Issue 8 | June 2008
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
Making a face depends on a remarkably complex process of cell migration and differentiation
Over time we become adept at distinguishing face types we see regularly and less good at deciphering faces of other ethnic groups
Some people are less able to identify or interpret facial expressions
The brain has specific areas devoted to the face
Whether or not the face is the ‘window to the soul’, it certainly can provide a way to assess someone’s internal state
Hormones can affect how faces look – and how we react to them
Can animals draw information from faces in the way we can? The evidence seems to suggest that, to some degree, they can
What decides our physical form?
Bipedalism is one of the defining features of humans
Genes and upbringing determine how our bodies grow
How do we know where our body begins and ends?
Can you feel something that’s no longer there?
Much is known about how organisms – including humans – develop. How has this knowledge been obtained?
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?
How the brain can be fooled into thinking an inanimate object is part of the body
Should doctors comply with requests to amputate healthy limbs?
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
To build something, you need instructions – for bodies, a genome
Researchers are beginning to identify the genetic factors responsible for our physical appearance
There are many thousands of genetic disorders that affect physical or intellectual development (or both)
Physical difference on display
Why doe some genes have such odd names?
The genetic basis of blue eyes and the classic Celtic look – red hair and pale skin – has been discovered
Our physical appearance can be altered while we are still in the womb
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?
Why are we so rarely satisfied with our looks?
Dwarfism is rare, but not that rare. Is it something to be treated or just part of life’s rich tapestry?
Eating disorders are on the increase. Is our obsession with appearance to blame?
What happens when the two don’t match? And is there a third way?
Attitudes to ageing tend to be negative. Why is this? And has it always been the case?
Body modification is one way of expressing identity
Inferring ‘types’ from external appearance has led science down some unfortunate roads
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
Abnormal gaits can be diagnostic of serious underlying conditions, affecting the locomotory systems or the brain systems that control them
Facial symmetry and averageness seem to be considered attractive across cultures. But what about body size?
How far should we go in tackling the ‘obesity epidemic’?
We do seem to find slim figures appealing – though ratios seem to be more important (and it depends whether we are hungry or not)
The key to beauty? Symmetry and ‘averageness’
Skin colour fashions come and go, but both darkening and lightening pose a threat to health
Is our concern about our appearance mere vanity – or does beauty confer social advantages?
How the ‘Hottentot Venus’ from South Africa was put on show in England
While this isn’t a literal case of a leopard changing its spots, there are many ways and reasons animals alter their appearance
Could we create lifelike robots to have relationships with?
We imagine the possibilities of laminated scaffolding in muscle beds
We imagine how artificial wombs might allow a woman in her 80s to have more children
Enhancement in utero? We imagine the possibilities...
Could the Olympics one day allow all types of enhancement?
Real Voices interviews
We spoke to Nichola and Stefan about what it’s like having achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism
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
Meet Henrietta, of the charity Changing Faces, who has a facial paralysis condition
We spoke to Jan Upfold, a market researcher, who has undergone cosmetic surgery on several occasions
Activities and lesson ideas
Try our special ‘sexual dimorphism’ quiz, which challenges your assumptions about what the male and female of a species should look like
What might we look like? how might we change the way we look? Examine some potential scenarios and brainstorm a few others
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
Each issue of 'Big Picture' comes with a sprinkling of Fast Facts, fascinating snippets of information on the topic covered.