‘Are YOUR lips attractive?’ Clickbait science fuels clickbait journalism

Jill U. Adams is a health journalist and an associate editor at HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @juadams.

Cancer recurrence. Antibiotic resistance. Heart failure. Attractive lips. All have been the subject of recently published medical research–and subsequent news coverage.

Yes, you read that right: The quest for attractive lips is on par with solving heart failure, at least when it comes to deserving a big splashy news release.

attractive lipsThat’s because apparently, up until last week, no one really knew what made for the most attractive female lips. That glaring gap in medical knowledge appears to be narrowing though, as we found out from an embargoed news release from the journal, JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, titled “By the Numbers: What are The Most Attractive Female Lips?

The answer, according to the study, is a lower lip that’s twice the size of the upper at the midline.

The study’s stated rationale was to contribute to the creation of established guidelines—currently nonexistent—for lip augmentation, a cosmetic procedure that is one of the fastest growing procedures in recent years, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

The day after the embargo lifted, at least four news outlets had picked it up. Two UK news outlets plumbed the study for all the face-shaming language it could possibly inspire.

  • The Daily Mail starts with a clickbait question in the headline: “Are YOUR lips attractive?” and then continues with the promise to share “the exact ratio of the perfect pout.”
  • The Sun calls out celebrity icons in their headline: “Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson ‘have the perfect pout’ — according to THIS scientific formula for the most kissable lips.” The story is illustrated with a Victoria’s Secret model in a bikini, claiming her lips have the perfect one-to-two proportion.

Both articles have notes of sanity, at least when it comes to not completely shaming women for their physical appearance. The Sun displays two celebrities with a less-perfect one-to-one ratio. Quoting one of the study authors, the article says this “goes to show that whole faces are greater than the sum of their parts.” The Daily Mail quoted an unlikely voice of caution—that of Kardashian family member Kylie Jenner, whose puffy lips are the object of much attention and speculation. (She’s admitted only to lip fillers.)

But neither news story does any service to readers about methods of lip augmentation—lip implants and lip injections, the costs, or the risks. Even the minimally invasive injected lip fillers come with potential side effects and any of the procedures can leave patients with less than their desired perfection, such as asymmetric enlargements, lumps, or other irregularities in the lips.

Who decides what’s ‘attractive?’

attractive lips

A sampling of the imagery included with the attractive lips study. Credit: JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery

Nor do the stories address the study methods. The arbiters of beauty in the study were a focus group made up of 20 undergraduate students and 578 of their social media contacts. Researchers asked them to recruit other college students, but this was not confirmed. Indeed, no demographic data were collected. Also, the photographs the students studied were altered images of young white women. 

Two U.S. news organizations also covered this, um, breaking news. Today.com frames the story as plastic surgeons saving women from themselves. The study’s authors make the claim that many women seeking fuller lips want both lips enlarged; now doctors can recommend the 1:2 ratio as the “ideal female lip aesthetic.” (Question: Will doctors advise patients that this ideal came from opinions of college students viewing digitally altered faces of young white women?) Study co-author Brian Wong is quoted as saying: “Certain patients want to have this look that I would call overly filled and disproportionate.”

Fortunately, The Verge stepped up and kept me from throwing up in my (imperfect) mouth a little. Their take emphasizes the potential capriciousness of the study with its very first line: “If you’ve ever wanted to get plastic surgery based on the opinion of people from the internet, a new study is here to help.”

If we could give any sentence a big hug, it’s that one.

‘Pseudoscience in the service of marketing’

Let’s change the players for a moment, and swap in tattoo artists for facial plastic surgeons.  Let’s propose a parallel study — the most attractive tattoo characteristics on a white woman’s ankle. Some news outlets surely would pick it up, as clickbait. Some might include the study methods and even the risks of this body modification practice. Would it be offered up as serious science? Would it be reported as earnestly?

To me, the whole thing is a fabulous example of pseudoscience in the service of marketing,” says Leonore Tiefer, a clinical psychotherapist at New York University. “These industries have to pass themselves off as medical science. This is just a cosmetic procedure—there is no disadvantage from a physical point of view to having lips of one size or shape versus another.”

Disseminating the so-called science of attractiveness is, of course, not a new thing. Just a few days ago, Slate’s Dan Engber took a critical look at another questionable study involving women’s bodies. In this case, what kind of hip movements make women “high-quality” dancers. The findings are based on opinions from a group of people who watched an array of dancing avatars, but that didn’t stop The New York Times from describing the precise ways to move one’s hips to attract attention, complete with a video of the dancing avatar.

The coverage was as light as the study itself, Engber noted.

And here at HealthNewsReview.org, research on resting bitch face caught our attention in 2015 for disease-mongering. As with the lip study, it was published by JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery. As well, back in 2011, we mulled the question, posed by the New York Times, of whether one can be too old for plastic surgery.

Creating demand by creating guidelines about ‘ideal’ appearances

Back to the ideal lip proportion study. One could argue that the journal itself was using plenty of clickbait in its publicity efforts. The study was illustrated with digitally created photos of women’s faces, with close-ups of the lip ratios, all of which were generously supplied to news outlets. The study had a compelling, easy-to-understand title, it was accompanied by a glowing editorial, and it was promoted via an embargoed news release.

Tiefer says she’s concerned with the “inappropriate and unethical role” of professionals in the creation of demand, even though most of them deny playing a role.

“They insist that they are merely responding to consumer demand and their consumer demand comes from, I don’t know, Angelina Jolie,” she said. 

With the lip study, Tiefer zeroes in on the justification put forth by the study authors, the journal, and perhaps the field of cosmetic surgery as a whole: By creating “guidelines,” practitioners can sell patients a line about satisfaction. But she says, “I think it’s a duplicitous situation.”

I’d argue this duplicity is the reason we need strong journalism–whether it’s about the next big cancer drug, or the perfect pout–there’s often a hidden agenda (or social issue) worth discussing.

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