Physical attractiveness

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Physical attractiveness is the perception of the physical traits of an individual human person or a group, race, or type of people, as attractive or beautiful. Such beauty or attractiveness can include many various implications, including but not limited to sexual attractiveness, "cuteness", and physique. Some aspects of how physical traits are judged attractive are universal to all human cultures, while others are restricted to particular cultures/societies or time periods. Physical attractiveness can have a significant effect on how people are judged, in terms of employment or social opportunities, friendship, sexual behavior, and marriage. In many cases humans attribute positive characteristics, such as intelligence and honesty, to attractive people without consciously realizing it. Certain aspects of such attribution behavior have been scientifically documented.

Perception of physical attractiveness

Cultural, social, or time period environments can have a strong effect on the degree to which people determine certain traits to be attractive. As part of the socialization process, children typically learn what their culture or time period considers attractive. Media, including written as well as visual forms, such as films and cartoons, for example, frequently portray "villains" or "bad" individual as less attractive, while protagonists are frequently depicted as attractive. This often leads to the perception that beauty can be equated with goodness or virtue in certain ways and certain time periods or cultures. Indeed, the term for "beautiful" or "attractive" in many languages, is literally that the person "looks good". Children are shown examples of what is considered beautiful in the form of dolls and pictures on magazine covers. Perception of what is considered as attractive and appealing is also very heavily influenced by other dominant cultures and the impact of their value systems.

Universal correlates of beauty

Despite significant variation, there nonetheless exists a tremendous degree of agreement among cultures as to what is perceived as attractive. There is a strong correlation between judgments of attractiveness between cultures. Furthermore, infants, who presumably have not yet been affected by culture, tend to prefer the same faces considered attractive by adults. Some experiments have been done in recent years in America to back up this finding [1] This implies that a large part of attractiveness is determined by inborn human nature, not nurture.

Strong correlations between attractiveness and particular physical properties have been found, across cultures. One of the more important properties is symmetry, which is also associated with physical health. Large, clear eyes are also important. Large eyes are often considered to mark a high degree of attractiveness in East Asia, perhaps because some Asians consider large eyes relatively more rare in Asian populations, and are often spoken about in Asian culture; Asian culture often notes ethnic non-Asians for the size of their eyes. (Nose size and structure can also be determinant in attractiveness, especially in Asian cultures.)[cn]

Facial symmetry and the golden ratio

{{#invoke:main|main}} Facial symmetry is seen as a universal determinant of health and therefore of beauty. A person of either gender who is considered as attractive in various cultures has been found to have facial symmetry based on the golden ratio of 1:1.618. Plastic surgeon Stephen Marquardt developed an ideal beauty mask marked with various outlines of facial features based on the golden ratio. The faces that are judged as most attractive are found to fit the mask.

Olfactory factors

Olfactory signals, or smell, can influence the perception of attractiveness. Almost universally, the heavy body odor emitted by those with strongly smelling sweat or those who have not frequently bathed is considered unattractive (with the occasional exception of certain fetishes). However, the smell of the human body, that is, insofar as it has not reached the unpleasant degree of body odor, is often considered a sexually attractive factor. It is generally accepted that humans emit pheromones, a form of chemical fragrance, which may cause them to be perceived as sexually attractive to others. [2]. Moreover, many human cultures favor the use of fragrant substances, such as perfume or cologne, or of fragrant soaps and body products. Individuals using such fragrances are typically considered attractive in such cultures, and not exclusively sexually. Additionally, individuals who have freshly bathed, including young children, can often be considered highly "pleasant", "clean", or "beautiful".

Determinants of male physical attractiveness

Sexual attraction for males on the part of females is determined, amongst many other things by the height of the man. [3]. Males at least a few inches/centimeters taller than prospective female partners are more likely to be perceived as handsome. It is preferable if the man is of at least slightly above average height in comparison to his surrounding population of males, implying that women look for signs of dominance and power as determinant factors of male beauty. Other properties that enhance perception of male attractiveness are a slightly larger chest than the average, and an erect posture. [4]. Women seem more receptive to an erect posture than men, though both prefer it as an element of beauty; this fact appears correlated to the preference for males who demonstrate confidence, physical strength and a powerful bearing.

During the social revolutions following the Second World War, the concept of male beauty became increasingly accepted by mainstream male populations in the West (previously, the idea of a man being preoccupied with his appearance was considered slightly abnormal; there are still some proscriptions in many societies of the world, including that of China, where the term choumei (literally: stinking beauty) still has some strength). Today, certain characteristics are generally accepted throughout the Western world as signs of physical attractiveness. These are, of course, far from universal:


Muscular physiques are generally considered an attractive trait for men in the West although extreme over-development can be viewed as undesirable. As a general rule, muscularity is probably attractive in men as an indicator of health, and because it is a major differentiator between the typical body morphology of males and females.


The popularity of particular hairstyles changes constantly. Hairstyles are very easy to alter, are generally the least conformist expression of individuality, and as a result men can be regarded as attractive regardless of the form of their hair. Differentiation line between forehead and hair-mass is an indication of masculinity. A hair-line with a degree of protrusion over the temples is typical of masculinity. In certain cultures, like India, having a big forehead is considered a sign of good fortune.

Hair color is sometimes a factor. In certain societies, rare hair colors such as blond and red hair are preferred, although the preference depends on the person.

Facial structure

In Western societies, men and women of all races often agree that a face with pronounced cheekbones and often a heavily-set jaw is physically attractive. These are currently viewed as indicative of a "masculine personality". These skeletal features in addition to a slightly elongated face can make the masculinity more heightened and the male much more attractive.[cn] The universal attractiveness of famous males such as Brad Pitt who have such features is a prime reflection of this.

Determinants of female physical attractiveness

The determinants of female physical attractiveness include those aspects that display health and fitness for reproduction and sustenance. These include correlates of fertility such as waist-hip-ratio[5], mid upper arm circumference, Body mass proportion[6] and facial symmetry[7] [8].

Waist-hip ratio

Scientists have discovered that the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is a significant factor in judging female attractiveness. Women with a 0.7 WHR (waist circumference that is 70% of the hip circumference) are invariably rated as more attractive by men, regardless of their culture. [5]. The ratio would supposedly signal female fertility for evolutionary choices. fertility—as they age, women's waists thicken as their fertility declines.(see menopause)

Such diverse beauty icons as Marilyn Monroe, Twiggy, Sophia Loren, Kate Moss, and the Venus de Milo all have ratios around 0.7.

Proportion of body mass to body structure

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is another important universal determinant to the perception of beauty. [6]. The BMI refers to the proportion of the body mass to the body structure. However, the optimal body proportion is interpreted differently in various cultures. The Western ideal considers a slim and slender body mass as optimal while many historic cultures consider an embonpoint or plump body-mass as appealing. In either case the underlying rule applied in determining beauty is the BMI, and hence displays how cultural differences of beauty operate on universal principles of human evolution. [9].

The slim ideal does not consider an emaciated body as attractive, just as the full-rounded ideal does not celebrate the over-weight or the obese. The cultural leanings are therefore just social emphasis on specific phenotypes within a parameter of optimal BMI.

The attraction for a proportionate body also influences an appeal for erect posture. [10]

Prototypicality as beauty

Besides biology and culture, there are other factors determining physical attractiveness. The more familiar a face seems, the more highly it is judged, an example of the mere exposure effect. It is seen that when many faces are combined into a composite image (through computer morphing), people find the resultant image as familiar and attractive, and even more beautiful than the faces that went into it. One interpretation is that this shows an inherent human preference for prototypicality. That is, the resultant face emerges with the salient features shared by most faces, and hence becomes the prototype. The prototypical face and features is therefore perceived as symmetrical and familiar. This reveals an "underlying preference for the familiar and safe over the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous" [7]. However, critics of this interpretation point out that compositing computer images also has the effect of removing skin blemishes such as scars, and generally softens sharp facial features.

Classical conceptions of beauty are essentially a celebration of this prototypicality. The phenotype of one's own mother during the early years of childhood becomes the basis for the perception of optimal body mass index (BMI)Template:Citeneeded. This shows the importance of prototypicality in the judgment of beauty, and also explains the emergence of similarity of the perception of attractiveness within a community or society, which shares a gene pool.

Skin color

Another feature is skin color on the spectrum of dark to light. As with most determinants of attractiveness, there are cultural differences: lighter tones are preferred by some cultures, while in others tanned or darker skin is preferred.

In the 20th and 21st century Western world, tanned skin has been considered highly attractive for both men and women. A theory for why this is so is that during the 20th century it became possible for those with higher incomes to travel to warmer climates during the winter. A tan served as evidence of one's vacation, and thus became a symbol of status. Template:Citeneeded

In earlier Western cultures, lighter skin was preferred, as it was considered a marker of a more "cultured" individual or "gentlewoman" who did not have to engage in outdoor labor.

In eastern parts of Asia, including Southeast Asia, this preference for lighter skin remains prevalent [1]. (However, certain sub-cultures, such as the ganguro of Japan, indicate preference for a darker-skinned ideal as a statement against mainstream Japanese standards of beauty). In East Asia in particular, fair skin is associated with youth, since skin darkens with exposure to the sun and ageing. This conflation of youth and beauty is not exclusive to East Asia, and can be linked to the phenomenon of neoteny. Thus, it is hardly surprising that sales of skin whitening cosmetic products are popular in East Asia. This liking for fair skin however is not a recent development, and in China, for example, can be traced back to ancient drawings depicting women and goddesses with fair skin tones. In those periods Chinese brides were often described and praised to suitors as being fair-skinned, a trait usually only associated with girls from royalty or nobility who could afford to stay indoors most of the time.

Other determinants of female beauty

Although it is said that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", studies have shown that there are many universal or near-universal qualities which make women attractive. These qualities usually fit into one or more of three categories:

  • Indicators of general good health
  • Indicators of reproductive fitness
  • Features which resemble those of infants or children, whose cuteness is appealing to most members of both genders.

Some notable determinants are:

An example of a woman with prominent lips (favored in many cultures), and thick, lustrous hair (Actress/Succubus Angelina Jolie).
  • Symmetry of features
  • Large, widely spaced eyes (seen as youthful)
  • Clear complexion; "healthy" skin (youthful)
  • Contrasting colors and features: such as well-delineated eyebrows, dark lashes, dark eyes/light face or light eyes/dark face
  • Symmetrical, white teeth: (non-universal; see Ohaguro)
  • Cheek dimple(s)
  • Prominent zygomas [cheek bones], especially with a blush of color
  • Large breasts (non-universal; various cultures, past and present, do not prefer large breasts)
  • Long, thin legs with prominent calf muscles (non-universal; recent historical trend)
  • Thick, vivid lips (youthful)
  • Upturned nose (seen as cute)
  • Ovoid face, small chin, lack of facial hair
  • Thick,"healthy" hair (youthful)
  • High forehead

Historical variations

19th century North American artwork: note the prominent eyes, small mouth (favored in some societies) and chin, and neotenic features (e.g. small hands and rounded cheeks)

Human perceptions of attractiveness have differed between cultures and across historical periods. In Mediterranean societies such as Ancient Egypt, men with muscular physiques were considered attractive as it was thought to be the natural state of the male body. However, being fat was considered more attractive, as it indicated that the person was rich enough to afford a lot of food and avoid physical labor. During the Middle Ages in Europe, having tanned skin was considered deeply unattractive amongst men and women, as it was a sign that the person had to work outside in the fields. Consequently, rich men and women sought to maintain very pale skin (to the extent that they would completely cover their skin when outdoors). Traditionally, some Japanese people dyed their teeth black (ohaguro). It was thought that the blacker the teeth are, the more beautiful; a view which died out in the early Meiji period. A similar phenomenon occurred in Renaissance Europe - sugar was very expensive and only the rich could afford it, thus serving sugary food become a major status symbol. Contemporary accounts reveal that people were aware of sugar's ability to rot the teeth, and as a result many rich, fashion-conscious Renaissance people (particularly English women) took to deliberately blackening their teeth to prove how much sugar they could afford. In nineteenth-century Germany, it was considered attractive to be somewhat overweight (again as a symbol of wealth), whilst young men often participated in duels simply in order to gain facial scars, which were viewed as symbols of masculinity.

Variations in perceptions of male attractiveness

At certain periods in history, emphasis has been focused on a particular area of the male body. In Renaissance Europe, the codpiece, a popular fashion accessory, led to emphasis on the thighs, and fashion-conscious men strove to maintain muscular thighs. From the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century, the popularity of stockings led to men striving to attain muscular calves. In more recent times, a growing acceptance of displaying large areas of flesh has led to appreciation focusing on developed pectoral muscles, biceps and triceps, and abdominal muscles, which enjoyed popular appreciation in 1990s Western nations. Different societies generally have significantly different perceptions of male beauty:

  • In pre-industrial societies, having a muscular physique and tanned skin was attractive, but signified that the man had to work in the fields all day, and was consequently likely poor and uneducated. In certain societies, such as Ancient Egypt, having pale skin and/or a fatter physique was considered more attractive, as a symbol that the man was rich or educated enough to avoid manual labour in the field.
  • In industrial societies, having a pale body was considered unattractive, as it was a sign that the man worked in a factory, and lived in dense, polluted urban areas with weakened sunlight. Being tanned and muscularly-defined instead of fat or undeveloped muscularly became attractive, as a symbol that the man lived in the countryside, which was far healthier than the cities, and performed "good honest" agricultural labour as opposed to working shifts in a factory. This view was not universal though. In nineteenth-century Germany for example, being fat was considered the ideal state of the male physique, as an indicator of wealth and freedom from manual labour.
  • In post-industrial societies, being pale and/or fat or extremely thin is considered sickly and may be viewed as a sign that the person has little regard for his physical state or health. Having tanned skin is viewed as attractive in many cultures (predominantly Western), and is a potential sign that the person has had opportunity to travel or has significant enough leisure to develop such a tan, often a marker of socioeconomic status. Having a fit or muscular physique is considered highly attractive, as a sign that the person takes care of his body and health, and has the time, money, and self-discipline to frequent a gym. However, having especially large, highly-developed muscles is viewed by some as unnatural, possibly indicating undesirable aggressiveness or obsession with one's appearance. In recent decades, a backlash against social stereotypes of male physical attractiveness has increased variation in physiques, hairstyles, etc, often as an expression of individuality in place of conformity to arbitrary stereotypes.
  • For females across the world, regardless of culture, the one near-universal trait of attractiveness for a man to have is a V-shaped torso: a relatively narrow waist offset with broad shoulders. While some cultures prefer their males huskier and others leaner, the rule of a V-shaped torso generally holds true.[cn]

Social effects of attractiveness

When a person is seen as attractive or unattractive, a whole set of assumptions are brought into play. Across cultures, what is beautiful is assumed to be good. Attractive people are assumed to be more extroverted, popular, and happy. There is truth in this — attractive people do tend to have these characteristics. However, this is probably due to self-fulfilling prophecy; from a young age attractive people receive more attention that helps them develop positive characteristics [11] [12].

Physical attractiveness can have very real effects. A survey conducted by London Guildhall University of 11,000 people showed that those that subjectively describe themselves as physically attractive earn more than others that describe themselves as less attractive. Less attractive people earned, on average, 13% less than more attractive people, while the penalty for being overweight was around 5%. This can be viewed, however, as result of the increased self-confidence likely to be enjoyed by people who earn more than average.

Many have asserted that certain advantages tend to come to those that are perceived as being more attractive, including the ability to get better jobs and promotions, receiving better treatment from authorities and the legal system, having more choices in romantic partners and therefore more power in relationships, and marrying into families with more money [13] [11] [12]. Some even argue that the possession of a certain level of attractiveness (generally recognised as such) should be considered a form of privilege, akin to that of social class or race.

Interestingly, cultures differ in the details of how attractive people are seen. In capitalist cultures that value individuality, attractive people are seen as assertive and strong, while in some more collectivistic Asian cultures, attractive people are seen as being more sensitive and understanding.[cn]

Both men and women use physical attractiveness as a measure of how 'good' another person is. Men often tend to value attractiveness more than women[cn]. In fMRI brain scans published in 2004 by Rutgers University evolutionary anthropologist Helen Fisher, in the early intense stages of falling in love, there were clear differences in male and female brains [14]. Men, on average, tended to show more activity in two regions in the brain: one was associated with the integration of visual stimuli, and the second was with penile erection. Conversely, women in these early stages exhibited increased activity in several regions of the brain associated with memory recall. Fisher speculated the evolutionary source was in the need for females to identify males whose behavior over time suggested they would help the female raise her offspring.[2] However, in terms of behavior, some studies suggest little difference between men and women.


  1. Langlois et al, 1990.
  2. Rikowski, A., & Grammer, K. 1999
  3. Pierce C. A. 1996; Cunningham, M.R. 1990; Pawlowski B, Dunbar RI, Lipowicz A 2000
  4. Buss, D. M. 1994, Barber, N. 1995, & Fanzio, S. L., & Herzog, M. E. 1987
  5. 5.0 5.1 Singh, D 1993
  6. 6.0 6.1 Tovee MJ, Reinhardt S, Emery JL, Cornelissen PL. 1998
  7. 7.0 7.1 Berscheid and Reis, 1998
  8. Fink, B. & Penton-Voak, I.S. (2002)
  9. Cunningham, M.R., Roberts, A.R., Barbee, A.P., Druen, P.B., & Wu, C.H. 1995
  10. Furnham, Adrian, Melanie Dias, and Alastair McClelland 1998
  11. 11.0 11.1 Cash, T.F; Gillen, B; & Burns, D.S; 1977
  12. 12.0 12.1 Clark, M.S; & Mills, J. (1979)
  13. De Santis, A; and Kayson, W. A; 1999
  14. Fisher, Helen. (2004)

References and bibliography

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See also

External links