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Physical attractiveness is the perception of the physical traits of an individual human person as aesthetically pleasing or beautiful, and can include various implications such as sexual attractiveness and physique. What is considered physically attractive is dependent on three factors: universal perceptions common to all human cultures, cultural and social aspects and individual subjective preferences.

Despite universally held perceptions of beauty in both sexes, males 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 likely signaled less by physical features. Some thinkers speculate that older men prefer younger women as marriage partners, since the younger women were more likely to have more healthy children as a result, and beauty was a sign of youth and fertility. There appear to be universal standards regarding attractiveness both within and across cultures and ethnic groups.

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. In certain instances, physical attractiveness is distinct from sexual attraction; humans may regard the young as attractive for various reasons, for example, but without sexual attraction.

Determinants of male physical attractiveness

V-shaped torso and muscularity

The mesomorphic physique of a slim waist, broad shoulders and muscular chest are often found to be attractive. 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. A degree of hirsuteness and a waist-to-shoulder ratio of 0.6 is often preferred, when combined with a mesomorphic physique.

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 have reduced height and muscularity.

Height and erect posture

Females' sexual attraction towards males is sometimes partly determined by the height of the man. Height in men is associated with status in many cultures, which is beneficial to women romantically involved with them. This preference may have been passed on genetically. As a corollary, shorter men may be viewed as less attractive, all other things being equal, for casual and intended long-term relationships. One study conducted of women's personal ads support the existence of this preference; the study found that in ads requesting height in a mate, 80 percent requested a height of 6 feet or taller. However, this percentage was only of ads specifying height, and therefore possibly self-selected and/or biased by a third factor such as female height.

Additionally, 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.

Cosmopolitan Magazine published an article suggesting that women are most attracted to men who are 1.1 times their own height. The article also argued, on the basis of a survey of their readers, 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. In addition, the article claimed that women may have these different preferences for height depending on the phase of their menstrual cycle at the time. While women usually desire men to be at least the same height as themselves or taller, several 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 prominent chin, strong brow, a strong nose, a high forehead and a prominent lower jaw whereas feminine features are less pronounced. According to one study, men with facial scars are more attractive to Western women seeking short-term relationships; this may be due to the perception that facial scars are a symbol of high testosterone and masculinity.

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, breast size, breast symmetry, body mass proportion and facial symmetry.

Facial alignment

In a study by University of Louisvillemarker psychologist Michael Cunningham, dimensions and proportions of what was regarded as attractive emerged with remarkable consistency. The ideal attractive female face featured "eye width that is three-tenths the width of the face at the eyes' level; chin length, one-fifth the height of the face; distance from the center of the eye to the bottom of the eyebrow, one-tenth the height of the face; the height of the visible eyeball, one-fourteenth the height of the face; the width of the pupil, one-fourteenth the distance between the cheekbones; and the total area for the nose, less than 5 percent of the area of the face." Very small differences mattered; for example, "the ideal mouth was half or 50 percent the width of the face at mouth level; if that percentage varied "by as little at 10 points," the face was rated as less attractive. The study found the "beauty of the female face ... is mathematically quantifiable."

Desired traits were large female eyes, small chin and nose, and these "infantlike features draw out in them the same caretaking response a baby would–they make a woman seem cute and adorable." Further, high wide cheekbones and narrow cheeks are "signs that a woman has reached puberty" and "high eyebrows, dilated pupils and wide smile" signal excitement and sociability. One psychologist speculated there were two opposing principles of female beauty: prettiness and rarity. So average, symmetrical features is one ideal, while unusual, stand-out features is another.

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. High, firm breasts, fair or long and lustrous hair (or a combination of the three), full red lips, clear smooth skin, and clear eyes, are viewed as attractive in women.

Breast size

Full breasts may be attractive to men in Western societies because women with higher breast to under-breast ratios typically have higher levels of the sex hormone, estradiol, which promotes fertility. Larger breasts also display the aging process more noticeably, hence they are a relatively reliable indicator of long-term fertility.

Proportion of body mass to body structure

Social ideals of body proportions can change.
This 1895 advertisement promotes a weight gain product.
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 do not appear to have evolved to hold a particular build as more attractive, but rather to be drawn to whichever build associates with social status.

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. Some speculate that thinness as a beauty standard is one way in which women judge each other. A reporter asked: "Why do women suffer to look like skeletons even when men don’t want them to?" and wondered whether "women's aesthetic judgments are so influenced by other women." The reporter surmised that thinness is prized among women as a "sign of independence, strength and achievement." Some blame the fashion industry from pushing an "unnatural thinness" with "waiflike models who paraded down the catwalk" and that these unattainable and dangerous examples of slimness could be harmful to young, impressionable women. There is speculation that some beauty standards for thinness are harmful to women since they encourage extreme dieting; in one instance, a Ralph Lauren advertisement of a model was digitally altered to make her hips appear thinner than her head, and the distorted image caused controversy about whether the thin-beauty standard was false and harmful.

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 Jessica Alba, Marilyn Monroe, Salma Hayek, 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. The hourglass shape characterized by a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 has been described as attractive.


Most males exhibit a preference for females of shorter physical stature than themselves. Women .7 to 1.7 standard deviations below the mean in height are the most reproductively successful. One possible explanation is that shorter females may reach sexual maturity earlier than their taller counterparts. An alternative explanation is that since most men demonstrate a preference for women shorter than themselves, being shorter allows a woman access to a larger potential dating pool.

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, University of Washingtonmarker sociologist Pierre L. van den Berghe writes:"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 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).

In eastern parts of Asia, including Southeast Asia, a preference for lighter skin remains prevalent. In East Asia in particular, fair skin is associated with beauty and 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. While in Malaysia, up to 48% of Malaysian women use skin whitening products . Some Asian women, trying to conform to a Western beauty standard, have plastic surgery known as blepharoplasty to alter their eyelids to make their eyes "appear fuller, less slanted, more Western." A reporter found plastic surgery was booming in South Koreamarker as a result and wrote "Korea’s standard for beauty is this: the more Western you look, the better."

The perception of beauty can be influenced by racial stereotypes about skin color; the African American journalist Jill Nelson wrote that "to be both prettiest and black was impossible" and elaborated:
"As a girl and young woman, hair, body, and color were society's trinity in determining female beauty and identity, the cultural and value-laden gang of three that formed the boundaries and determined the extent of women's visibility, influence, and importance. For the most part, they still are. We learn as girls that in ways both subtle and obvious, personal and political, our value as females is largely determined by how we look. As we enter womanhood, the pervasive power of this trinity is demonstrated again and again in how we are treated by the men we meet, the men we work for, the men who wield power, how we treat each other and, most of all, ourselves. For black women, the domination of physical aspects of beauty in women's definition and value render us invisible, partially erased, or obsessed, sometimes for a lifetime, since most of us lack the major talismans of Western beauty. Black women find themselves involved in a lifelong effort to self-define in a culture that provides them no positive reflection."

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. However, this may be due to self-fulfilling prophecy; from a young age, attractive people receive more attention that helps them develop these characteristics. But attractiveness varies by society; in ancient China, a "set of withered or amputated toes at the end of crippled feet, which were jammed into the smallest possible slipper," was attractive, so foot binding was practiced by confining young girls' feet in tightly bound shoes to prevent the feet from growing to normal size.

Physical attractiveness can have various effects. A survey conducted by London Guildhall Universitymarker 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 his/her peers while maturing, even these considerations would suggest a significant role for physical appearance. One writer speculated that "the distress created in women by the spread of unattainable ideals of female beauty" might possibly be linked to increasing incidents of depression.

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

One writer wondered whether free-market capitalist systems encourage female beauty, based on the writer's speculation that in the days of the Soviet Unionmarker, there had been no "market for female beauty" with fashion magazines and TV series which "depended upon beautiful women for high ratings" and few "men rich enough to seek out beautiful women and marry them." So Russianmarker women began seeming to be more attractive after the end of communism and the switch to free markets with fancy clothes, cosmetics, and fashion magazines, according to this writer. Beauty advertising in capitalist countries is big business and tends to use one of two approaches: "show the customer the bombshell they could be with the help of a certain makeup or diet", or "show the fearful consequences of declining: the horrible frizzy hair or monstrous pimples that will develop if you dare pass up a certain shampoo or face wash."

Many have asserted that certain advantages tend to come to those who 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.

Some researchers conclude that little difference exists between men and women in terms of sexual behavior. Symmetrical men and women have a tendency to begin to have sexual intercourse at an earlier age, 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 have the most reproductive success. Therefore, their physical characteristics are most likely to be inherited by future generations.

In the novel Skin Deep by Diana Wagman, a former topless waitress answers a classified ad seeking from a man wanting to learn about beauty; he asks her to wear a shapeless navy blue costume to hide her attractiveness during these discussions. And the waitress discovers that it's difficult to separate her identity as a person from her physical appearance. Columnist Maureen Dowd thought that the feminist movement would have changed the rules regarding beauty, but concluded after forty years that "the ideal of feminine beauty is more rigid and unnatural than ever" and she still felt imprisoned by the "tyranny of the girdled, primped ideal of the 50's." She wrote:
What I don't like now is that the young women rejecting the feminist movement are dressing alike, looking alike and thinking alike.
The plumage is more colorful, the shapes are more curvy, the look is more plastic, the message is diametrically opposite - before it was don't be a sex object; now it's be a sex object - but the conformity is just as stifling.

Beauty standards change with pop culture. In the United Statesmarker in 2009, TV stars like Tina Fey have been seen as the Geek goddess, according to one account.

See also


References and bibliography

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