Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Lost in translation

So, the BBC report on research about what skin tones are considered healthiest (for young white people, that is). It must be a time for another instalment of "bad reporting of science". Here's the article's lede.

A golden glow is the healthiest and most attractive look for Caucasian skin, researchers have claimed.

This isn't (of course) actually what the researchers claim in their article (full text, DOI 10.1007/s10764-009-9380-z). For once, it's open-access publishing, so you can read the paper yourself. The distinction between what the researchers say and what the BBC thinks they say is more subtle than usual, but there's a lot to unpack in that difference.

The paper examines what the effects of changing redness, yellowness and lightness on perceptions of health are. (Note that strongly increasing lightness makes the red and yellow changes hard to tell as the whole image becomes oversaturated). There are pictures of this process in the paper, which show the extreme endpoints of the range they considered.

The volunteers providing the face pictures used for the sample, and the volunteers assessing the apparent health after colour transformation, were all white and young. Looking at the ages and colours, I'd guess that they just did the typical academic shortcut of grabbing a bunch of students (and St Andrews, where the research was carried out, is one of the whitest universities in the UK).

The study showed that increasing redness to an amount associated with the reddest end of the sample, increasing yellowness beyond the amount any of the sample actually had in their faces, and increasing lightness (whiteness, in many ways) to approximately the top end of the sample, were all associated with increased perceived health.

So this is where the BBC article first falls down: failing to clearly draw a difference between health and perceived health. The article repeatedly confuses the two (in a way that the paper itself largely avoids) - saying that redder/yellower skin is considered healthier-looking, but then going on to look at reasons why things considered healthy might make skin that colour, which misses out the important step - which the paper doesn't do, but also doesn't claim to do - where a correlation between "skin tone assessed as healthy" and "actually healthy" is looked for.

The second failing is not long after that: the researchers say that health perception is linked to attractiveness (and reference a lot of previous research there). They don't say that the colour range assessed as most healthy is also assessed as most attractive. It's an obvious jump, but it's not one supported by this experiment because it's not what they looked for.

The researchers noticed, unreported on, a significant gender-based difference: female skin was made lighter; male skin was made redder and yellower. This apparently is a pre-existing (statistical) difference in (possibly only white, the paper doesn't say) male and female skin, but the effect of the changes to make the skin appear healthier expanded this difference above its real extent.

There's an unexamined possibility here, too. Perceived health is considered attractive. But there's a lot of socialisation in other ways about what's considered attractive - for women, very to impossibly thin, very white (again, impossibly so for most people) - and a lot of explicit connection between this beauty ideal and health from the diet industry and "beauty" magazines. So, were the sample just pushing the faces towards what they thought of as attractive, because they assumed that correlated more strongly with health? Certainly plenty of things that go with perceived health don't go with actual health (weight, for instance)

There's a collision of a lot of stereotypes around health and disability, sexism and racism here (with a bit of heteronormativity hanging around too, as every study of "mate choice" seemingly has), that I think the study accidentally exposes, and it would be interesting to see if the study was duplicated with different skin colours, or in societies with different cultural views about what "looks" healthy, or even with a wider age range of both faces and assessors.

You shouldn't be able to make a study finding how lighter (whiter) skin is considered healthier-looking and so more attractive without looking at how society considers whiteness more valuable and more attractive and examining how this might be a different cause than simple perceptions of healthiness. But they do, and the BBC doesn't question it either.