather than to distort it, they can be acceptable and even artistic.  (Magee)  Lighting and coloring can be altered to better reflect reality where it was distorted through the photographic process.  (Magee)  Manipulation can also be used to enhance a photo in a way to give it an artistic “wow factor”.  (Magee)  Magee also quotes an article from the Art Institutes Online that states that Photoshop allows them to “control exposure, contrast, color balance – things that are also routinely controlled in a traditional darkroom.” (Magee)  The essay concludes with an invitation to further discussion regarding the ethical use of photo modification techniques.

What follows is an examination of how the over manipulation of images do not reflect the idea of theological beauty as presented above.  It is true that modified photos can beautifully present symmetry, proportion, and radiance, but one must be aware that those qualities can be artificially altered.  What an altered image is lacking is the unity, harmony, and wholeness of the individual within the photo.  No matter what the image projects to the human eye, the soul and the virtuousness of the subject cannot be known by the eye.  Therefore, the degree of the theological beauty of the subject as a creation in the image and likeness of God cannot be known to the eye.

Responsibility of the Christian Photographer/Advertiser/Etc

             The Church has the primary responsibility of evangelizing in all things.  The Gospel message of Christ can be presented in the secular world and it is the responsibility of Catholics to ensure that it is.  Beauty, Truth, and Goodness should always be revealed and the dignity of the human person should always be upheld.  The Magisterium, in her infinite wisdom, has provided guidance for the Catholic persons involved in the industries of photography, advertising and mass media.

In 1997, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications presented a letter entitled Ethics in Advertising, stating that the media is a gift from God and should therefore be used for the well-being of society.  (EA #1)  The letter begins by stating the benefits of advertising which include economic, political, cultural, and moral goods.  (EA #4-8)  Advertising has the ability to reach a wide audience and therefore has the responsibility of doing so in a positive way to help with the goal of building a society up.  (EA 37)

The letter goes on to address some of the harm that comes about through advertising which recalls the previous exploration of the harm of overly manipulating photos in mass media.  The council asserts that in order to increase profits, companies may use advertising in a way that harms society and the individual. (EA #9)  Companies may feel so pressured to increase sales, they may be tempted to “set aside high artistic and moral standards and lapse into superficiality, tawdriness and moral squalor”.  (EA #12)  While this statement does not expressly address the specific issue of photo manipulation, it is not difficult to see the connection and acknowledge when high artistic and moral standards have been set aside in mass media.  Further, the council says that these advertising practices can provoke the audience to self-destructive behavior and the destruction of an authentic community which is evil.  (EA #14) The studies on the relationships between images in mass media, low self-esteem, and eating disorders affirm this.

The council then provides some ethical and moral principles to consider with regards to advertising.  First and foremost, there should be truthfulness in advertising.  (EA #15)  Here the link between truth and authentic beauty is evident.  It is impossible to see the true beauty of a person if he or she is not honestly presented.  This leads to a false understanding of beauty.  Secondly, the dignity of the human person must be upheld.  (EA #16)  This illustrates the link between goodness and authentic beauty.  The human person is good as he is made in the image and likeness of God.  To over manipulate a photo to the point it undermines the person as he or she was created by God is not good and therefore not beautiful.  Finally, the council asks advertisers to consider their social responsibility. (EA #17)  Under this guideline, it seems that those in mass media should take note of the studies that show the negative impact of photo manipulation abuse, so as to better represent the human person as created by God in order to lift up the dignity of society as a whole.  In following the guidelines put forth in this letter, Catholic advertisers have a profound opportunity and responsibility to show Truth, Goodness, and Beauty as reflections of the Creator for the benefit of all mankind.

Letter to Artists, by Pope John Paul II, is another document to which Catholics in mass media may refer for guidance on how to create authentically beautiful images.  In an examination of the vocation of an artist, Pope John Paul II draws attention to the fact that the work an artist creates reveals not only the finished product, but also reveals something about the artist himself.  (LA #2)  This provides an interesting perspective when evaluating the over manipulation of photos.  When the person responsible for producing the photo decides the subject is not good enough to present to the public, or believes that simply enhancing natural beauty is not enough, what does that reveal about that person?  It could be argued there is a defect in his or her own virtue.  John Paul II brings more light to this question in stating that an artist should not be “driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity…” (LA #4)  To betray the authentic truth, goodness, and beauty of another individual for one’s own benefit certainly shows a defect in virtue.

Noting that humanism and an absence of God has entered modern culture, John Paul II urges artists to help bridge the gap between God and the world.  (LA #10)  It is the responsibility of artists to help bring others to joy and not have their art cause others to sink into despair. (LA #11)  Given the studies that show the increases of eating disorders and poor self-perception, it would seem that mass media is causing despair rather than joy.  The Christian artist can bring people to God through their art whether they realize it or not.  The Dove Real Beauty campaign is an excellent example of restoring dignity and joy in advertising whether the artist or the audience was aware of God’s beauty being revealed.  John Paul II says that Beauty is key in revealing the mystery of Christ.  (LA#16)  True beauty should be celebrated in mass media as it leads us closer to him who is most beautiful.

Finally, the Pontifical Council for Culture produced a document entitled Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture in order to address some of the concerns regarding the corruption in today’s culture and to provide some suggestions for those seeking to rise above it.  While man exists in a culture, he is not necessarily defined by it and can rise above it as a light of truth for all.  (PC #2)  In exposing the truth through art – truth of the beauty of the whole human subject without over manipulation – the artist is doing the Church’s work of evangelization.  People come to knowledge of Christ through Truth.  (PC #4)

The council highlights how people use their incredible talents for dehumanizing business practices, violating human dignity, and producing “bitter fruits”.  (PC #8)  Here, the council is not mincing words.  When the media creates unrealistic and dishonest projections of beauty, bitter fruits are all that can come about.  The council goes on to address mass media specifically stating that it is responsible for how things are perceived and that in not showing reality, it is distorting public opinion.  (PC #9)  Combined with other defects in modern culture, non-Christian mass media is contributing to a “cultural and spiritual crisis, one sign of which is the loss of respect for the person and the spread of a kind of anthropological nihilism which reduces human beings to their instincts and tendencies.” (PC #23)  The council calls this a “crisis of truth” which is clearly the opposite of authentic beauty.

The remedy to this corruption of culture with regard to mass media and photo manipulation is Jesus.  Catholics need to enter into these industries with an awareness of what the Incarnation has done for humanity – He has elevated it.  Contained within every human person is an image of his Creator and that must be honored truthfully.  In addition, the dignity of every human person who might gaze upon an image must be considered.  If beauty is not presented in a truthful or good way, it is not beauty as a reflection of God.  The human eye may be attracted to symmetry and proportion as it occurs naturally, and that is good, but care must be taken not to misrepresent the wonderful deviations from symmetry and proportion that make each person a unique individual with a unique beauty.  Symmetry and proportion are also revealed through a person living a virtuous life and that certainly contributes to an individual’s beauty.  Jesus shows men who they were intended to be and that true beauty is found in the effort to live up to that example of holiness.