There is no question about who the most talked about post-teen male pop stars are in 2015. In terms of engendering intense fandom and polarized opinions, Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik have always been heartthrobs par excellence—and, thanks to some good PR moves, their appeal has even extended beyond the Snapchat demographic.
There is, however, some debate about which one is better looking. Since the former managed to shake his reputation as a fuckboy with begrudgingly catchy songs, he modeled his no-longer-just-allegedly big penis for Calvin Klein, got a new haircut, and released a critically acclaimed album, Purpose. That is to say, he's at his peak, both physically and sonically. The latter graduated from mere boy-band-member status when he caused the whole world to simultaneously weep when he announced that he was leaving One Direction; furthermore, he has always had a very good face. He's gone from the British group's "cute one" to "the cute one with a man bun" to "extremely attractive grown man"—and his thirst-quenching cover for Fader last week is our most recent reminder.
When Zayn's sun-drenched, chiseled face graced the the popular music magazine just four days after Justin Bieber's surprisingly great new album was released, it felt like a face-off; I suddenly found myself—and noticed everyone I knew—choosing a side. "Zayn is definitely hotter than Justin Bieber," multiple coworkers asserted. "Justin is more beautiful, though it pains me to say as I am very attracted to Zayn," another disagreed. "Justin Bieber just has the whole package," my boyfriend weighed in, when I rehashed the conversation with him after work.
I could see both arguments. Zayn is hot. Justin is also hot. But who is hotter? Hmm.
Fresh off too many repeat listens of Purpose, I couldn't trust myself make an objective decision. And while attractiveness is ultimately about the subjective, I knew that Zayn and Justin would consume my every thought and conversation until I had a definitive, impartial answer. Zayn's deep eyes and permanent pout, combined with whole his tall-dark-and-handsome thing, certainly do give him an edge. On the other hand, Justin's impish features, smooth skin, soulful voice, and bad-boy-turned-good attitude have an unfortunately irresistible charm. To settle it once and for all, I asked an expert.
Along with her colleague Ben Jones, Dr. Lisa Debruine runs the Face Research Lab at the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow; she specializes in facial perception. When I told Dr. Debruine that I desperately needed to know whether Justin Bieber or Zayn Malik is more attractive, according to science, she first told me that "there is really no such thing as the 'objectively' most attractive person."
Women have a great diversity in whether they find masculine traits hot or kind of gross.
"Attraction is the combination of three things," she continued, "the traits of the person being judged, the traits of the person doing the judging, and the situation in which the judging is taking place."
There are, however, certain traits that people almost always find more attractive than others, she explained, over Skype. Symmetry, skin health, youth, and averageness are all part of the equation. "Although it sounds a bit counter-intuitive, the more average your face is, the more attractive people are likely to find you. You find that people really like average proportions—noses that aren't too big or too small, eyes that aren't too big or too small, etc."
Beyond averageness, Dr. Debruine said, highly attractive faces are those that are pulled in a particular direction. In women, for example, feminine facial features (larger eyes, slightly thicker lips, thinner eyebrows, and a smaller jaw) are considered more attractive. But for men—erstwhile teen crooners included—it gets complicated.
"In other animals, the most masculine man is attractive for females, but you don't find that for human men," she said. "Sometimes masculine traits are more attractive, and sometimes they're unattractive. Women have a great diversity in whether they find masculine traits hot or kind of gross. This is unique compared to other animal species."
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Whether one is into men with more masculine features or more feminine features is at the heart of where Justin and Zayn's perceived attractiveness diverge. "Justin Bieber's facial features are very feminized [whereas] Zayn Malik is all dark and brooding. He has a more masculine texture than Justin, who has a more baby-faced look," Dr. Debruine says. As I feared, it turns out that choosing between Zayn and the Biebs is all down to preference. And that preference can even change within a person depending on the time of the month. During the most fertile period of the menstrual cycle, for instance, faces with masculine traits tend to appear more appealing. One day you could be all about Justin's angelic glow, and the next you could be obsessing over Zayn's cutting cheekbones.
"That there isn't just one person out there that is the ideal for everyone in the world is probably a good thing for us all," Dr. Debruine consoled me. But if there was, he would probably look something like what Dr. Debruine has named Bieblik, a composite of the two eponymous men that she created exclusively for Broadly, using the Face Research Lab's average face generator:
He is perfect.