Issue 8 | June 2008

Reflection in sunglasses of young person taking a photograph

How We Look

***Articles reviewed and updated in November 2014***

What do we mean by ‘normal’? Why do we take the form we do? Why do we do so much to change what nature has given us? What might we look like in the future? This issue looks at the remarkable interplay between the biology that sculpts our form and the culture that interprets, embellishes and adapts this form.

Browse through the individual articles, check out our image galleries and quizzes and watch our film interviews. This issue was first published in 2008; in 2014, all of the individual resources were reviewed and updated for accuracy and currency. Please do note, however, that the PDF of the original 2008 issue has not been updated.

Face the facts

Building a face

Making a face depends on a remarkably complex process of cell migration and differentiation

Recognition and response

Over time we become adept at distinguishing face types we see regularly and less good at deciphering faces of other ethnic groups

Who are you?

Some people are less able to identify or interpret facial expressions

Faces on the brain

The brain has specific areas devoted to the face

Read my face

Whether or not the face is the ‘window to the soul’, it certainly can provide a way to assess someone’s internal state

Is he fit?

Hormones can affect how faces look – and how we react to them

Happy faces – sheep style

Can animals draw information from faces in the way we can? The evidence seems to suggest that, to some degree, they can


Human shape

What decides our physical form?

Your own two feet

Bipedalism is one of the defining features of humans

Muscles and skeleton

Genes and upbringing determine how our bodies grow

Inside story

How do we know where our body begins and ends?

Phantom limbs

Can you feel something that’s no longer there?

Seven ways to study human development

Much is known about how organisms – including humans – develop. How has this knowledge been obtained?

Sexual dimorphism

Are males always bigger than females? Sometimes, nothing could be further from the truth…


Humans are adept at rapidly drawing information about other people from the way they look. But is it possible to assess sexual orientation?

Rubber arm

How the brain can be fooled into thinking an inanimate object is part of the body

In limbo: dealing with extreme body dysmorphia

Should doctors comply with requests to amputate healthy limbs?

Judging books by their covers

Stereotyping is a short-term strategy that often causes long-term problems

Growth and form


Research combining evolution and developmental biology – ‘evo-devo’ – has become increasingly popular in recent years

Genes and body plans

To build something, you need instructions – for bodies, a genome

Genes that affect how we look

Researchers are beginning to identify the genetic factors responsible for our physical appearance

Developmental disorders

There are many thousands of genetic disorders that affect physical or intellectual development (or both)

Entertainment or exploitation?

Physical difference on display

From Sonic hedgehog to sasquatch: how genes get their names

Why doe some genes have such odd names?

Blue eyes and red hair

The genetic basis of blue eyes and the classic Celtic look – red hair and pale skin – has been discovered

Environmental effects

Our physical appearance can be altered while we are still in the womb

What is my fate?

In effect, embryogenesis boils down to the fate of cells – making sure a nose cell turns into a nose cell where a nose should be

Am I normal?

A quest for perfection?

Why are we so rarely satisfied with our looks?

When bigger isn’t always better

Dwarfism is rare, but not that rare. Is it something to be treated or just part of life’s rich tapestry?

Disorderly behaviour

Eating disorders are on the increase. Is our obsession with appearance to blame?

Biological sex and ‘brain sex’

What happens when the two don’t match? And is there a third way?

Ageing and society

Attitudes to ageing tend to be negative. Why is this? And has it always been the case?

Tattoo me

Body modification is one way of expressing identity

Looking the wrong way

Inferring ‘types’ from external appearance has led science down some unfortunate roads

Alphanumeric appearance

Each of us is unique. Technology is now providing new ways to capture and record that uniqueness


Having no skin pigment at all makes you stand out from the crowd, but can also lead to stigmatisation

Walking into trouble

Abnormal gaits can be diagnostic of serious underlying conditions, affecting the locomotory systems or the brain systems that control them

Whose beauty?

Facial symmetry and averageness seem to be considered attractive across cultures. But what about body size?

Fat chance

How far should we go in tackling the ‘obesity epidemic’?

Beauty spot

Hips do lie

We do seem to find slim figures appealing – though ratios seem to be more important (and it depends whether we are hungry or not)

‘Darling, you’re so average…’

The key to beauty? Symmetry and ‘averageness’

Changing colours

Skin colour fashions come and go, but both darkening and lightening pose a threat to health

Looking good

Is our concern about our appearance mere vanity – or does beauty confer social advantages?

Case study: Saartjie Baartman

How the ‘Hottentot Venus’ from South Africa was put on show in England

Ethical questions

It’s the future: Marrying machines

Could we create lifelike robots to have relationships with?

It’s the future: Miteymuscle

We imagine the possibilities of laminated scaffolding in muscle beds

It’s the future: Artificial wombs

We imagine how artificial wombs might allow a woman in her 80s to have more children

It’s the future: Pre-birth cosmetic enhancement

Enhancement in utero? We imagine the possibilities...

It’s the future: Artificially enhanced athletes

Could the Olympics one day allow all types of enhancement?

Real Voices interviews

Real Voices interview: Nichola Dean

We spoke to Nichola and Stefan about what it’s like having achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism

Real Voices video interview: Henrietta, Adam and Helen from Changing Faces

Meet three people from Changing Faces, the facial disfigurement charity, who talk about dealing with difficult social situations and the attitudes and stereotypes that people with a visible difference can encounter

Real Voices interview: Henrietta Spalding

Meet Henrietta, of the charity Changing Faces, who has a facial paralysis condition

Real Voices interview: Jan Upfold

We spoke to Jan Upfold, a market researcher, who has undergone cosmetic surgery on several occasions

Activities and lesson ideas

Sexual dimorphism quiz

Try our special ‘sexual dimorphism’ quiz, which challenges your assumptions about what the male and female of a species should look like

Lesson idea: It’s the future

What might we look like? how might we change the way we look? Examine some potential scenarios and brainstorm a few others

Further resources and activities on appearance and development

As well as ‘Big Picture’, the Wellcome Trust has funded many other organisations to produce the following activities and resources to engage young people and help them understand more about how we look

Fast Facts

Each issue of 'Big Picture' comes with a sprinkling of Fast Facts, fascinating snippets of information on the topic covered.

Browse through all of our Fast Facts indexed by topic