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SENSE OF SELF CAN CHARM BEYOND LOOKS

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Sharon Smith thinks Robin Turtle is one of the beautiful people.

"She is always pleasant, enthusiastic, energetic. She exudes personality," she says of her friend, the executive secretary in the city manager's office in Kansas City.Allisyn Kateusz touts her mother, Jane Gilbreath, in the same way. "It's not that she has a fine bone structure," Kateusz says. "She's very friendly, loves people and is intelligent." Describing Gilbreath, who owns a book store, she adds, "She has an open face, and she is nonjudgmental."

To be sure, some women are strikingly attractive more because of certain intangible qualities they project than their physical features. Maybe they are beautiful in the classic sense, maybe not. But an energy or charismatic aura can make even a Cindy Crawford body, a Liz Taylor nose or Michelle Pfeiffer eyes seem, well, almost irrelevant.

Some people describe the quality of beauty as a state of being centered or at peace with oneself.

It reflects a basic "sense of self-esteem," says psychologist Linda Moore.

Eleanor Roosevelt had it. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton reflects it, in Moore's opinion.

"It's self-confidence," agrees Linda Wells, the editor of Allure, a New York beauty magazine. "If you're really confident, it doesn't matter so much if you're overweight."

It's the ability to move out of oneself, pursue a cause, have a passion, says Ruth Margolin, the director of the Women's Studies Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Golda Meir, Mother Teresa and writer Betty Friedan come to her mind.

Debbie Dusenberry, a photographer's stylist, recognizes it in models who don't take their beauty too seriously. It takes a bit of age, she says, experience and a history of good relationships. On her list of more visible examples are fashion designer Adrienne Vittadini, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand.

Surveys have shown that when men and women are queried about attractive qualities, both sexes tend to comment on smiles and eyes, notes Mary Jo Neitz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her conclusion is that the drawing power has to do with "an authentic revelation of the self."

Richard Martin, the curator of the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum, acknowledges an aura exists that enables some women to transcend the ideal beauty mentality of the moment. Television's Oprah Winfrey is an example, he says. "Ultimately it doesn't matter whether Oprah weighs 145 pounds or 165 pounds," he says. "She is still attractive for who she is."

Can charisma be developed? Can the aura be pumped up?

Self-esteem may be a place to start. Allure's Linda Wells says self-confidence is a more important priority to work on than a new diet.

Kris O'Rourke, a New Orleans psychotherapist, likens it to the self-confidence she and her partners in Just Start! Inc. teach as part of their multitiered improvement program. She maintains that before and after photographs actually reflect a remarkable difference in the clients' looks following the training.

She says the quality stems from self-understanding and comfort with that being. "It's that sense of, `I know how to get what I need' and `I don't have to know everything now,' " she says.

When people are comfortable with themselves, they have an openness to others. They are not competitive or judgmental. People can be comfortable and relaxed in their presence, she said, without the sense they are being judged. Thus they exude an inner beauty.

Indeed, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and over the years the sense of the ideal has changed about as frequently as hemlines. Shortly after the turn of the century, the notion that mental attitude was related to beauty became popular. Author Lois Banner, in her book "American Beauty," writes that "If You Want Beauty, Think Beauty," was a typical advice column title of the times. "If you could keep from tension of any sort . . . your neck would not be scrawny, nor your skin peaked," she quotes.

Lillian Russell announced she read Marcus Aurelius every day. "Lillie Langtry asserted that the study of Buddhism had led her to believe in self-control, which she called `soul-beauty,' " Banner reports.

Women considered beauties of their time have been able to reflect something of the times, Neitz notes. In the late 1940s and '50s, the voluptuous women of the postwar era "looked attractive after the lean war years." Twiggy in the '60s was a stark contrast to that ideal.

For women in the late 20th century, a certain mindset about the ideal beauty is decidedly confining. In the '80s, the gym-toned body had panache. Today's images are somewhat more eclectic and transitional while society struggles to touch into a raised consciousness of diverse cultures. Allure's Wells says in the not too distant past, magazines tended to focus on the classic blond beauty. Times have changed, albeit slowly. The field and fashion runways are much more open to the nonperfect beauty.

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Additional Information

"Ultimately it doesn't matter whether Oprah Winfrey weighs 145 pounds or 165 pounds. She is still attractive for who she is."

- Richard Martin

curator, Costume Institute

Metropolitan Museum, New York

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Concepts of loveliness may cross cultures

Beauty is not, as egalitarians like to think, in the eye of the beholder. Nor is it as strongly influenced by culture as many have long assumed. Rather, an accumulating body of evidence indicates that concepts of attractiveness may be universal and hard-wired into the human brain, whether that brain serves a Briton or a Japanese.

This "wiring," a built-in genetic tendency that evolved over millenniums through natural selection, seems to prompt men to select as most attractive those women whose facial characteristics are associated with youth and good health, both of which are important to reproductive viability.

In the latest study, published in the British journal Nature, both British and Japanese men and women ranked women's faces as most attractive when certain features associated with youthfulness, like large eyes, high cheekbones and a narrow jaw, were exaggerated.

Further, the study found, Caucasians gave top ranking to the same Japanese faces that the Japanese preferred, leading the researchers to conclude in their report that there are "greater similarities than differences in cross-cultural judgments of facial attractiveness."

"Clearly, we have an innate mechanism that sees a certain geometry of the face as beautiful and attributes to that face other characteristics seen as most fit," said Dr. Nancy Etcoff, a neuropsychologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital who wrote a commentary on the study.

Previous studies had shown that people rank as more attractive a computer-derived composite face than the individual faces used to construct the composite.

This prompted researchers to conclude that an "average" face was more pleasing than faces with features that deviated from average. Sociologically, the findings made sense since people feel safest and most comfortable around others who appear familiar and similar to themselves.

The researchers first had men and women rank in attractiveness 60 images of women's faces. Then they used a computer to construct two composite faces: one the average of the 60 images and the other the average of the 15 images initially ranked as most attractive.

A third composite was derived from the highly attractive composite by exaggerating the differences in shape between the average face and the highly attractive face, for example, by making the chin even narrower and cheekbones higher.

A new group of men and women shown only the three composite faces clearly ranked the highly attractive composite over the average one and gave the highest ranking to the computer-derived caricature of the second composite.

Furthermore, when Caucasian men and women were asked to select the most attractive faces similarly derived from images of Japanese women, they ranked as most attractive the same face, again with the exaggerated characteristics, chosen by Japanese men and women.

- Jane E. Brody

New York Times News Service