From facial thirds (and fifths!) to the infamous golden ratio, pop culture has been seeking facial harmony’s magic formula for millennia. Between the ancient Greeks, Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci, and today's social media set, there's no shortage of hypotheses about what constitutes a well-balanced countenance. But the whopping number of requests for Kate Middleton’s nose (once deemed to be the “world’s most perfect”) proves that many people still don’t have an accurate grasp of the concept.
In a nutshell, facial harmony is about ideal proportions, not perfection. “It’s not so much about direct measurement; proportions are way more important,” says Jason Roostaeian, MD, a board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon and associate clinical professor at UCLA. “When we’re evaluating a face, you’re really looking at that face relative to itself.” In other words, the measurements of individual facial features are less important than the interaction between those features, and we’ve gone straight to the experts to better understand what that means for facial aesthetics.
What Is Facial Harmony?
When we think of facial harmony, most of us think about beauty — but it’s really much more basic (in every sense) than that. “It really comes down to the fact that the most attractive faces are those where everything falls into the average,” Dr. Jason explains. “Philosophically speaking, when one part falls out of the norm, it’s alarming for potential disease.” If a person has a deficient jaw, for example, it’s an indication of certain ailments, he adds.
And, when it comes to attraction, it’s all about survival of the species. “If, in essence, what we’re doing is looking for a partner to mate with, the ideal mating partner is somebody who seems ‘normal’ across the board,” he says. In the most primal sense, we’re programmed to gravitate toward facial symmetry and harmony because they convey good health.
As it relates to aesthetic medicine and plastic surgery, providers have — no surprise here — a very precise understanding of facial proportion. “We mean balance and a subjective sense of normalcy,” explains Jacob Unger, MD, a Nashville-based board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon and assistant professor of plastic surgery at Vanderbilt University. “If you overly highlight a feature or ignore a feature in the face, it will draw the eye negatively.”
Sure, a surgery or procedure may focus on one part of the face, but the goal of said treatment is balance. “We aim for improvement in facial aesthetic surgery, but the key to doing it well is understanding facial anatomy and relationships,” Dr. Unger says.
Facial Harmony vs. Beauty
Before we move on, you might be wondering: is facial harmony the same as beauty? According to our experts, the basic tenets of facial harmony have remained largely unchanged. Beauty standards, on the other hand, are infamously ever-changing. “Harmony is less subjective than beauty,” Dr. Unger shares. As he explains it, beauty evolves with the times and trends, but harmony and proportion are less beholden to what is en vogue. “Balance, harmony, and the golden ratio has indicated what is naturally aesthetically pleasing to the human eye and mind since it was first described — and that was thousands of years ago,” he says.
But how do modern beauty trends (think: super plush pouts) fit in with the idea of facial harmony? “There are certain features that you may want to augment compared to average because they have some underlying innuendo with them,” Dr. Jason explains. “But it’s very clear to see that, when it gets too out of proportion, you lose the attractiveness again.” In other words, cosmetic surgery can push certain boundaries to meet beauty standards, but only to the point where the enhancement or augmentation is not disrupting the overall harmony of the face.
How Does Plastic Surgery Achieve Facial Harmony?
“We, as plastic surgeons, must take a holistic approach towards facial beauty and harmony,” Dr. Unger explains. And that often requires a bit of patient education. “We have to make sure we are not just improving the one item that may be the focus for the patient, but explaining how the structures of the face are interrelated,” he continues. As such, candidates must understand that “gentle adjustments in the surrounding areas” may be needed in order to ensure the desired results of more refined shape will look, as he describes, “elegant and balanced.”
That holistic view ensures facial features remain proportional to each other. “Within a structure like the nose, any expert will explain that just because you don’t like something — a dorsal hump, for instance — doesn’t mean that correcting that one issue will look good,” Dr. Unger says. “In fact, it will probably look very unnatural, unbalanced, or not harmonious if you impact one particular concern. This is because everything is interrelated.”
If you’re getting the sense that facial plastic surgery is like aesthetic Tetris, you’re on the right track. “Once you make one move, it may change the proportions and, therefore, you have to make the other move to make the two meld together better,” Dr. Jason says. Essentially, it's all about finding the sweet spot between enhancement (whether it's highlighting or downplaying a feature) and rejuvenation. “This deep understanding of the face is what sets board certified plastic surgeons apart from untrained practitioners who do not have deep training or experience in overall facial shape, anatomy, and symmetry,” Dr. Unger adds. That lack of expertise is what leads to “many of the strange looking faces, lips, and cheeks we see walking around all the time,” he says.
The net net: When it comes to finding facial harmony, the whole is indeed much greater than the sum of its parts. Below, we break down some of the most common surgical combos that achieve a more balanced facial appearance:
NOSE + CHIN
Evaluating patients for rhinoplasty surgery provides a perfect example of how surgeons consider facial harmony on both a macro level (how a feature relates to all of your other features) and micro level (how a feature’s individual elements relate to each other). “When you fine-tune or reshape a feature that the patient does not like, it will likely require changes to the related parts of the nose or face to ensure everything is balanced and looks appropriate together,” Dr. Unger notes. An example? “A big dorsum, when reduced, will likely expose a too broad nasal tip or too full tip because the relationship will be off,” he says.
Changing the nasal proportions can also highlight the eyes and make the chin appear more prominent. It may happen naturally — “sometimes, adjustments to the nose alone are sufficient to meet a patient’s aesthetic goals,” Dr. Jason says — or it may require a bit more refinement. “Other times, we also need to perform a chin augmentation to get the results they want,” he adds. “A nose looks more or less prominent based on where the facial plane sits relative to it, so bringing the chin forward can also make the nose look less prominent.”
EYES + BROWS
Another common area where proportions are particularly important? The eyes. Blepharoplasty (a.k.a. eyelid surgery) is one of the most popular surgical procedures for both women and men seeking to restore a more youthful, awake appearance. But removing eyelid skin isn’t always the best (or sole) solution. “Some patients who come in thinking they want blepharoplasty don’t actually have much excess eyelid skin,” Dr. Jason explains. “Instead, what they have is a sagging brow that’s making the lids look heavy.” If the surgeon simply cut away the skin without elevating the brow, the results will not be optimal, he says. As a result, eye rejuvenation often involves pairing eye and brow procedures.
UPPER + LOWER FACE
The term ‘facelift’ can be confusing because the procedure focuses on restoring the lower to midface and jawline (i.e. the dreaded jowls) — not the entire face. Facelift surgery alone works well for patients whose concerns are relatively isolated to those areas. But, for those who also have significant signs of aging in the upper face (think: above the cheekbones, the eyes, and brows), a facelift by itself may leave them looking unbalanced.
As Dr. Jason explains, if you’re getting a facelift, a brow lift often makes sense, too. “You don’t want to make it look piecemeal or unharmonious because you lifted one part and left the rest,” he shares. Patients with a sagging brow, for example, may end up looking, as he describes, “squished in the middle” without the complementary treatment.
Is AI the Future of Evaluating Facial Harmony?
Artificial intelligence (read: machine learning) is emerging as a compelling tool for objectively evaluating the elusive trifecta of beauty, youth, and proportion in the human face. But, according to our experts, automated facial analysis still can’t replace the eye of an expertly trained plastic surgeon — and it maybe never will.
“It is still an analog approach that is honed with education, training, and experience to create shapes and contours that highlight and accentuate without overly stylizing and, thus, looking artificial,” Dr. Unger says. So, while he admits AI may help us better articulate what experts create with their eye and technique, he maintains that we are “likely very far away from a complete algorithmic or pre-planned approach that can be easily enacted on an actual human created from a computerized map.”
At the end of the day, the ‘art’ of plastic surgery cannot be underestimated. “This is what I tell my patients all the time — especially with rhinoplasty — it truly is art, and it doesn’t really matter what anybody else says,” Dr. Jason explains. “At the end of the day, only you can decide what you think looks good.” Regardless of how far the technology comes, honestly portrayed before and after results are still the most important factor when choosing the right plastic surgeon and, by extension, the right aesthetic for you.
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