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AVERAGE PLUS EXTREME MAY EQUAL COMELY

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Recently, a spate of scientific articles has appeared on the subject of beauty.

Evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists, it seems, are hot on the trail of proof that there are geometric features in a woman's face that may be universally perceived as beautiful, and that a man's ability to perceive this beauty and appreciate it may be a matter of natural selection.Just when women thought they were escaping the tyranny of appearance, now this. But that's the bad news.

The good news is in what the scientists mean by beauty. And they are only talking about female beauty; studies of male appearance are not yet complete.

An anthropologist, Donald Symons, has proposed that beauty is averageness, according to a recent issue of the British journal Nature.

Three psychologists, D.I. Perrett, K.A. May and S. Yoshikawa, writing in the same issue, go further. They contend that, yes, one aspect of beauty is averageness, but another involves extreme traits, like a peacock's tail, Lauren Hutton's teeth or Jimmy Durante's nose.

Both forms of beauty are contingent on symmetry. David M. Buss, an evolutionary psychologist who wrote "The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating" (Basic Books, 1994), says symmetry is crucial.

His research indicates that across cultures, men prefer youthfulness in women, as well as facial and body symmetry, both of which, he suggests, are sound indicators of the ability to reproduce successfully, which is, after all, the main goal.

Do we believe it? Is it true? What's going on here? Can we stand it?

I'll say this: It definitely answers two questions I've been pondering all winter: Why did Mary Jo Buttafuoco get breast implants? Why is Jenny Shimizu a top model?

The question of Mary Jo touched my heart. When I heard of her implants on the radio, "a surprise for Joey upon his exit from prison," it really depressed me.

Here is a woman betrayed, a woman with a bullet in her neck near her spinal cord, one side of her face paralyzed, who stood by her betrayer through an incredible public nightmare. Could her man require any more indication of her beauty than this? Was the strength and confidence she projected on television finally felled by the damage to her trust and her appearance?

The question of Jenny Shimizu is less visceral. Shimizu, a former mechanic, emerged on the fashion scene in the past two years as one of the Paris designers' latest darlings.

While obviously an interesting person with her mechanic's tattoos and her truck driver's walk, she is, nevertheless, next to superdollies like Vendela or Tyra, or even the waiflike Kate Moss, another concept of beauty entirely.

What she is, I see now, thanks to the science community, is perfectly symmetrical. In fact, her face possesses a startling symmetrical averageness that is strangely pleasing. Not a great beauty in John Singer Sargent's terms, but one according to science.

I have been doing my own study of beauty for about six years now. Every night at 7:30 I watch "Love Connection," and after seeing virtually thousands of men of all ages pick potential mates from videotapes, I can safely posit that men are drawn to both averageness and extremes.

They do not require a woman to be perfect, but she must possess one excellent trait: either legs, breasts, eyes or hair, according to preference. A woman can be totally average looking, or even unattractive, in the world's terms as long as she possesses the one trait that will not only compensate for but actually eclipse her deficiencies.

So while it may be shocking to think that there is a universal concept of beauty, genetically encoded over millenniums, that is only enhanced by movies, television and advertising, at the same time it is quite comforting to find that this universal standard is far less rigorous than the average woman fears.

You need not look like Audrey Hepburn to be beautiful as long as you are healthy and have nice hands.