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Explanations > Evolution > Beauty

Female beauty | Male beauty | Other factors | See also


What is beauty? Why do we find some people attractive and others unattractive? Evolution has given us the appreciation of beautiful people for a particular purpose.

Female beauty

A lot of what we call beauty is designed as a way of provoking men to seek to mate with women who seem most likely to be able to have and nurture babies. Hence men like:

  • Younger women who are more likely to be fertile
  • Well-shaped breasts for feeding their offspring
  • Slim body that indicates health and fitness
  • Wider hips to ensure no problems in birthing (waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7-0.9 is best)
  • Long legs that indicates general health and may lead to taller offspring
  • Clear eyes, unblemished skin and good teeth, that indicates a lack of disease
  • Generally 'average' body features and proportions, such as facial symmetry, that indicates no genetic problems
  • Shiny hair that indicates health

The often cited 'large breasts' as an attraction was revised to 'shapely, perky' breasts in a 2016 survey. Larger breasts sag with age, suggesting a loss in fertility. Those which hold their shape (which are often mid-sided to smaller) suggest continued fertility and hence are found to be more arousing by men.

Studies in the University of Louisville have shown that there are ideal proportions for the female face, including:

  • Eye width 3/10 times width of face (at eye level)
  • Chin length 1/5 height of the face
  • Middle of eye to bottom of the eyebrow is 1/10 height of face
  • Height of visible eyeball 1/14 height of face
  • Pupil width 1/14 distance between cheekbones
  • Nose area less than 5% of the area of the whole face

Men are also programmed to like babies and children, to ensure they protect and do not harm them. Consequently they respond well to female features such as:

  • Blonde hair (many people with darker hair were blonde babies)
  • Wide, big eyes (eyes stay the same size but the head grows)
  • Red cheeks
  • Small chin and nose
  • Shorter in height (to invoke protective instincts)
  • Helplessness (also invoking protectiveness)

Men are easily deceived and are easily taken in by visual enhancements from the use of make-up, for example:

  • Bright red lips that draw attention and echo genitals
  • Foundation to cover the spots and cracks
  • Dark eye rims and eye shadow that emphasize and make eyes look bigger

Clothing can also help, for example:

  • Bright colors and patterns that attract attention
  • Brassieres that push up breasts and make them look bigger
  • Constraining under-garments that hold in undesirable bulges
  • Low-cut tops that displays breasts
  • Short skirts that show slim legs and draw attention to genital area
  • Tight clothes that emphasize slimness and body shape

Body language can also help enhance the image of beauty and attractiveness, including:

  • Displays of vulnerability that trigger protective instincts
  • Touching and moving certain parts of the body (wouldn't you like to do this?)
  • Prolonged eye contact with inviting, dilated pupils

Male beauty

Generally men are more proactive in acquiring a female partner than women and so need less physical attractiveness. In consequence physical beauty is generally less important for a woman than the ability of the man to protect and feed her and her children. Nevertheless, women are still affected by physical appearance. Aspects of beauty that are important for them include:

  • Clear eyes and skin, with good teeth, that indicates health and fitness
  • Taller (with longer legs) and stronger to be able to feed and protect mate and offspring
  • V-shaped torso, with wide shoulders and narrower waist that shows strength and fitness
  • Masculine features, such as larger chin and jaw, that indicate virility
  • Generally 'average' body features and proportions, such as facial symmetry, that indicates no genetic problems

Symbols of power and affluence that indicate the man's ability to protect and support his family are also helpful, including:

  • Being clean and well-dressed
  • Holding a position of seniority in the organization or society
  • Having unnecessary 'toys' such as expensive watches, fast cars, etc., that indicate excess wealth
  • Acting in dominant way towards other males

A dilemma that women face is that they want a strong man to protect them and their children, yet they also want a gentle man who will not hurt them. As a result, the choices they make tend to vary widely.

Other factors

There are a number of other factors that affect and are affected by beauty that are worthy of note.

Cultural variants

Beauty is in the (culturally conditioned) eye of the beholder, although some translates well.

The factors described above (and much related research) are generally about Western cultures. Other cultures may vary somewhat in their model of beauty, for example greater body weight in cultures where food is scarce may be seen as an indicator of health and affluence. Affluence may also be indicated by such as long nails and pale skin (not having to work outdoors).

Lighter skin has been found to be preferred in many cultures, including where most people have darker skin pigmentation, perhaps because blemishes that indicate health issues are easier to see.

Beauty and niceness

Whilst beauty can lead to arrogance, it is more common for good-looking people to be friendlier and generally nicer. Perhaps this is because they find it easier to persuade using their beauty. It may also appear because of the assumptive leakage across from 'nice looks' to 'nice person' and the social effects that lead from this.

On the other hand, less attractive people easily become disillusioned and aggrieved by being spurned by the attractive would-be partners they desire. Against this, less attractive people may alternatively make up for their limited physical beauty by being nice. From experience, they may realize that beauty is more than skin deep and look for the real person and not just the outer surface.

Beauty and success

Good looks can help you be successful. For example, attractive people have been found to get more signatures on petitions and are generally more successful at persuading others. They are also more likely to be acquitted when hauled up in court. This seems likely to be affected by the 'niceness' advantage.

In the manner of success breeding success, the opposite is also true and less attractive people may learn that it is not worth trying and so fall into the 'learned helplessness' trap. It is possible also that lack of beauty leads to greater determination and so to other forms of success. Unattractive people are also less likely to be accused of succeeding through their looks rather than their intelligence.

Baby face

Both men and women respond to baby-face features. We even respond more positively to 'cute' animals that somehow mimic the human baby. This makes sense as evolution needs adults to actively protect their progeny.

Ethnologist Konrad Lorenz and his successors described this kindchenschema to include:

  • Round head

  • Wide, curved forehead

  • Large, round eyes

  • Round protruding cheeks

  • Small chin

  • Small, short nose

  • Low positioning of eyes, nose and mouth (larger forehead)

We respond broadly to these general patterns, which have been used to make all kinds of products attractive, from kettles to cars.

Similar partners

People who pair up and get married do tend to be of similar beauty. This may be due to attractive people having more choice. There may also be an effect where an unattractive person with an attractive partner might reasonably fear that the partner may be wooed away by someone else more attractive. Another possibility is the similarity effect, where we like people who are like us in some way.

Female cycles

Men find ovulating women more attractive, perhaps through subtle scent changes due to such as cervical mucus production, or skin color affected by basal temperature change. Ovulating women also experience increased sexual desire which may appear in their body language.

Red is a common sexual attractor, probably due to skin becoming more red during fertile periods, particularly in genital areas. Blushing may have some similar attractive quality as it makes the skin redder (although this is also a submissive signal, which again is sexually attractive).

In a curious study of lap dancers (Miller et al, 2007), it was found that those who were ovulating made almost twice as much money in tips. Those who were 'in between' ovulation and normal also experienced some increase in earnings.

Interestingly also (and perhaps not surprisingly), Penton-Voak and Perrett (2000) found that women who are ovulating find men with more masculine features more attractive, whilst at other times they prefer more feminine features. Women also prefer masculine features more during their reproductive years, between puberty and menopause.

Natural beauty

Beauty is evolutionary. It is an adaptive effect that we extend and intensify in works of art and entertainment. Pleasure is evolutionary - it gets us doing things which are good for survival.

Beauty is nature's way of acting at a distance. It is first about the pleasure of looking, which then leads to evolutionary advantage.

Nice landscapes are typical of Pleistocene where we evolved, where there were plains which are easy to walk and find food. Trees forking near the ground is better (you can scramble up these in a fix). Blue-ish water in the medium distance indicate that it is probably clean and accessible. Indications of animal or bird life show land that can sustain life. Distant mountains bound and provide walls to a safer environment. A path, riverbank or shore that leads into this scene gives a safe way in.

The appreciation of landscape is now built in and is universally liked, even by those who do not have it to hand.

Pear-shaped hand-axes have been found everywhere - Africa, Europe, .... Often with no evident wear. They are symmetrical, meticulously created, attractive materials. Seem to be earliest known works of art. Prized for beauty and workmanship. Good for attracting the opposite sex... Homo Erectus who made these didn't have language (100K years before language).

So what?

Understand the drivers of beauty and either avoid the evolutionary traps or make use of them in your persuasions. Beware in this of gender effects that can get you into trouble!

See also

Romantic body language


Grammer, K., Thornhill, R. (1994). Human (homo sapiens) Facial Attractiveness and Sexual Selection: The Role of Symmetry and Avergeness. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 108, 233-243.

Little A.C., Burt D.M. and Perrett DI. (2006). What is good is beautiful: face preference reflects desired personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 41, 1107-1118

Miller, G. Tybur, J.M. and Jordan, B.D. (2007). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?, Evolution and Human Behavior, 28, 6, 375-381

Penton-Voak, I. S., Perrett, D. I. (2000). Female Preference for Male Faced Changes Cyclically. Evolutionary Human Behaviour, 21, 39-48

Parsons, C., Young, K., Kumari, N., Stein, A., and Kringelbach, M. (2011). The Motivational Salience of Infant Faces Is Similar for Men and Women. PLoS ONE, 6 (5)


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