What really makes us attractive to the opposite sex

Sunday, October 12, 2008
Sex, science and the art of seduction
Sex, science and the art
Humans have long been baffled by just what shapes sexual attraction. Why do we find some people beautiful and others not? And is there anything we can do to make ourselves more attractive?

In her fascinating new book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, American science journalist Jena Pincott collates scores of academic studies to reveal what really makes us attractive to the opposite sex.

What makes a face beautiful?

What magic do the beautiful have that most of us lack? Neuroscientists, psychologists and anthropologists have all taken a stab at deconstructing facial beauty.

Overall, they’ve focused on three measures: averageness (how closely the size and shape of facial features match the average), symmetry (how closely the two sides of the face match) and sexual dimorphism (how feminine or masculine the face appears).

We’re talking about only facial shape and features here, not age, expression or complexion.

You might think the first one, averageness, seems odd. By definition, isn’t average just average? But most of us don’t have average features. When compared to the average, your eyes may be too wide or close-set, your eyebrows uneven or your nose too sharp.

When a computer-generated composite is created by merging a whole series of faces together, it’s possible to see a single face which could be described as the average of all the other faces (with the average-sized nose and the average-sized jaw and so on).

In academic tests, judges rate that average face as more attractive than any one of the faces that constitute it. The more faces that are blended in the composite, the more attractive the result.

So what draws us all to the middle? Researchers have several theories. For one, familiarity breeds attraction: we learn to identify patterns in the faces we see around us, and that means that medium - or average - proportions would be more familiar to us than distinctive features such as potato noses, wide-set eyes, underbites and chipmunk cheeks.

That, in turn, makes them more attractive.

Conversely, distinctive and unattractive features may subconsciously warn us of the presence of undesirable, recessive genes.

Looking at portraits of the inbred Habsburgs, you can see how members of one of the ruling houses of Europe shared the same DNA to the extent that their looks and health suffered - it shows up in their protruding lower lips and misshapen noses.

Aside from these inbuilt adult reactions to beauty, studies with babies also suggest that ‘beauty detectors’ are hard-wired in our brains from birth.

Infants as young as one day old, when exposed simultaneously to beautiful and unattractive faces, consistently gaze longer at the attractive faces.

The neural mechanism that enables babies to distinguish beautiful from plain is unknown, but it is widely agreed that it exists. People from different cultures also generally agree on what faces are attractive or not.

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Symmetry, the second measure of beauty, can make or break the beauty equation. Look at actress Gwyneth Paltrow for an example of a beautiful but slightly atypical face. Her mouth is wider than average, and so is the space between her eyes. On another person these distinctive features might not be so stunning, but Gwyneth’s face happens to be perfectly symmetrical.

This is also true of supermodels Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford (minus the mole). Not all beautiful faces are symmetrical, and not all symmetrical faces are beautiful, but symmetry often plays a role in attraction.

Like averageness, symmetry suggests a certain physical robustness. If you grow up with symmetrical features - despite risk of disease, genetic mutations, starvation, pollution and parasites - there’s a better chance you’re fit and healthy and your body can ward off infection.

Researchers at the University of New Mexico measured the chin length, jaws, lip width, eye width and height of more than 400 men and women to determine their facial symmetry.

Comparing the results against each participant’s health records, they found that people with the most symmetrical features were healthier (i.e. had shorter and fewer respiratory infections and took fewer antibiotics).

Masculinity or femininity (sexual dimorphism) is the third measure of attractiveness. In men, the hormone testosterone is behind prominent jawlines and cheekbones, thicker brow ridges, larger noses, smaller eyes, thinner lips, facial hair and a relatively long lower half of the face.

Women are attracted to rugged, masculine faces because they signal strong immune systems and, potentially, high fertility.

Oestrogen is behind the ‘beauty’ that men perceive in female faces. It plumps out women’s lips and skin and produces smaller and pointier chins, smaller noses, rounder cheekbones, eyebrows high above the eyes and a bottom of the face that is narrower than the top half.

Why big breasts ARE best

Nobody has a definitive answer as to why women’s breasts are so sexy and get so big, but all theories have something to do with fertility.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that cleavage serves as a sort of proxy for the swollen rumps that other female primates get in heat.

Freudian psychologists offer theories about men’s Oedipus complex: they’re always looking for a mother figure (literally). Anthropologists believe that women developed larger, permanent breasts as our species adapted to a harsher environment and became bigger-brained and bipedal.

By storing fat reserves in their chests (and thighs and bottoms) year-round, even when not nursing, our foremothers survived the elements and the rigours of pregnancy, birth and child-rearing.

Large breasts may be a sign of increased fertility, which could help explain why so many men think bigger busts are better: the fat that accumulates in your chest (as well as your bottom, thighs and hips) does so under the influence of the hormone oestrogen, which also affects your ability to conceive.

A study by Harvard epidemiologist Grazyna Jasienska found that full-figured women are roughly three times as likely to get pregnant as women with other body types. (To qualify in the study, the circumference of your torso around your breasts would have to be at least 20 per cent larger than it is under your breasts.)

Breasts are an advertisement of age, health and good genes, which is why anthropologists think they’re crucial to sexual selection even in cultures that don’t eroticise the chest any more than the face.

Wrinkles? Don't despair

Think those fine lines and wrinkles make you less attractive to the opposite sex? Not necessarily.

In scientific tests, men gave low attractiveness ratings to older-looking faces when asked who they saw as a potential partner for a short-term relationship.

No surprise here - men are biased towards youthful-looking women with childbearing years ahead, and they generally marry women who are younger. However, intriguingly, if a man’s mother was over 30 when he was born, he was likely to be more tolerant of ageing in women’s faces in the context of a long-term relationship.

Only the mother’s age at his birth, not the father’s, influenced a man’s acceptance of older looking women’s faces. This may have to do with sexual inprinting, the tendency for a person to seek a mate who resembles his or her opposite-sex parent. (This means if you’re trying to gauge a man’s tolerance to ageing faces, it doesn’t hurt to ask him how old Mum was when he was born.)

Further research will reveal whether men with older mums more often marry older women. There’s evidence that women with older dads more often marry older men.

Sorry girls, but gentlemen DO prefer blondes

It's a cliche - but research shows that yes, in most of Europe and America, there does seem to be a male preference for blonde women. According to Canadian anthropologist Peter Frost, this was true during the Ice Age when, because of the extreme dangers associated with hunting for food, there were far fewer men than women.

Although there was a surfeit of females, the men who were around were unable to take on more than one ‘wife’ because of the daily challenges of supporting a family, and they often chose a blonde.

Fair hair then was very rare and stood out in a sea of brunettes. And as we know from walking into any shop, visual merchandising is the key to success. For ancestral Europeans, blonde hair was the equivalent of brilliant, shiny packaging. Modern men are attracted to blonde hair for the same reason: it’s eye-catching.

The human eye is attracted to light, bright colours, so blondes stand out more than brunettes and even redheads. Blonde hair is also associated with youth and fertility, as hair colour naturally darkens with age.

According to a study by Polish psychologists, men clearly prefer blondes when judging the appearance of women older than 25. Hair colours are more desirable when they’re uncommon, too. In most countries, blonde is usually the unique and the most eye-catching - but not everywhere. In Scandinavia, where blondes are commonplace, men often say they prefer brunettes.

Likewise, when researchers at the University of Washington asked male subjects to choose which woman they’d desire as a partner among selections of brunettes and blondes, the preference for a brunette increased in proportion to the rarity of brunettes in the selection. (However, if a shade is so rare that it’s virtually nonexistent, such as blonde in Africa and Asia, men may not necessarily prefer it.)

Another factor that can play a part in a man’s hair colour preference is sexual imprinting - which means that a man has a bias towards a mate who resembles his parents.

A man with a dark-haired mother might be more likely to choose a brunette for a long-term relationship.Type rest of the post here

1 comments:

{ fanny } | 1:44 PM said...

what about the research which indicates a preference in Japan for very young looking girls without breasts or curves and well, I believe that blonds in Asian are rare indeed...

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