Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sex, ethnicity, and facial skin perception

Postgraduate students, School of Psychology, Cardiff University

A recent study from Cardiff University (Wales) has found interesting sex differences in the way men and women evaluate facial skin color, specifically for faces of white, black, or mixed-race origin. The female participants evaluated White faces the least favorably out of all male facial photos. Conversely, the male participants evaluated Black faces the least favorably out of all female facial photos. Participants of both sexes gave relatively low ratings to White faces for a wide range of characteristics (attractiveness, competence, dominance, warmth, maturity, strength, masculinity).

Previous research has suggested that perceived attractiveness and personality are affected by the race such that White faces are more attractive but less masculine than Black faces. Such studies, however, have been based on very small stimulus sets. The current study investigated perceived attractiveness and personality for 600 Black, White and mixed-race faces. Many of the investigated personality traits were correlated with race when rated by White participants. Attractiveness specifically was greater for Black male faces than White male faces and among mixed-race faces. Blackness correlated with increased attractiveness. A reverse pattern was found for female faces with Whiteness being associated with attractiveness. The results are discussed in terms of the sexual dimorphism demonstrated in skin color. (Lewis 2010)

These findings are partially consistent with previous studies:

Feinman & Gill 1978
When a thousand American students were surveyed on their physical preferences in the opposite sex, 30% of the males versus 10% of the females disliked black skin. Conversely, 56% of the males versus 82% of the females disliked very light skin.

van den Berghe & Frost 1986
According to a cross-cultural survey, lighter skin is more strongly preferred for women than for men in all culture areas.

Frost 1994
Women have varying preferences over the menstrual cycle when choosing between human faces that differ slightly in skin tone. When pairs of male faces are shown, the darker face is more strongly preferred by participants in the first two-thirds of the cycle (high ratio of estrogen to progesterone) than by those in the last third (low estrogen/progesterone ratio). In contrast, when pairs of female faces are shown, skin-tone preference remains unchanged throughout the cycle.

Nonetheless, Lewis (2010) differs from these previous studies on three points:

1). The participants were asked to evaluate major differences in human skin color that clearly have racial/ethnic significations. In contrast, the previous studies examined how men and women evaluate minor differences. Van den Berghe and Frost (1986) found a cross-cultural preference for lighter-skinned women, but only in the sense of their being lighter than average for the local population. Similarly, Frost (1994) only examined female response to minor differences in skin tone.

2). Dark skin was generally preferred. This preference was merely stronger for male faces than for female faces. In contrast, van den Berghe and Frost (1986) found that light skin was generally preferred, with this preference being stronger in response to female faces. Frost (1994) likewise found that light skin was generally preferred, with this preference being weaker with regard to male faces during the first two-thirds of the menstrual cycle. Even then, the lighter male face remained the more popular of the two.

3). There was no control for phase of menstrual cycle. The sex difference in preference would probably have been greater if the author had excluded those female participants who were in the last third of the menstrual cycle.

The first point probably explains the second one. The author examined how men and women respond to major differences in skin color, and such differences have meanings that go far beyond sexual aesthetics. Because the white British participants had to choose among very divergent skin colors, their responses were almost certainly contaminated by ‘prejudice avoidance’, i.e., they avoided giving low ratings to non-white faces for fear of seeming prejudiced. Since anti-white prejudice is not stigmatized, the tendency would be to overcompensate—to err on the safe side.

Overcompensation is suggested by the results. Black faces were given top rating on all 7 items by the female participants and on 4 of the 7 by the male participants. White faces failed to get top rating on any item. This is particularly surprising given that all of the participants were white British. They apparently wished to avoid seeming prejudiced—even to the point of systematically rejecting their own people.

This source of bias does not invalidate the overall finding, i.e., the sex difference in face ratings. All of the participants were presumably immersed in the same ideological environment, and there is no reason to believe that prejudice avoidance is weaker in men than in women.


Feinman, S., & Gill, G.W. (1978). Sex differences in physical attractiveness preferences. Journal of Social Psychology, 105, 43‑52.

Frost, P. (1994). Preference for darker faces in photographs at different phases of the menstrual cycle: Preliminary assessment of evidence for a hormonal relationship, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 79, 507-514.

Lewis, M.B. (2010). Who is the fairest of them all? Race, attractiveness and skin color sexual dimorphism, Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 159-162.

Van den Berghe, P.L., & P. Frost. (1986). Skin color preference, sexual dimorphism and sexual selection: A case of gene‑culture co‑evolution? Ethnic and Racial Studies, 9, 87‑113.


Ronery Asian Guy said...

I have a question about the skin tone preference among men. In Asia, there are skin whitening products that are not just marketed at women but men as well.

Now, society probably has something to do with this. But it seems that dark skin preference for males is not all it's cracked up to be.

ItsTheWooo said...

I think you need to talk to women in real life, if you really believe women aesthetically prefer black men. Some do of course, but most women prefer caucasian men and this is true even among non-caucasian women.
There is a big difference between tanned darker skin and someone who is extremely dark.

This is the problem when an idea runs out of control and we lose relevance for real life common sense.

Anonymous said...

Was the data obtained from self reports or from actually determining which faces they preferred by measuring gaze duration or something like that?

Self reports are notoriously unreliable, IMO.

Unknown said...

This study is only interesting in that it reflects subjective values in the individuals surveyed, which may measure cultural attitudes associated with each subject's own identity of race, as well as trends or tendencies within those cultures.

As topics about race and color are often emotionally charged, I find the comments on a posting like this nearly as interesting as the posting.

ItsTheWooo2 seems to infer that the results of this survey somehow reflect the opposite-sex preferences of men and women of dark or light skin color, and then seems to be worried that this data will be misused to represent that light skinned women prefer dark skinned men, or perhaps more frankly, that white women prefer black men over white men. This study is not about preference. It presents individual evaluations incorporating numerous criteria (competence, dominance, maturity). Furthermore, ItsTheWooo2's refutation of the study by stating that if one were to only talk to white women to see for themselves that they don't prefer black men seems not a logical response to the article, but perhaps reveals underlying attitudes and insecurities behind the topics that the article represents (black and white race relations, possession, power). ItsTheWooo2's final statement stating the difference between shades of darkness when it comes to skin color only goes on to further represent attitudes and values that class and power is directly tied to "how dark" or "how black" an individual may be.

Anonymous then follows suit by attempting to question the reliability of this study because this involves "self reports". As if self evaluations should be measured according to length of glances, such as another (non-comparative) study.

Anonymous said...

John the wanker said:

Anonymous then follows suit by attempting to question the reliability of this study because this involves "self reports". As if self evaluations should be measured according to length of glances, such as another (non-comparative) study.

What people actually do is more important that what people say, because their self-reports are influenced by social conditioning.

Researchers studying children use glance/stare duration to determine what children are interested in and the same should be done for adult subjects to remove the confounding effects of social conditioning.

Tod said...

Race Bias Tracks Conception Risk Across the Menstrual Cycle - This uses similar methods to some of the studies you cite, but they don't seem to be taking the possibility that sexual dimorphism in skin color makes white men look less of a threat into account, what do you make of it?

We are going to see a lot more of this kind of spin on skin color perception research I suspect.

Peter Frost said...


This is the key difference between Lewis' finding and previous findings. Previous findings found only a relative preference by women for darker skin in the opposite sex. This latest study found an absolute preference.

I see two possible explanations:

1. Sexual preference for darker-skinned men was much more taboo in the past (because of its ethnic/racial connotations). We are thus seeing more honest self-report of women's response to skin tone.

2. Any kind of skin-color discrimination (even in the intimate realm of sexual preferences) has become taboo. We are thus seeing less honest self-report of women's response to skin tone.

As Anon noted, self-report is unreliable and subject to fears of giving the "wrong answer." (and who knows how confidential the answers will be?).

But the alternatives are also costly and often unreliable. I've heard of grad students who have attempted eye gaze studies, only to give up because of the methodological problems involved.

Ideally, MRI scans would be the way to go. Heather Rupp has found that women's response to male skin tone varies over the menstrual cycle, with a more positive response to darker skin during the high estrogen/low progesterone phase.

Anonymous said...

It could be a size thing.

Tod said...

Assume a monogamous mating system with a gender imbalance which meant a man could pick and choose. Men who chose the most faithful mate would become more common over time whereas men who chose the most sexually appealing woman would be at a slightly higher risk of being cuckolded.

I'm just thinking out loud but it must be something like that IMO. Given the long standing and ever increasing extent to which a tanned appearance is percieved as making young women look sexually attractive. It's rather unlikely that a real sexual preference for light skin could be suppressed by a cultural movement to that extent and for so long. Light skin and dark skin can't both be sexually attractive.

Peter Frost said...


The sex difference in skin-tone preference seems to be a relative one. Darker skin is viewed more favorably when women look at male faces than when men look at female faces.

Historically, in Western societies, there was a general preference for lighter skin in both sexes, with the preference being weaker if men were the ones being evaluated.

Today, the sex difference still persists, except that darker skin has become preferred for both sexes. The preference is simply weaker if women are the ones being evaluated.

Undoubtedly, this shift reflects some change in the cultural environment. The usual explanation is 'class envy' -- the rich can afford to vacation in the south; therefore, tanned skin is a sign of wealth.

I'm not hostile to this kind of explanation, but I'm more inclined to think that the shift reflects changes in sexual behavior. If women evolved lighter, smoother skin and a more 'baby face' as a means to reduce male aggressiveness and induce feelings of care (in order to stabilize the pair bond), it may be that tanned female skin evokes a more intense sexual response that is more pleasurable for men over the short term but less conducive to stable pair-bonding.

In other words, there could be a trade-off here, and the point of equilibrium has shifted with the shift toward shorter-term and less monogamous sexual relationships.

ronery asian guy said...

I have a question.

It's worth noting that these studies have been conducted among White People, and I do agree that preference for lighter skin tone among women seems to be universal.

But what about the supposed preference for darker color among men? Is it universal or simply peculiar among white females?

Basing on experience, fair skin for men is valued here in Asia. Not as much as women, but still Asian men who have a lighter skin tone tend to be more valued as pop stars and actors than those with darker skin.

I also know a few women (and some of them are not gold diggers) who often joke about marrying a white person because their skin looks so good to them.

Peter Frost said...


Hiroshi Wagatsuma (1967, p. 419) studied female evaluation of male skin color in Japan. He concluded that sexual preference for darker skin was stronger when women were evaluating male skin color than when men were evaluating female skin color.

“With only a few exceptions, the women interviewed voiced the opinion that Japanese women like light-brown-skinned men, seeing them as more masculine than pale-skinned men. Many women distinguished between “a beautiful man” and “an attractive man.” A beautiful man (bi-danshi) is white-skinned and delicately featured like a Kabuki actor. Although he is admired and appreciated almost aesthetically, he is, at the same time, considered somewhat “too feminine” for a woman to depend upon. There is sometimes a reference to the saying, “A beautiful man lacks money and might.” On the other hand, an attractive man (ko-danshi) is dusky-skinned, energetic, masculine, and dependable. Women often associate light-brown skin in a man with a dauntless spirit, a capacity for aggressive self-assertion, and a quality of manly sincerity.”

But I agree with your main point. All in all, eroticisation of darker skin is weaker in East Asia than in the Western world. In this respect, the East Asian situation is similar to what existed in the Western world a hundred years ago, i.e., there is a sex difference in evaluation of skin tone, but it covers a lighter range of chromatic values.


Wagatsuma, H. (1967). The social perception of skin color in Japan, Daedalus 96, 407-443, p. 419.

Tod said...

Japanese women are light but not white, maybe there is a point at which the ligher skin stops being sexually attactive and becomes 'caring and sharing' inducing; the Japanese never got that far but Europeans did. I have always been impressed with the way redheads with their extremely white skin are underepresented as sex symbols; lots of redheads bleach to blonde but natural blondes don't go red much.

If women evolved lighter, smoother skin and a more 'baby face' as a means to reduce male aggressiveness and induce feelings of care (in order to stabilize the pair bond

Hmmm, 'stabilize the pair bond' sounds like something that keeps a mate interested but in fact the light skin color is not really doing that in this context, if it is a superficial adaptation to stop women getting bashed about and starved by their brutish mates. By my way of thinking that's not sexual selection at all; more like infantile mimickry. Is it really permissable to call that sexual selection?

Whether it is or not I don't think it is a good idea to call it SS because it puts up a barrier to understanding and acceptance of the idea to call it sexual selection. Blonde hair is SS obviously and people - already understanding that at a subconscious level - get it immediately. White skin is different. It is certainly true that very feminine women have a vulnerable quality but does that really help them get a mate?

The idea of men actually selecting women for their white skin strikes a lot of people as slightly creepy. Maybe this is because it is contrary to the actual preference which is for a light brown skin in women.

Peter Frost said...


I've never argued that the sex difference in human skin color originally came about through sexual selection (at least not in the narrow sense of mate choice"

On the other hand, I do believe that the depigmentation of Europeans was due to sexual selection.

"the actual preference which is for a light brown skin in women."

That preference is quite recent, essentially since the 1920s (when tanning entered women's fashion). Are you arguing that sexual selection only dates back to that time period?

Tod said...

I didn't mean to suggest the sex difference in human skin color was evolved through sexual selection in the narrow sense of mate choice.

Given intense sexual selection of women lighter colored skin for women may be sexually selected for when the average is just a medium brown but I'm wondering if that process could go on until European full on 'white' skin was reached. Why did Japanese skin not go white in the way that Europeans did?

My proposed explaination is that once the lightening of skin by sexual selection gets to a certain point (let's say that point is more or less the skin tone of a Japanese woman), it halts. The reason is because sexual selection does not act on skin lighter than that certain point, so skin ( such as that of Europeans) that gets lighter than that certain cut off point for sexual selection must have lightened by some other mechanism i.e. selection of light skin for infantile mimickry.

In other words nothing actually changed in the 1920s because the white skin of Europeans was never any kind of turn on for men. that last bit of skin lightening to European skin was different to all the previous lightening because it was due to infantile mimickry.

The long standing preference for white skin was a cultural one tied up with concern with the chastity of maidens, eg chivalry and courtly love.

Tod said...

I've read a lot of ideas on this blog, on reflection some of them are reminiscent of what I've called "my" explaination above. It actually might be your explaination which I am rehashing in a convoluted way. If that is the case - sorry.

Vertumne said...

"In other words, there could be a trade-off here, and the point of equilibrium has shifted with the shift toward shorter-term and less monogamous sexual relationships."

Yes, this is what I call "tropicalization" of our societies. We are becoming culturally more and more african. Women choose not men with hard work, reliability, and faithfulness "K strategy" characteristics, but men who chat them up, dance well, have a lot muscle, etc. i.e. typically african mating characteristics. We just have to follow the evolution of dancing since the nineteenth century. Dance, which was a graceful, "monogamous" thing (like waltz) is now an individualistic mumbo jambo series of moves with sexual overtones in order to attract a one-night stand partner.

Peter Frost said...


In the late 1980s, I interviewed seniors about popular notions of ideal skin tone that prevailed before the 1920s. All of them were emphatic that women should be as fair as possible. The interviewees had lived on farms where women were expected to do a lot of outside work, so this preference imposed a significant economic cost (sun avoidance, protective clothing even on hot days, etc.).

I can't say whether the men considered white female skin a 'turn-on'. The men used a different kind of language: "C'est ce que j'ai toujours aimé". "Ça me plaisait" etc. I get the impression that sexual beauty was more contemplative in the past, but I can't say for sure. Those people are now dead and gone.


Yes, I agree. We're moving into a very different kind of mating environment. When I talk with old married men, I'm surprised by how nice but dull they are. They score high on 'character' but low on 'personality'.

Conversely, young men who succeed with women today tend to score high on personality and low on character. They talk a great talk but it's all piffle.

Tod said...

I remember reading somewhere that in rural Normandy there was traditionally a very free and easy attitude to sex outside of marriage. Were the inhabitants of rural Normandy big on avoiding the sun before the twenties I wonder.

Tod said...

Many animals mate seasonally, for ice ace hunters with a seasonal period of hunger when would be the best time for conception ? I've read it would be would be the late summer for stone age humans. Perhaps it is significant that there would be a tan by then.

And there is that connection between tanning (or at least a tanning drug) and sexual arousal.

Ben10 said...

Tod: "Many animals mate seasonally, for ice ace hunters with a seasonal period of hunger when would be the best time for conception ? I've read it would be would be the late summer for stone age humans"

Exactly, we should go back to stone age european physiology to understand how and why modern white skinned europeans were selected. That sexual selection filtered for neotenic caracters is very likely and I believe that too, like Peter, but it doesn't mean that white skin was not linked to other usefull caracters that we take for granted in darker skinned europens.
Paul Emile Victor reported that inuit women did not menstrue all year long. What about the brown skinned european hunters? do we know that?
Peter already said here that skeleton reccords indicate a higher number of women versus men, which fits nicely with his sexual selection theory, but what about menoposis and androposis in hunters gatherers?
I believe the average lifespan for gorillas-chimps is about 40 years, it's about the reproductive limit for women, but why the extra 40 years in lifespan in modern human and how old is the oldest iceage specimen found in europe?
Maybe juvenil selection was linked to lifespan and/or reproductive caracters and that synergy was very beneficial for survival. Selection for neoteny is not just about the look, if you look younger, you are younger and that probably increases the reproductive lifespan. Maybe the oldest and whitest male hunters were still able to father children when their darker skinned buddies could not and since women were in excess, that's just what they did.

juintivi said...

"there is no reason to believe that prejudice avoidance is weaker in men than in women"

Women score higher in agreeableness than men, and I think most people's personal experiences confirm this.

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Anonymous said...

This study is bullshit, so only skin color makes someone attractive? Different races have different facial features. So every men prefer a fair skin Asian women over a tanned Latina or mixed women? Every women prefer a black men, a dark skin Indian men or a dark skin Asian men (Bali, Indonesia) over a white men or South European men?
One study says women prefer feminine men, another study says women prefer masculine men. One study says opposite attracts, another study says people are most attracted to others who look similiar. I also read a study who says that black women prefer light skin men! Studies are bullshit.

Anonymous said...

And of course they are several studies who says that men prefer tanned women, because it looks healthier? So which study is true?

Anonymous said...

All of the assertions everyone made on this particular concept seem to one dimensional to me. Why does everything have to be one dimensional?

Anonymous said...

like itsthewooo2 said, this is completely opposite to the real world,a nd i think there is a misonception to what the study really says.
looks is about alot more than ski color.

pretty much all white women prefer caucasoid men and find african/negroid men ugly so when the study say that attractiveness increased with darker skin they certainly meant tanned skin like southern europeans which reflects real life.

when you look outside everywhere black men only get fat and ugly women of other races except when they have money/fame so they are definitely not considered attractive.

its true though that caucasoid men are considered attractive by both black/african and asian women.

Unknown said...

An observation – there are certain commonalities found in popular romantic fiction (such as Mills and Boon etc.). In this genre typically men are portrayed as wealthy, powerful, arrogant, professionally successful (‘good providers’)…and darker skinned than the female protagonists.
Women are shown to be more compassionate, caring, with less emphasis on professional success (though that is changing) than on nurturing and being ‘good mothers’…and lighter skinned than their male counterparts.
This type of (very popular) fiction is predominantly written by and aimed at Caucasian, middle class, western women.
I wonder if (in this philosophy) lighter skinned women are perceived to be more delicate/fragile/in need of being taken care off; and darker skinned men harken to the archetype of the hunter, out in the world providing and protecting? In other words, that this preference has no racial basis, but is an evolutionary and anthropological carry-over.