Physical attractiveness

Physical attractiveness is the perception of the physical traits of an individual human person as pleasing or beautiful. It can include various implications, such as sexual attractiveness and physique. Judgment of attractiveness of physical traits is partly universal to all human cultures, partly dependent on culture or society or time period, and partly a matter of individual subjective preference.

Despite the existence of universally agreed upon signs of beauty in both genders, both heterosexual and homosexual men tend to place significantly higher value on physical appearance in a partner than women do. This can be explained by evolutionary psychology as a consequence of ancestral humans who selected partners based on secondary sexual characteristics, as well as general indicators of fitness (for example, symmetrical features) enjoying greater reproductive success as a result of higher fertility in those partners, although a male's ability to provide resources for offspring was probably signalled less by physical features. There appear to be universal standards regarding attractiveness, such that raters agree who is and isn't attractive both within and across cultures and ethnicity.

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. Physical attractiveness is distinct from sexual attraction; humans often regard children and young individuals—both human and animal—as being highly attractive for various reasons, but without sexual attraction.

Determinants of male physical attractiveness


Research has found that male physiques with slim waists are rated as being attractive, particularly by females. Participants also identified physiques with relatively broad shoulders as being attractive. In addition, chest muscularity resulted in slightly higher attractiveness ratings. Preference can also emerge for muscularity, though research has shown that Western men have a tendency to overestimate the amount of muscle considered ideal by women by as much as thirty pounds, whereas Asian men collectively do not exhibit such a misconception. A normal level of the hormone testosterone is a possible indicator of good sexual health. In the absence of normal testosterone levels, a man may exhibit physical symptoms of less muscle development and physical height reduction.

A near-universal sexually attractive feature of a man 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. Consistently, men with a waist-to-shoulder ratio of 0.75 or lower are viewed as considerably more attractive than men with more even waists and shoulders.


Female's sexual attraction towards a male can be partly determined by the height of the man. 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. This preference can be explained by evolutionary psychology as the fact that ancestral women who were attracted to tall, physically powerful men benefited from better protection and therefore gained evolutionary fitness. Additionally, height in men is associated with status in many cultures, which is beneficial to women romantically involved with them. This preference was passed on genetically. As a corollary, short men are viewed as unattractive for both casual and intended long-term relationships. Studies of women's personal ads support the existence of this preference; in one study of ads requesting height in a mate, 80 percent requested a height of 6 feet or taller. However, this percentage only was of ads specifying height in the first place, and therefore possibly self-selected and/or biased by a third factor such as female height.

Recent research has found that women are statistically more likely to be attracted to men of average height when looking for long-term commitment, while the opposite is true when a short-term relationship is intended. Cosmopolitan Magazine published an article stating that women are most attracted to men who are 1.1 times their own height. In addition, it was found that women have these different preferences for height depending on the phase of their menstrual cycle at the time. While women usually desire men that are at least the same height as themselves or taller, other factors also determine male attractiveness.

Variability in preferences

It has been shown that women prefer more masculine men during the fertile period of the menstrual cycle and more feminine men during other parts of the cycle. This distinction supports the sexy son hypothesis, which posits that it is evolutionarily advantageous for women to select potential fathers who are traditionally masculine rather than the best caregivers. Masculine facial features are characterized by a strong brow, a strong nose, a high forehead and a broad jaw whereas feminine features are less pronounced.

Determinants of female physical attractiveness

Features such as a symmetrical face, full lips, and low waist-hip ratio are commonly considered physically attractive when part of a female, because they are thought to indicate physical health and high fertility to a potential mate. 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 youth, waist-hip ratio, mid upper arm circumference, body mass proportion and facial symmetry.

Signals of youth

Because female fecundity typically declines after the late twenties, youth is an important aspect of physical attractiveness. One study across 37 cultures showed men desire, on average, a woman 2.5 years younger than themselves for a wife, with men in Nigeria and Zambia at the far extreme, desiring their wives to be 6.5 to 7.5 years younger. As men age, they also desire a larger age gap from their mates. The reasons for this preference are currently debated.

This preference for youth has also led to a preference of neotenic and youthful-appearing features. Full lips, clear, smooth skin, clear eyes, lustrous hair, and good muscle tone are all viewed as attractive in women. Large breasts have also been shown to be attractive to men in Western societies, with the explanation that larger breasts will more explicitly show the aging process, hence an "honest" indicator of fertility.

Proportion of body mass to body structure

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is another important universal determinant to the perception of beauty. 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. Men don't seem to have evolved to hold a particular build as more attractive, but rather to be drawn to whichever build associates with social status.

However, it should be noted that, in the United States, women overestimate men's preferences for thinness in a mate. In one study, American women were asked to choose what their ideal build was and what they thought the build most attractive to men was. Women chose slimmer than average figures for both choices, though when American men were independently asked to choose the female build most attractive to them, they (the men) chose figures of average build, indicating that women may be misled as to how thin men prefer women to be.

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

Waist-hip ratio

Notwithstanding wide cultural differences in preferences for female build, scientists have discovered that the waist-hip ratio (WHR) of any build is very strongly correlated to attractiveness across all cultures. Women with a 0.7 WHR (waist circumference that is 70% of the hip circumference) are usually rated as more attractive by men from European cultures. Such diverse beauty icons as Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and the Venus de Milo all have ratios around 0.7. In other cultures, preferences vary, ranging from 0.6 in China, to 0.8 or 0.9 in parts of South America and Africa, and divergent preferences based on ethnicity, rather than nationality, have also been noted.


Most males exhibit a preference for females of shorter physical stature than themselves, and studies indicate that women of below average height have greater reproductive success. An advantage to smaller size may be that it is seen as more youthful, and males find pedomorphic characteristics in females attractive. Another possible (but unproven) explanation is that shorter females may reach sexual maturity earlier than their taller counterparts.It can also be argued that a shorter, and often generally smaller, female is more attractive to males by bringing out the traditional instincts of protection.

Prototypicality as beauty

Besides biology and culture, there are other factors determining physical attractiveness. The more common features a face bears, the more highly it is usually judged to be attractive. This may be a result of the familiarity of common facial features, an example of the mere exposure effect. When many faces are combined into a composite image (through computer morphing), people usually view the resulting image as more familiar, attractive, and beautiful than the faces that were combined to make the composite. 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 may reveal an "underlying preference for the familiar and safe over the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous." 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." This may show the importance of prototypicality in the judgment of beauty, and also explain the emergence of similarity of the perception of attractiveness within a community or society, which shares a gene pool.

Skin tone

In his foreword to Peter Frost's 2005 Fair Women, Dark Men, U. of Washington sociologist Pierre L. van den Berghe summarizes:
"Although virtually all cultures express a marked preference for fair female skin, even those with little or no exposure to European imperialism, and even those whose members are heavily pigmented, many are indifferent to male pigmentation or even prefer men to be darker. A consequence of this is that, since higher-ranking men marry get to marry the more attractive women, the upper classes of a society generally tend to develop a lighter complexion than the lower classes by sexual selection (see also Fisherian runaway).

Another feature is skin color on the spectrum of dark to light. As with many determinants of attractiveness, there are cultural differences: lighter tones are preferred by some cultures, while in others, tanned or darker skin is preferred. For some time after the Victorian era, 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 the 20th and 21st centuries Western world, tanned skin has often been considered highly attractive for both men and women. Here, the tan has come to carry with it connotations of having an active outdoor lifestyle or frequent vacations in the sun, thus better (implied) physical health or wealth.

In eastern parts of Asia, including Southeast Asia, this preference for lighter skin remains prevalent. In East Asia in particular, fair skin is associated with youth, since skin darkens with exposure to the sun and aging. This conflation of youth and beauty is not exclusive to East Asia, and can be linked to the phenomenon of neoteny. Thus, sales of skin whitening cosmetic products are popular in East Asia. A preference 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.

Social effects of attractiveness

When a person is seen as attractive or unattractive, 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, and attractive people do tend to have these characteristics. However, this is may be due to self-fulfilling prophecy; from a young age, attractive people receive more attention that helps them develop these characteristics.

Physical attractiveness can have various effects. A survey conducted by London Guildhall University of 11,000 people showed that those who subjectively describe themselves as physically attractive earn more income than others who would describe themselves as less attractive. People who described themselves as less attractive earned, on average, 13% less than those who described themselves as more attractive, while the penalty for being overweight was around 5%. It is important to note that other factors such as self-confidence may explain or influence these findings as they are based on self-reported attractiveness as opposed to any sort of objective criteria; however, as one's self-confidence and self-esteem are largely learned from how one is regarded by their peers while maturing, even these considerations would suggest a significant role for physical appearance. Although one reason that unattractive people might not have friends is because they have low self-esteem. This is a big turn-off to some people

Some have proposed that discrimination against or prejudice towards others based on their appearance should be referred to as Lookism.

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.

Both men and women use physical attractiveness as a measure of how 'good' another person is. However, in terms of sexual behavior, some studies suggest little difference between men and women. Symmetrical men and women have a tendency to begin to have sexual intercourse earlier, to have more sexual partners, to engage in a wider variety of sexual activities, and to have more one-night stands. They are also prone to infidelity and are more likely to have open relationships. Symmetrical men and women are also best suited for their environment, and their physical characteristics are most likely to be inherited by future generations.

See also


References and bibliography

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