“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This proverb is true in the sense that beauty is a mental judgment—an output of different algorithms within the human brain. Some of these algorithms have been formed by personal experience, but others are hardwired to varying degrees. There is thus an objective side to human beauty.
And yet human populations differ greatly in physical appearance. Does this mean that each population has evolved its own notions of beauty? This was Darwin’s view when he wrote The Descent of Man and Selection in relation to Sex. “The different races of man differ in their taste for the beautiful” (Darwin, 1936 , p. 888).
Yet Darwin himself doubted this view:
Mr. Winwood Reade, however, who has had ample opportunities for observation, not only with the negroes of the West Coast of Africa, but with those of the interior who have never associated with Europeans, is convinced that their ideas of beauty are on the whole the same as ours; and Dr. Rohlfs writes to me to the same effect with respect to Bornu and the countries inhabited by the Pullo tribes. Mr. Reade found that he agreed with the negroes in their estimation of the beauty of the native girls; and that their appreciation of the beauty of European women corresponded with ours. They admire long hair, and use artificial means to make it appear abundant; they admire also a beard, though themselves very scantily provided. Mr. Reade feels doubtful what kind of nose is most appreciated; a girl has been heard to say, "I do not want to marry him, he has got no nose;" and this shows that a very flat nose is not admired (Darwin, 1936 , p. 888).
In a footnote, Darwin added that the Amerindians of Tierra del Fuego consider European women to be extremely beautiful and that Sir Richard Burton "believes that a woman whom we consider beautiful is admired throughout the world" (Darwin, 1936 , p. 888).
These opinions, which Darwin ultimately discounted, nonetheless have support from developmental psychology. Notions of human beauty seem to develop along similar lines in all humans. Children as young as 2-3 months old look longer at female faces that adults have rated as attractive, be they white infants looking at faces of black women rated by black men or black infants looking at faces of white women rated by white men (Langlois et al., 2000; Langlois et al., 1991; Langlois et al., 1987; Langlois and Stephen, 1977). Similar findings have been obtained with adults of various racial/ethnic origins (Bernstein et al., 1982; Cunningham et al., 1995; Maret, 1983; Miller, 1969; Perrett et al., 1994).
In the most comprehensive of these studies, Cunningham et al. (1995) assessed criteria of female beauty among men of different ethnic backgrounds: Taiwanese, White Americans, Black Americans, and recently arrived Asian and Hispanic students. All of them perceived a female face to be more attractive when possessing high eyebrows, widely spaced large eyes with dilated pupils, high cheekbones, small nose, narrow face with thin cheeks, large smile, full lower lip, small chin, and fuller hairstyle.
To be sure, the East Asian men tended to prefer more immature and inexpressive faces whereas the Black American men tended to prefer women with larger buttocks and a heavier body build. These differences in preference, however, are much smaller than the differences in physique that actually exist among human populations.
So what happens when physically different populations come into contact with each other? Are some judged to be better looking than others? And is there consensus on this judgment?
This question is not easy to answer. By “not easy” I don’t mean in an analytical way. I mean we normally view it through the lens of a certain paradigm, i.e., European dominance. Europeans have dominated the world for almost five centuries, and this geopolitical dominance has presumably shaped notions of human beauty throughout the world. Ask almost anyone, and you’re bound to hear this explanation.
There was of course a time when Europeans were weaklings on the world scene. Geopolitical power used to be centered on the Middle East, and on several occasions Arab or Turkish empires almost overran Europe. Yet throughout this time European women fetched high prices in the Middle East as concubines or wives, specifically because of their physical appearance. The term “white slavery”—now a synonym for prostitution—harks back to this largely forgotten trade in human flesh.
Today, the long period of European dominance is coming to an end. Perhaps this question can now be answered more objectively. A new attitude is being shown for example by psychologist Michael Lewis, who has sought to explain why interracial marriages are highly asymmetrical by gender:
A striking aspect of the data on interracial marriages is the size of the gender asymmetries. These asymmetries appear robust across time and culture. […] there are over twice as many marriages between Black men and White women than between White men and Black women in the US. An observed consequence of this pattern is a decline in marriage rates for Black women, which has been described in the US as the ‘marriage squeeze’. The asymmetry is smaller in the UK but still present.
The gender asymmetries are even larger for marriages that include Asian and White people. In this situation, however, it is the number of White men marrying Asian women that is over twice the number of White women marrying Asian men. The largest asymmetry shows that marriages between Black men and Asian women in the US outnumber those between Asian men and Black women by about five to one. (Lewis, 2012)
In the past, these asymmetries were explained as a tradeoff between “caste advantage” and “class advantage.” A wealthier Black man would exchange his class advantage for the caste advantage of a poorer White woman. As Lewis (2012) notes, however, “interracial marriages show the same degree of similarity between partners’ status as same-race marriages.”
Another explanation is that interracial marriage occurs when the man and the woman can afford its social cost (fewer career opportunities, weaker support network, etc.). This explanation likewise fails: interracial couples are not richer on average. If they were, we would also expect to see more White man /Black woman marriages, since White men are on average richer than Black men and can more easily pay the social cost.
Lewis then addresses racial differences in height as a possible explanation, i.e., women tend to seek taller mates and men tend to seek shorter mates. While this might explain the tendency of White men to marry East Asian women, it’s a poor fit for Black/White marriages. Black men and White men don’t differ enough in height to account for the gender asymmetry of such marriages.
Finally, Lewis addresses the possibility that this gender asymmetry may reflect an underlying asymmetry in sexual attractiveness: “If there are differences between the relative attractiveness of the genders between different races then asymmetries in interracial marriage will follow.” To this end, he asked male and female volunteers to rate the attractiveness of human faces that differed by ethnicity and gender. Of the male raters, 15 were White, 2 were Black, and 3 were Asian. Of the female raters, 14 were White, 3 were Black, and 3 were Asian.
The results are shown at the top of this post. Female raters gave the highest ratings to Black men, followed by White men and East Asian men. Male raters gave the highest ratings to East Asian women, followed by White women and Black women. There was no significant interaction between the race of the rater and the race of the face being rated.
The results replicate earlier findings that Black men are rated as more attractive than White men. It was further found that Asian men were rated as less attractive than either other race. For women the pattern was reversed with Asian women being rated as most attractive followed by White women and then Black women. The patterns observed occurred regardless of the race of the person doing the ratings.
The results are consistent with the patterns we see in interracial marriage. On the basis of census data, Lewis argues that the two asymmetries are an almost perfect match.
And my research?
These results are also somewhat consistent with my own studies. One of them indicated that the hormone estrogen orients women toward darker male skin. The young female participants were shown facial photos: three pairs of female faces and three pairs of male faces. Each pair was identical except for a slight difference in complexion, and the participant had to choose the face she liked the most. The choices, as it turned out, varied with the phase of the menstrual cycle. The darker male face was more strongly preferred by participants in the first two-thirds of the cycle (when estrogen levels are high in relation to progesterone levels) than by those in the last third (when estrogen levels are low in relation to progesterone levels). Menstrual cycle phase did not affect face preference if both faces were female or if the participants were taking oral contraceptives (Frost, 1994b).
There is also my cross-cultural study with Pierre van den Berghe. We found a strong tendency in traditional cultures, whether European or non-European, to associate lighter skin with women. This gender asymmetry seems to hold up over different historical periods and types of society. It seems, in fact, to reflect an innate sex difference in pigmentation. Women are paler and men browner and ruddier because of differing amounts of melanin and hemoglobin in the skin’s outer layers. This is a genuine sexual dimorphism that correlates with other aspects of sexual differentiation, e.g., digit ratio, thickness of subcutaneous fat, timing of puberty, etc. (Frost, 2011; van den Berghe & Frost, 1986).
Nonetheless, there are significant differences between my findings and Michael Lewis’. The cross-cultural study showed a general preference for lighter-skinned women, but only at the lighter end of the local range of skin color. We see this in folk terminology. Traditionally, a beautiful woman was ‘white’ in Europe and East Asia, ‘golden’ in Southeast Asia, and ‘red’ in sub-Saharan Africa.
As for my menstrual cycle study, the darker male face was indeed more strongly preferred by women in the first two-thirds of the menstrual cycle, i.e., when estrogen levels are high and not offset by progesterone. Yet, even in that group, there was still more preference for the lighter male face. In other words, estrogen seems to weaken a woman’s resistance to darker male skin, without reversing the direction of preference, at least not fully.
At the time, I attributed this result to my use of black-and-white photos. Had I used color photos, and thus accurately shown the ruddiness and brownness of male skin, more women might have opted for the darker male face. I also suspected that the darker male face was triggering negative mental associations in some participants (even though all of the faces looked ethnically ‘white’).
There is also the difference of twenty years between that study and Michael Lewis’. In the early 1990s, there were fewer images of blacks in popular culture, and those images tended to be male and female in equal proportions. Today, such images are not only more common but also overwhelmingly male. I’m not just thinking of the hip-hop scene. In general, eroticization of the black man has become much more mainstream in movies, popular entertainment, and poster advertising. Yes, black women also appear in this role, but they appear less often and tend to have European facial features and skin tone.
Finally, the ideological environment has changed over the past twenty years. In Lewis’ study, the White raters showed no tendency to prefer their own kind—an unusual finding in itself. Many of them may have thought long and hard before choosing a White face over a non-White one. Of course, this possible anti-White bias would not explain the gender asymmetry. It would simply shift all preferences towards the darker end of the color spectrum.
And that leads to another point. Perhaps some of the raters were unconsciously using East Asian preference as a proxy for White preference. In our current ideological environment, it is legitimate to admire East Asians for a wide range of good qualities: politeness, work ethic, self-discipline, attractive facial features, and so on. Such admiration incurs no social cost. So if you feel ashamed of your preference for White people, why not repackage it as East Asian preference?
Indeed, many social conservatives point to East Asians as a way of promoting values that once were mainstream in North American society. We see this, for instance, with the ‘tiger mom’ craze. We also see this in the frequent invidious comparisons that conservative economists make between the United States and China.
Sexual beauty and human physical differences
But how is it that humans look so different while sharing a similar sense of sexual beauty? Perhaps much of this physical variation is due to differences in sexual selection. Not differences in notions of beauty, as Darwin imagined, but rather differences in the intensity and direction of sexual selection.
In some populations, men competed against each other for access to women. This was especially so in tropical ‘horticulturalist’ societies where year-round farming enabled women to provide for themselves and their children with little male assistance. For men, the cost of taking a second wife was close to zero and may even have been negative. Such societies thus had a high polygyny rate and correspondingly intense male-male rivalry for mates. The pressure of sexual selection was therefore on men.
In other populations, women competed against each other for access to men. This was especially so in continental Arctic societies where men provided almost all the food and where long-distance hunting caused more deaths among young men than among young women. Such societies thus had a low polygyny rate and a surplus of women on the mate market. The pressure of sexual selection was therefore on women (Frost, 1994a, 2006, 2008).
Bernstein, I.H., Lin, T., and McClellan, P. (1982). Cross- vs. within-racial judgments of attractiveness. Perception & Psychophysics, 32, 495-503.
Cunningham, M.R., Roberts, A.R., Barbee, A.P., Druen, P.B., and Wu, C-H. (1995). "Their ideas of beauty are, on the whole, the same as ours": consistency and variability in the cross-cultural perception of female physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 261-279.
Darwin, C. (1936) . The Descent of Man and Selection in relation to Sex. reprint of 2nd ed., The Modern Library, New York: Random House.
Frost (2011). Hue and luminosity of human skin: a visual cue for gender recognition and other mental tasks, Human Ethology Bulletin, 26(2), 25-34.
Frost (2008). Sexual selection and human geographic variation, Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(4),169-191. http://184.108.40.206/jsec/articles/volume2/issue4/NEEPSfrost.pdf
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