Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Physical attractiveness is the perception of an individual as physically beautiful by other people. Some aspects of how a person is judged beautiful are universal to all cultures, whereas others are restricted to particular cultures or time periods. Physical attractiveness can have a huge effect on how people are judged — people tend to attribute positive characteristics such as intelligence and honesty to attractive people without consciously realizing it.
Physical attractiveness is distinct from sexual attractiveness. For example, people often regard children — both human and animal — as being highly physically attractive or 'cute' because of their relatively large eyes, but without sexual attraction.
Judgment of physical attractiveness
One's own culture has a strong effect in determining who a person considers as physically attractive. As children grow up, they learn what their culture considers attractive. Movies and cartoons, frequently portray the villain as being ugly, whereas the protagonist is depicted as attractive. Children are shown examples of what is considered as beauty 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
That said, cultures tend to agree on what is attractive. There is a strong correlation between judgements 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. 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.
Waist-to-Hip Ratio and female attractiveness
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. Such diverse beauty icons as Marilyn Monroe, Twiggy, Sophia Loren, Kate Moss, and the Venus de Milo all have ratios around 0.7. The ratio signals fertility—as they age, women's waists thicken as their fertility declines.
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, in various cultures, the optimal body proportion is interpreted differently due to cultural learnings and traditions. The Western ideal considers a slim and slender body mass as optimal while many ancient traditions and Asian societies considers 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.
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.
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" (Berscheid and Reis, 1998). 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. It celebrates the extra-ordinary (from the latin root meaning over or extremely-ordinary) as the prototype or most beautiful.
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). 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.
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 other universal or near-universal qualities which make human females attractive to males. In addition to the predictors of good health and reproductive fitness, these include facial features which may stimulate the male sexual response by their resemblance to aroused female genital areas, and features which resemble those of human infants, who are universally appealing to both sexes of a species. Among these other determinants are:
- Symmetry of features: an indicator of lack of disease or injury
- Clear complexion: indicator of health
- Contrasting colors and features: such as well-delineated eyebrows, dark lashes, dark eyes/light face or light eyes/dark face; these heighten the features of attraction, perhaps a holdover from primitive forebears with less acute vision
- Large, symmetrical, white teeth: indicator of reproductive vigor and ability to defend young; also health and contrast
- Prominent zygomas (cheek bones), especially with a blush of color: paired, rounded forms, especially if pigmented, stimulate the same male response as the flushed buttocks of simian females in mating position
- Thick, vivid lips: as for #5, the genital parallel is inescapable
- Large, widely spaced eyes: paired, rounded forms; also similar to a baby’s appearance
- Upturned nose revealing nostril openings: combination of paired, rounded forms with resemblance to baby’s appearance
- Ovoid face, small chin, lack of facial hair: similar to a baby’s appearance
- Thick, lustrous hair: except as indicator of health, a poorly understood determinant
- Soft, higher pitched voice: indicator of non-maleness; submissiveness
Determinants of male physical attractiveness
In the perception of male attractiveness by the female amongst humans, the single most important aspect determining physical attractiveness across cultures is the height of the male. For the woman, the man should be at least a few inches taller than her in order to be perceived as handsome. It would be preferable if the man is at least a little above the average in height in the given population of males. This implies that women look for signs of dominance and power as factors that determine male beauty. Other properties that enhance perception of male attractiveness are a slightly larger chest than the average, and an erect posture. Women seem more receptive to an erect posture than men, though both prefer it as an element of beauty.
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). The beginning of the rise of the gay movement in the late-twentieth century Western world began to influence consideration of what was physically attractive in men. Today, certain characteristics are generally accepted throughout the Western world as signs of physical attractiveness. These are, of course, far from universal:
1) A muscular physique. This largely arose as a social backlash against effeminate homosexual men - in order to set themselves apart, many straight and gay men built muscular bodies as a symbol of their masculinity. Today, muscular physiques are generally desired by most men in the West, but extreme over-development can be viewed as undesirable to some women. However, muscularly defined bodies are generally considered highly attractive as an indicator that the man engages in sports and exercise. Amongst the gay community, a muscled body is generally considered highly attractive. Male physiques which are not accepted as attractive by large sectors of society are - fat (often perceived as a sign that the man is either lazy or greedy) and overly slim bodies (seen as indicative of the man not engaging in sports or exercise).
2) A unique hairstyle. Amongst African-Americans and black men throughout the West, a shaved head or very short hair is currently considered attractive, possibly having an influence in increased caucasian and Asian men adopting the hairstyle. However, the popularity of particular hairstyles changes constantly. Hairsyles 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.
3) A facial structure which accentuates skeletal features. 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.
Peoples' views of attractiveness have differed from culture to culture throughout history. In Mediterranean socities 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 labour. 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) as a way of showing that they were wealthy and could avoid working outside. In nineteenth-century Germany, it was considered attractive to be fat (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. The Industrial Revolution vastly altered perceptions of male and female beauty:
> In pre-industrial societies, having a muscular physique and tanned skin signified that the man had to work in the fields all day, and was consequently likely poor and uneducated. Having pale skin and/or a fatter physique was considered highly 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 person 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.
> In post-industrial societies, being pale and/or fat or especially thin is may be viewed as a sign that the person has little regard for his physical state or health. Having tanned skin is viewed as naturally attractive, and as a potential sign that the person takes foreign holidays. False tans , however, can be the subject of humour. 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 both the time and money to frequent a gym. However, having especially large, highly-developed muscles is viewed by some as naturally unattractive, and possibly indicating undesirable aggressiveness or obsession with muscles. In recent decades, a backlash against social stereotypes of male physical attractiveness has increased variation in physiques, hairstyles, fashion trends, etc, often as an expression of individuality in place of conformity to arbitrary stereotypes.
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.
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 simply due to increased self-confidence with people that earn more than average.
Many have asserted that certain advantages tend to come to those that are perceived as being more attractive, including more ease in getting 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. Some argue that having more generally perceived attractiveness 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.
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, and 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. 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 who's behavior over time suggested they would help the female raise her offspring. However, in terms of behavior, some studies suggest little difference between men and women.
- Ellen Berscheid and Harry T. Reis. "Attraction and Close Relationships". In Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, editors, Handbook of Social Psychology, pages 193-281. New York: McGrawHill, 1998.
- Harper, B. "Beauty, Statute and the Labour Market: A British Cohort Study", Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 62, December 2000, pp773-802. Press release and summary
- Fisher, Helen. "Why We Love : The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love", Henry Holt and Co., February 4, 2004
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