Why Are People Letting Apps Tell Them Whether Or Not They’re Pretty?

Photographed by Ashley Batz.
The landing page of “How Pretty Do I Look” is a glaring shade of pink and features an illustration of three disproportionally thin women with numbers hovering above their heads like thought bubbles — thought bubbles that reflect on a numerical scale how pretty they are. “How Pretty” is just one player in a new wave of mobile apps that rate users’ appearances by assigning a numerical value to their face. A search for “beauty rate” and you’ll find similar apps including “Vanity: Are You Hot Or Ugly,” “Beauty Score,” and “Ugly Meter” (great names, we know). After hearing about this trend, my first thought was, Why would anyone ever want to put themselves through this? So, I decided to reach out to some experts and find out. But first, I knew I had to cast cynicism aside and try some out for myself. I went first with the aforementioned “How Pretty,” the most downloaded app among the free options. I snapped a quick selfie and uploaded it. At the time, I was makeup-free, drinking my morning cup of green tea, doing online research for a story (a.k.a., my usual state of being), still in my pajamas, and dealing with an unfortunate breakout on the side of my face — not that any of that matters in constituting "hotness." The app told me I was a 94 out of 100.
So naturally, I was curious to see how the app would judge a picture of me trying — with my hair and makeup fully done. And...83. (What?) My skepticism was now higher than ever, so I re-uploaded the same photo to see what would happen. 91. Third time? 83. So legit, amiright? But, noticeably, I never scored below an 80. Now that I was pretty confident that the app lacked any sort of actual credibility, the only logical next step was to see what it thought of Emma Watson. I pulled a photo from Google and uploaded it to the app. 81. (WTF?) Another app called “Beauty Meter” seemed to produce less arbitrary results, and at least yielded consistent numbers. However, Emma still only came up as 8.7/10. [Writer’s note: Emma Watson is obviously a 10/10, even though I am vehemently against broad categorizations and rankings of this sort.] So now that I had done my field research, it was time to talk to the pros. “Our brains like to quantify and categorize things, so there's something inherently satisfying about rating pictures or choosing between options,” says Sara Weekly, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. “I think there can be a wide variety of motives behind people using the apps: curiosity, boredom, escape, appreciation of beauty, inspiration (for better or worse), and, of course, validation.”
Sure, there is some science behind determining attractiveness on a basic analytical level, like the oft-referenced “Golden Ratio” that takes into account factors like the distance between facial features and their location on the face. It’s a question we’ve examined before, but can beauty really be measured? We don't think so.
“There's so much that contributes to our attraction to others,” explains Dr. Weekly. “There is physical appearance, of course, and factors that may be more typically preferred, such as a symmetrical face, but even these vary widely.” Another possible explanation is the simple postulate that people care about their looks, and not in the vain or insipid sense. Inherently, it’s something that is closely linked to self-esteem. The internet trope of “Hot or Not” isn’t anything new. A notable example is FaceMash, Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild during his Harvard years (discussed at length in 2003 in the university’s newspaper), and more recently in 2013, the “Am I Pretty?” YouTube trend, in which subjects — usually teen girls — would upload short videos asking viewers to comment on their appearance, often with some predictably insensitive results. Again, why? “This is only the most recent iteration of how unrealistic beauty ideals are perpetuated,” asserts Dr. Weekly. “Before social media, there was television and film. Before those, there were magazines and catalogues. Before those, there were...daguerreotypes? Paintings?” That’s right, before Kendall Jenner’s doe-eyed selfies gave you Insta-envy, women lusted after the milky complexions of a Renoir portrait. “When you really think about attraction — what gets your heart racing and your pupils dilated — infinitely more factors come into play [than looks],” says Dr. Weekly. “A computer algorithm is never going to be able to account for all of those individual experiences and preferences.” Granted, the point of these apps is likely just for lighthearted fun and not anything to be taken too seriously, but it’s important to note that it’s part of a deeply reductive trend of judging whether a person is pretty or not — and there’s nothing beautiful about that.