There are some universal standards of beauty, so why has evolution not made us all beautiful? When it comes to attraction, originality can pay off.

Recumbent on her chaise lounge, peacock-feather fan in hand, the model casts her gaze over her shoulder towards the artist. It’s the early 19th Century, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is painting La Grande Odalisque, a nude oil-on-canvas of a Turkish chambermaid. The painter has captured her allure, but something is not quite right. When it is shown to the public, the painting is heavily criticised – she has a weirdly long back and her body points in too many different directions.

A 2004 analysis by French doctors, including one who specialises in vertebral pain, suggests that not only would it be impossible for her to contort her body in this way, she would have needed five extra lumbar vertebrae for her back to look as long as it does.

The Romantic style of art from this period is filled with nude women, back to the observer, with tiny waists and wide hips. An “hourglass” figure was thought to be the height of beauty. Whether Ingres had intended to distort her proportions quite so much is debated – though no model could ever have posed like this. Maybe Ingres was exaggerating her slender back, narrow waist and wider hips to add a little more sexiness and slightly overdid it.

Subtle differences in our appearance can make a big difference. Slight changes in dress make women seem more trustworthy, competent or attractive. As psychologist Miriam Liss of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and her co-authors found, to look honest and competent in a career setting, or even electable as a politician, a woman must dress conservatively and not sexily.

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