Saturday, August 3, 2013

Perception of skin color in sub-Saharan Africa

Beyoncé Knowles, 2012. Is skin bleaching consistent with indigenous African values? (source)

A Zambian-born sociologist visited his home village with his white American wife and two of their children. Having lost his way, he asked an elderly lady for directions. She gladly told him:

But then she said, addressing his boys in the car, in the Tumbuka bantu African language:

"Monile asungwana, muli uli?" ("Greetings girls, how are you?")

At first, the author was flustered as he assumed the woman could not see very well since the boys were sitting in the car and their full bodies and clothes were concealed from her. The author corrected her. She didn't seem perturbed at all. He thought to himself how could she or anyone not see that these boys had no breasts, were not wearing earrings, blouses, or dresses. His pubescent fifteen year-old had even the beginnings of dark whiskers around his chin. The author dismissed the incident and did not reflect on it again. But a couple of times again, total strangers at a glance, while the two boys were sitting in the vehicle, referred to them in the Tumbuka language as "asungwana" or "those girls". What surprised him was that these comments were not made in a mean way or out of visual perceptual error. (Tembo, 2010, p. 5)

He came back to the United States and began writing up an article about his visit. For this, he had to select a few photos from the hundreds he had taken of men, women, and children from the village. Only then did the answer to his puzzle dawn on him:

His children, who have quite pronounced features of a Sub-Saharan African, but are light skinned compared to many relatives in the village, stood out in all the group photographs. There was nothing unusual about this obvious reality. But then he noticed something very subtle; all women had lighter glowing ambience to their skins than men although both men and women had dark skin tones. Some women had a definite characteristic glow to their lighter dark skin compared to the other women and the men. (Tembo, 2010, p. 6)

Women are in fact lighter-skinned than men throughout the world, although this sex difference is larger in populations of medium color than in those that are very pale or very dark (Frost, 2007; Madrigal and Kelly, 2006; van den Berghe and Frost, 1986). Girls become lighter-skinned than boys from puberty onward, apparently as part of sexual maturation. For one thing, this post-pubescent lightening correlates in girls with the post-pubescent thickening of subcutaneous fat (Mazess, 1967). For another, it correlates with the digit ratio—a marker of the degree of prenatal estrogenization (Manning et al., 2004).

This sexual dimorphism is paralleled by a traditional tendency to associate women with the lighter end of the local spectrum of complexions. Hence, the ideal woman was said to be "white" in Europe and East Asia, "golden" in South-East Asia, and "red" in sub-Saharan Africa.

The term "red" may puzzle non-Africans. It actually means a reddish-brown-orange complexion, which is the lightest color that occurs locally in normal individuals:

[...] in the Tumbuka bantu African language people describe women's beauty saying: "Mwanakazi mswesi ndiye muwemi comene" which translates as "A woman who is red-skinned is most attractive". This is more accurate than what would be the conventional translation: "A woman who is light skinned is most attractive" (Tembo, 2010, p. 10).

When Africans speak of a beautiful woman, they may describe her as "red" or even "white," thus seeming to emulate European standards of beauty. On this point, Tembo (2010, p. 12) quotes the lyrics of a Zambian song from the 1950s, "Maggie": 

Ndikonda miyendo yako
Ndifiga yako
Maggie ulinso
Mkazi woyera 

A literal translation would be:

I love your legs
Your figure too
Maggie you are also
A white woman 

Woyera does mean "white" but not in an ethnic sense. Maggie is simply an African woman with a naturally light complexion. Tembo argues that Africans and non-Africans alike have misconstrued this indigenous norm of female beauty as something that European colonialism has imposed. While not condoning skin bleaching, he argues that this widespread practice among modern African women is a logical consequence of indigenous aesthetic values.  

A cultural norm for African women?

This female norm is attested in many other sub-Saharan societies: 

Bambara (Mali)

The Bambara are not unmoved by the beauty of a woman's form; they can distinguish a well-formed body from a malformed one, a pretty woman from an ugly one, and they find a coppery skin more attractive than one of ebony black. (Henry, 1910, p. 217)

Tallensi (Ghana)

In skin colour they vary from black through chocolate brown to bronze, which the natives call "red" (bon-ze'e) and regard as the most attractive bodily hue. (Fortes, 1945, p. 7)

Hausa (Nigeria)

Light skin colour, referred to as "red", ranks high in the Hausa criteria of beauty; many variations of colour, from black to a very light reddish brown are seen. (Smith, 1965, p. 264)

Ibo (Nigeria)

In Ibo culture, however, these yellowish or reddish complexions are considered more beautiful than the darker, 'blacker,' complexions. [...] It is true that, in West Africa, government has for many years been identified with pale-skinned Europeans, but the Ibo evidence suggests that preference for paleness of complexion is indigenous. (Ardener, 1954, pp. 71-72)

Azande (Sudan)

Of the women and girls, some with babies, he kept the most beautiful in Zande eyes, those brightest of eye and clearest of skin and with full breasts, for his couch. (Evans-Pritchard, 1937, p. 60)

Berti (Sudan)

Men and women affirm without any hesitation that men are black, hot and hard and women are white, cold and soft. (Holy, 1988, p. 471) 

Somali (Somalia)

Men appreciate women of good height and stature, with good hips and breasts, and plump but not fat. A reddish tinged skin is thought highly of in preference to a dark dull black. (Lewis, 1962, p. 13)

Masai (Kenya, Tanzania)

Further requirements for being regarded as beautiful are an oval face, white teeth, black gums, a skin color as light as possible ... (Merker, 1910, p. 18)

Rundi (Rwanda, Burundi)

Beauty does not count very heavily, but a man is not displeased if people notice that his wife is attractive and well-fleshed, has a long and narrow nose, a light skin, and is somewhat like a cow. (Albert, 1963, p. 203)

Ganda (Uganda)

There is, in respect of the ordinary negroid complexion, a preference for paleness deeply rooted in the Ganda ideal of beauty. [...] The Ganda concept of skin pigmentation considers light coloured complexions to be differing shades of white. A dark brown skin colour is said to be eruyeru, that is, somewhat white. A really brown-reddish-yellow person is said to be mweru = white, which in comparison would be considered to be blonde; and this in the Ganda aesthetic language is considered as red = myufu, the most perfect skin pigmentation. (Lugira, 1970, pp. 34-35)

Nairobi (Kenya)

In the future the increasing use of skin lightening creams such as "Ambi" may eventually reduce the importance of natural skin color. But whatever the case, in Nairobi of the 1960's, as throughout much of Kenya, the lighter "brown" girls are usually considered to be more beautiful than "black" girls — and the more successful prostitutes are invariably "brown." (McVicar, 1969, p. 242) 

Ila, Lunda, Luvale, and Chokwe (Zambia)

Here too words meaning literally "white" are commonly used to refer to light skins though "red" may also be used. Light skins are admired just as much as is shown to occur among the Ibo, and young girls discussing the possible attractions of various young men have often been heard to emphasize "very black" as a point against someone. In the past at least one attraction of a light skin apart from its intrinsic appeal was the fact that the tattooing stood out against it in strong contrast. Very black skins are not infrequently thought to go hand in hand with inherited witchcraft and a light skin to indicate its absence. Dark-skinned women conscious of their possible disadvantage have been heard to tell men that light-skinned women will be found to be sexually unsatisfying. (White, 1954)

Ngoni (Malawi)

Young men say that what they like in a girl is a light skin colour, a pretty face, and the ability to dance and to copulate well. (Barnes, 1951, p. 30)

Kgatla (Botswana)

[...] the generally admired type is a light-skinned girl of somewhat heavy build, with prominent breasts and large, firm buttocks. (Schapera, 1966, p. 46)

A cultural norm for African infants?

Lighter skin is a norm not only for African women but also for African infants. All humans, in fact, are born pale (Grande et al., 1994; Kahlon, 1976; Walsh, 1964). This pallor is a striking contrast to the darker color of adult Africans. In Kenya, newborn infants are often called mzungu ('European' in Swahili), and a new mother may tell her neighbors to come and see her mzungu (Walentowitz, 2008). Among the Tuareg, children are said to be born "white" because of the freshness and moisture of the womb (Walentowitz, 2008). The cause is often thought to be a previous spiritual life:

There is a rather widespread concept in Black Africa, according to which human beings, before "coming" into this world, dwell in heaven, where they are white. For, heaven itself is white and all the beings dwelling there are also white. Therefore the whiter a child is at birth, the more splendid it is. In other words, at that particular moment in a person's life, special importance is attached to the whiteness of his colour, which is endowed with exceptional qualities. (Zahan, 1974, p. 385)

Another Africanist makes the same point: "black is thus the color of maturity [...] White on the other hand is a sign of the before-life and the after-life: the African newborn is light-skinned and the color of mourning is white kaolin" (Maertens, 1978, p. 41).

What skin color originally meant to humans … and to ancestral primates

In sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps more so than elsewhere, we see the older, non-ethnic way of perceiving skin color, where darker skin means an adult male and lighter skin an infant or an adult female. Facial skin color can also signal whether a woman is younger or older, specifically through the degree of luminous contrast between her face and her lips or eyes (Porcheron et al., 2013). In this older perceptual system, skin color might unconsciously prepare the observer for situationally appropriate behavior, e.g., if the observed person is a woman or an infant, the mental threshold is raised for expression of aggressive impulses and lowered for expression of caring (Guthrie, 1970).

The pale skin of infants seems to be the oldest component of this system, being present even in non-human primates. Among langurs, baboons, and macaques, the skin is pink in newborns and almost black in adults (Jay, 1962). The infant coloration apparently does more than help parents find wayward offspring. As it disappears with age, juveniles no longer arouse the same interest, are less often sought out and held by adult females, and cease to arouse defensive reactions from adults when humans approach (Alley, 1980; Booth, 1962; Jay, 1962). 

Although there are no primate species where the adult female has the infant's pink skin, there are some where fur coloration shows this kind of neoteny. Of the eight primate species where adult males and females differ in coat color, seven are characterized by persistence of the infant's lighter coloration into adulthood among females. Interestingly, 63% of these dichromatic species are monogamous, versus only 18% of all primate species (Blaffer-Hrdy and Hartung, 1979). By retaining a lighter infant-like color, the female might better cope with the riskier social environment of monogamy, which makes her more vulnerable to male aggression and to insufficient provisioning because of longer and more continuous cohabitation.

So why aren’t we all light-skinned?

If lighter skin is perceived as a female trait, even to the point of becoming an unconscious input for sex recognition, wouldn’t it be favored by sexual selection? And since skin color is only partly sex-linked, wouldn’t selection for lighter-skinned women end up lightening both sexes? Humans everywhere would have therefore lightened in color right up to the end point of white skin. So why hasn’t this happened?

There are two reasons: (1) sexual selection of women hasn’t been equally strong everywhere; and (2) this sexual selection has been offset to varying degrees by natural selection for darker skin.  

First, sexual selection of women is weaker in sub-Saharan Africa because of the higher polygyny rate: 20-50% of all marriages in the West and Center and 15-30% in the East and South (Pebley and Mbugua, 1989). With too many men competing for too few women, the pressure of sexual selection is shifted from women to men, and selection is thereby weakened for desirable female traits. This may be why high-polygyny populations in sub-Saharan Africa are visibly darker-skinned than low-polygyny ones (Frost, 2008).

Second, sexual selection for lighter female skin can be offset by natural selection for darker skin—as a means to protect against UV and such adverse effects as sunburn, skin cancer, and loss of folic acid. This is especially true in the tropics. Since UV protection becomes less necessary farther away from the equator, Aoki (2002) has argued that the sex difference in skin color should become correspondingly larger, being less constrained by natural selection. In reality, it’s largest at medium latitudes among populations that are medium in skin color (Frost, 2007; Madrigal and Kelly, 2006). It’s actually smaller in white-skinned northern Europeans. This is probably because of a ‘ceiling effect’: in northern Europe, women are less able to become lighter-skinned than men because both sexes are already close to the physiological limit of depigmentation.


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Alley, T.R. (1980). Infantile colouration as an elicitor of caretaking behaviour in Old World primates, Primates, 21, 416-429. 

Aoki, K. (2002). Sexual selection as a cause of human skin colour variation: Darwin’s hypothesis revisited, Annals of Human Biology, 29, 589-608. 

Ardener, E.W. (1954). Some Ibo attitudes to skin pigmentation, Man, 54, 71-73.

Barnes, J.A. (1951). Marriage in a Changing Society, Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

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Booth, C. (1962). Some observations on behavior of Cercopithecus monkeys, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 102, 477-487. 

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

Fortes, M. (1945). The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi, London: Oxford University Press.

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Jay, P.C. (1962). Aspects of maternal behavior among langurs, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 102, 468-476. 

Kahlon, D.P.S. (1976). Age variation in skin color, a study in Sikh immigrants in Britain, Human Biology, 48, 419-428.

Lewis, I.M. (1962). Marriage and the Family in Northern Somaliland, Kampala: East African Institute of Social Research.

Lugira, A.M. (1970). Ganda Art, Kampala: Osasa pub.
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Manning, J.T., Bundred, P.E., and Mather, F.M. (2004). Second to fourth digit ratio, sexual selection, and skin colour, Evolution and Human Behavior, 25, 38-50. 

Mazess, R.B. (1967). Skin color in Bahamian Negroes, Human Biology, 39, 145-154. 

McVicar, K.G. (1969). Twilight of an East African Slum, Ann Arbor, University Microfilms (UCLA Dissertation 1968).

Merker, M. (1910). Die Masai, Berlin: Reimer.

Pebley, A. R., and W. Mbugua. (1989). Polygyny and Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa. In R. J. Lesthaeghe (ed.), Reproduction and Social Organization in Sub-Saharan Africa, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 338-364. 

Porcheron, A., E. Mauger, and R. Russell (2013). Aspects of facial contrast decrease with age and are cues for age perception, PLoS ONE 8(3): e57985

Schapera, I. (1966). Married Life in an African Tribe, Evanston: Northwestern University Press. 

Smith, M.F. (1965). Baba of Karo: A Woman of the Muslim Hausa, London: Faber & Faber. 

Tembo, M.S. (2010). The Rediscovery of the Beautiful Woman in African Societies. Eurocentric Destruction of Indigenous Conceptions: the Secret Rediscovery of the Beautiful Woman in African Societies.

van den Berghe, P. L. and 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.

Walentowitz, S. (2008). Des êtres à peaufiner. Variations de la coloration et de la pigmentation du nouveau-né, in J-P. Albert, B. Andrieu, P. Blanchard, G. Boëtsch, and D. Chevé (eds.) Coloris Corpus, (pp. 113-120), Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2008. 

Walsh, R.J. (1964). Variation in the melanin content of the skin of New Guinea natives at different ages, Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 42, 261-265.

White, C.M.M. (1954). Correspondence, Man, 54,147.

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Anonymous said...

Tan skinned women that I find pretty:

- Alicia Keys (American singer)
- Thandie Newton (British actress)
- Paula Patton (American actress)

Bronze-brown skinned girls that I find pretty:

- Tatyana Ali (American actress)
- Liya Kebede (East African model)
- Kerry Washington (American actress)

North Africans are the palest and the most Caucasoid. East Africans are in-between and somewhat Caucasoid. West African, Central and South African are the darkest and the least Caucasoid.

I find East Africans to be beautiful. Their brown skin is gorgeous. But some Central African women are okay too.

Palisto said...

In Kurdish "sûr u spî" is considered as beautiful, which literally means "red and white".
I think it basically tells you something about the health status.

Sean said...

Beyoncé and Rihanna go lighter, but they stop short of pure white skin. Both Beyoncé and Rihanna are at about the same skin tone as many European women arrive at when they tan their skin; presumably those women think that particular skin tone is the optimum for maximising their sexual attractiveness.

As I see it, in the modern West, sexually 'churning' women of all races converge on a look of tawny skin (and long blond hair) achieving it by artifice if necessary. Pure white skin such as north European women naturally have have, does not seem to be perceived as sexually attractive. I think Europeans' white skin has more to do with eliciting provisioning and inhibiting aggression than with sexual attraction.

The Golden and Cotton Topped Tamarins are very light coloured, monogamous and have males who carry the young about on their backs.

Sean said...

Cotton Topped Tamarins: "Males and females look the same in appearance, as do the young."

Anonymous said...

"Pure white skin such as north European women naturally have have, does not seem to be perceived as sexually attractive."


The Hollywood tan loses its luster

Anonymous said...

I had thought that the main natural selective driver for dark skin was folic acid, which is destroyed by UV exposure, rather than sun burn and skin cancer.

Glossy said...

I think that the fineness of facial features is more important than skin color for the perceived attractiveness of women. Men all over the world prefer fine, delicate, elegant features. I don't think that elegance is all that subjective, by the way. Men dislike heavy, rough-hewn facial features in women.

Dark-skinned East Indian women can be quite attractive to men of all backgrounds. Same with Filipinas. Skin color is a factor, but a minor one compared the delicacy of features and of personality (i.e. femininity).

Test cases:

1) Albinos of sub-Saharan ancestry. The number of such albinos married to famous rappers and African dictators: zero as far as I know. They retain African features.

2) The complete opposite of 1): Somali women. They have very dark skin and Middle-Eastern type features. I suspect that if one were to ask men from a wide range of backgrounds to rate Somalis' attractiveness, the result would be substantially above the African average.

Some of the examples cited in Mr. Frost's post may be contaminated by the likely correlation between skin color and Caucasoid admixture in some African populations. We can think of the Arab trade down the East African coast, of the Portuguese presence since the early 15th century. If one were to design a study of attitudes to color per se, one would have to control for things like nose width, lip thickness and forehead height.

Peter Fros_ said...

Anon and Sean,

We know that sexual preference for a woman's hair color varies inversely with the prevalence of that hair color. I suspect a similar principle operates with respect to female skin color.

I know Sean is from Scotland. Is Anon from Europe as well? I hear this kind of comment much more often from European men than from White American men.

"Pure white skin such as north European women naturally have have, does not seem to be perceived as sexually attractive"

This statement would have seemed flabbergasting only a century ago. Preference for darker women (independently of ethnic connotations) is attested here and there in erotic literature, but it was associated with intense but short-term relationships.

It may be that preference for light female skin is culturally supported above and beyond any innate preferences. And when that cultural superstrate is liquidated, we enter a social environment where men go for the least common skin color. I don't know. But I also think skin-color preference is contingent on a cultural milieu that values long-term relationships with high paternal investment.


Good point. I'll put that in the text.


Albinos are disliked because their skin is marred by cancerous and precancerous lesions. In cultures that protected albinos from the sun, like the Amerindians of the American Southwest, albino girls were admired as potential marriage partners.

Woolf, C.M. and F.C. Dukepoo. (1969). Hopi Indians, inbreeding, and albinism, Science, 164, 30-37.


"I suspect that if one were to ask men from a wide range of backgrounds to rate Somalis' attractiveness, the result would be substantially above the African average."

Undoubtedly. I'm not sure where we disagree.

The association between lighter skin and femininity is not limited to sub-Saharan Africa. It's a cross-cultural and cross-historical trend. It's attested in many precolonial societies, including pre-Columbian Aztec society.

In any case, the cultural data can only be suggestive. The strongest evidence is the finding that people unconsciously use women's lighter skin for sex recognition.

Anonymous said...

Skin color tends to correlate in a general sense with finess of features. Somali women tend to be huge outliers in África as a whole. East African women btw have Aráb admixture. I've noticed that Asian men and European men sometimes like their looks.

Sean said...

I don't know what Beyoncé's skin tone is like in the flesh. Quite often the lighting and filters of professional photography can give African American celebs' skin a kind of glowing effect that isn't really there. I was getting carried away about their skin being similar to tanned white women trying to look sexy.

In white women, the look I'm talking about is one I have seen in the flesh. It is not really darker at all so maybe it's not due to melanin. It's a pinkish-golden tone to the skin. Sometimes it is almost orange hued. Perhaps it's due to UV exposure causing increased carotenoids and blood flow under the skin. I suspect it may be mimicking an exaggerated sign of ovulation.

Anonymous said...

I think people may be missing the point here. Sexual selection is about reproduction and only about reproduction. It physically can't have any effect if it doesn't lead to a reproductive bonus or malus.

In particular for the entire time this was evolving (or not) the difference between a Somali woman and an Irish woman is completely irrelevant. Only the difference *between* Somali women or *between* Irish women was relevant.


*If* women of all ethnic groups are lighter than the men of the same ethnic group


*if* that lighter skin creates an ovulation signal


*if* men notice that signal, consciously or otherwise


*if* that creates a sexual reaction, consciously or otherwise

then the husbands of the lighter-skinned women will on average be having sex more often around the time of their wife's ovulating.

So you'll get sexual selection for lighter skinned women (around their ethnic average).

Practically speaking if a couple are looking to conceive the woman should stay out of the sun and then when she's ovulating wear maximum cleavage tops with some added boob rouge for the full instinctive modified baboon-ass effect.

Anonymous said...

It's a pinkish-golden tone to the skin. Sometimes it is almost orange hued.

I think I know what you mean. This is the kind of white skin that you see with Germanic and Scandinavian blondes, that tans well into golden or orangeish colors. It's different from the Celtic type of white skin you see a lot in the British Isles, that's like a bone white and that doesn't tan at all but burns or gets freckled.

Peter Fros_ said...


What you're describing isn't sexual selection. It's actually natural selection, i.e., survival of the fittest. It's essentially the same thing as selection against male impotence, and no one would call that a form of sexual selection.

Sexual selection occurs when one sex is in limited supply, either because of polygyny or because the sex ratio itself is lopsided.

I'm not convinced that light skin functions as an ovulation signal. That's Pierre van den Berghe's hypothesis, not mine. All we know for sure, at this point, is that lighter skin is a mental input for female sex recognition. Beyond that, we have suggestive evidence that women's lighter skin may calm aggressive feelings and elicit feelings of care.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not convinced that light skin functions as an ovulation signal."

Sure, i was arguing on the basis of *if* it did. My point was personal preferences that don't have any impact on reproduction can't be relevant and secondly that preferences which do have an impact on reproduction will come to be seen as aesthetic even if the initial reason is/was functional.


On the thing itself if for the sake of argument there was an unconscious attractive effect on men of some kind of facial or chest blood-related color differential then i think it follows that it ought to be reflected in cosmetics, especially as used by prostitutes.

Using cosmetic practices as reverse evidence i can't find any references to prostitutes deliberately reddening the cleavage area so i've ditched that idea but whitening the skin while at the same time reddening the lips and / or cheeks and darkening the eyes seems pretty ubiquitous.

So in reverse evidence terms those three areas ought to be the ones that glow redder / darker during ovulation - especially lips maybe?

Sean said...

Reading the post, Tembo is not talking about merely lighter, it is an undertone. "all women had lighter glowing ambience [...]Some women had a definite characteristic glow to their lighter dark skin compared to the other women and the men."

Sub-Saharan Africans describe the idealised female as 'red', they can surely tell the difference between red and lighter brown. Looking over FWDM, many non white regions have an ideal of pink, rosy and golden tones. Not white skin in the sense of being as close as possible to actual literally white skin.

Given that lighter skin is a mental input for female sex recognition, and that Europeans' skin became as light as possible, during a period of sexual selection in an environment of obligate monogamy/male provisioning; it does not follow that extremely light (white) skin is sexually attractive. White skin could have been selected for eliciting provisioning and formation of a strong pair bond (love) in men, not lust. Sub-Saharan Africa isn't going to be enlightening on that point, because in evolutionary time they've totally lacked the male provisioning/obligate monogamy aspect.

In Europe, I would say men consider the ideal constitutive pigmentation for females to be a 'peaches and cream ' complexion. That is, very fair skin.

However, European women with the aforementioned ideal constitutive pigmentation often deliberately acquire a facultative modification to their natural skin tone, and it's not just a darkening. So I'm skeptical about the idea that girls trying to maximise their casual sex appeal by 'tanning' are simply trying to get darker; UV seems to bring out a glowing hue in the fair skinned. The kind of 'tan' that comes from exposure to UV lamps (which emit a different balance of UV A and B wavelengths) is definitely somewhat golden or orange, not just brown. I can't think of any other explanation for the glowing facultative look, other than it exaggerates and mimics some subcutaneous signs of ovulation.

Anonymous said...

*If* there's an ovulation aspect to this...

1) then it's not so much the base skin colour that matters but the *contrast* between the base skin colour and the redder /darker areas when ovulating - in this aspect lighter skin is neccessary as a *canvas* for the ovulation signal not as a thing in itself.

2) Within each ethnic group the females only need to be lighter than the men of their ethnic group.

(Because it would have a direct reproductive effect a trait which caused men to be attracted to this contrast would increase among the population and that preference would come to be seen as beauty whereas men who were attracted to women with pale lips would have fewer kids and their preference would decline.)

3) If this process - lighter skin on females - is a universal bit of natural selection among all ethnic groups then wouldn't we expect a group that has undergone the most sexual selection on the female side to be the lightest?

That is the process itself may be universal natural selection but the *degree* to which the process was applied historically would be proportional to the pressure of female sexual selection on a population.

4) If you think of phrases like "peaches and cream" and look at the history of cosmetics it seems to me it's not about the whiteness of the skin on its own - at least in this aspect - it's about whiteness of the skin *contrasting* with the redness / darkness of the eyes/lips/cheeks.

Darker skinned women would need darker eyes and redder lips to get the same level of contrast as a lighter skinned woman.

5) I think tanning is part of a different arc. Light colours reflect more light so a light-coloured surface shows all the flaws on the surface - in this case the skin surface. Tanning masks those flaws the same way foundation does.

If the key element in the sexual attraction aspect of this is *contrast* rather than lightness itself then tanning can be compensated for simpler by using redder lipstick.

In other words tanning doesn't matter as much in the age of affordable cosmetics as it did in earlier times.

6) It would be interesting to see a study where they try and match lip, cheek and eye cosmetics with different base skin colours to get equal contrast levels.

Anonymous said...

Albinos are disliked because their skin is marred by cancerous and precancerous lesions. In cultures that protected albinos from the sun, like the Amerindians of the American Southwest, albino girls were admired as potential marriage partners.

Of course, Europeans find albinism in women unattractive (and I suspect it has always been so) and there is not really a cancer issue in those climates.

Men dislike heavy, rough-hewn facial features in women.

I wouldn't say West African women are rough hewn as such. You won't find a straight line or an angle in their face face and the facial shape is very rounded and softened, childlike. And yet European men find the facial shape generally unattractive nonetheless.

Alcestis Eshtemoa said...

I find the Canadian actress Melinda Shankar pretty but she's of Indian descent, plus she's brown-skinned and not black-skinned.

Alcestis Eshtemoa said...

I find this discussion of skin color and tones/shades a bit interesting on some levels since I arrived in the USA.

Sean said...

Anon, you're conflating modern lifestyles, cosmetics and tanning, with stone age sexual selection. Human females have concealed ovulation so they don't get ignored by their husband when they are not ovulating. Concealed ovulation is for eliciting care and non sexual services from men; adaptations for revealing ovulation would defeat the object. White skin also functions to elicit care so there is no reason to think European skin is any kind of adaptation for revealing ovulation. Men may be attuned to and subliminally attracted by subtle signs of ovulation, because it's advantageous for males and always has been.

Peter, I think the idea that the darker skin in the most polygynous areas of Africa has resulted from natural selection of hoe farming women and weaker selection for desirable female traits in polygyny is dubious. Bushmen are not so dark and they spend a lot of time in the sun. I believe the Bushman persistence hunt (prey is run down in the midday heat). The women forage outside too. Relaxation of selection isn't a compelling explanation for European pigmentary traits. It would not surprise me if there was a positive correlation between the mating success and skin colour of polygynous African men.

Peter Fros_ said...


The female torso region becomes redder during menstruation. So if men respond to this monthly blushing, it would presumably be in a negative manner.


According to Richard Russell's research, the optimal female face is one that maximizes luminous contrast between facial skin and the eye/lip region. It may be that some visible wavelengths are more critical than others. There's also the traditional preference for rosy cheeks (which we find not only in European cultures but in East Asian ones as well). This is an ongoing area of research, and I'll be writing more on it shortly.


I suspect the premenstrual darkening of the eye area may interfere with this sex recognition algorithm. The counterargument, however, is that this darkening doesn't occur in light-skinned Europeans. A similar objection might apply to the premenstrual reddening of the torso region. Is it visible in dark-skinned humans?


"Europeans find albinism in women unattractive (and I suspect it has always been so)"

Until the 1920s, the traditional female norm in Europe was "milk-white" and "peaches and cream". I could dig up references to prove the point, but it seems obvious to me.


Skin color actually correlates more highly with polygyny rate than with latitude. The example you gave, that of the Bushmen, proves my point, since they have a much lower polygyny rate (less than 10%) than that of most populations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sean said...

I was thinking that there might be selection for dark skinned men in polygyny.

Anonymous said...

"Anon, you're conflating modern lifestyles, cosmetics and tanning, with stone age sexual selection."

The opposite. I'm saying tanning and cosmetics obviously can't be part of the stone age selection process. However cosmetics could possibly be a clue given that if you do a quick google for the make-up worn by prostitutes from ancient times there is a consistent pattern of
- whitening the skin
- reddening the lips and cheeks
- darkening the eyes

That doesn't prove anything in itself but it does make me wonder if they were mimicing and exagerating a pre-existing sexual signal from stone age times.


"White skin also functions to elicit care so there is no reason to think European skin is any kind of adaptation for revealing ovulation."

Maybe so or maybe both but i'm running with the ovulation idea for now just to see what comes up.

The ovulation idea makes the most sense if females being lighter than males is universal. If so then in a context of strong sexual selection on the female side then you might expect lighter skin over time.

If you accept for the sake of argument that one of the most plausible environments for strong sexual selection on the female side is a harsh hunting environment where the hunted food is both difficult to come by and *required* to feed a family and not just a preferred alternative to bowls of starchy goop then the Bushmen ought to be similar in many ways to stone age northern latitude hunters.


"It would not surprise me if there was a positive correlation between the mating success and skin colour of polygynous African men."

I think it will vary depending on the amount of female choice. In a promiscuous polygyny there may be a lot of female choice and therefore a lot of female-driven sexual selection on the men but in a very strict religious polygyny where the females have no choice about who they marry then there can't be any female-driven sexual selection.

Anonymous said...

Peter F

"The female torso region becomes redder during menstruation. So if men respond to this monthly blushing, it would presumably be in a negative manner."

Ah i got mixed up there. So taking cosmetics as reverse evidence again then if there's any pattern (which there might not be) it should be of women (or at least prostitutes) lightening their chests not reddening them.


"Until the 1920s, the traditional female norm in Europe was "milk-white" and "peaches and cream". I could dig up references to prove the point, but it seems obvious to me."

For example

Peter Fros_ said...


I see your point. It would be difficult to tease apart the two factors: relaxation of sexual selection for lighter women and strengthening of sexual selection for darker men.


This is the point that Richard Russell made in the following article:

Russell, R. ( 2009). A sex difference in facial contrast and its exaggeration by cosmetics, Perception, 38, 1211-1219

Sean said...

Russell's most recent research found the contrast was a pointer to youth. Doug Jones found that, in women, youthful facial shape was correlated with percieved attractiveness, and that women models in magazines had facial proportions of seven year olds.

It seems to me that girls' skin gets noticeably less light once they are out of their teens. So, couldn't skin, lip and eye area contrast, and feminine facial features, all be aspects of female appearance that function as signals of youth. Under sexual selection of women there could have been competition for an appearance that displayed such signals especially strongly. Thus leading to adult women being perceived as attractive even though they had baby skin and truly neotenous facial proportions.

Anonymous said...

If skin lightening is used by females to appear more feminine, then why are black men like Sammy Sosa and Vybz Kartel bleaching their skin as well? Or is this just some sort of Carribean trend?

Anonymous said...

Tembo's article is pretty clearly not really about "lighter" skin color, but a reddish undertone due to hormones in ovulation and such that signifies fertility, regardless of how light or dark the skin is. His paper is admittedly relatively speculative (and a bit contradictory in places), but the actual differentiation between literally "light" skin and the change due to hormones is pretty clear. He says it in one of your quoted passages:

"This is more accurate than what would be the conventional translation: "A woman who is light skinned is most attractive"."

And you seemingly misconstrue the analysis of the "Maggie" song. Shortly before his analysis, he emphasizes this:

"These are the girls and women who have the Tumbuka language adjective "uswesi" or other indigenous linguistic equivalents, which is more of a warm reddish bright orangeish glow to the female black skin even among some of the African women who have the darkest skin as
opposed to "White" or “light” skin. "

And following the analysis, after detailing two indigenous concepts that seemingly corroborate this- one being due to weight, regardless of sex- he says this:

"The point about all of this is to emphasize that this doesn’t constitute just an ordinary linguistic translation difficulty, but rather reflects the indigenous appreciation of women who have a light reddish
- orange glow to their skin tones even among women who have some of the darkest skin from Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, all the way to the Southern tip of the
African continent. This is the skin tone that among modern educated Africans and blacks in the African Diaspora is erroneously called “White” because their cognition has been
distorted by Western racist ideology especially during the period of European colonialism
in Africa."

Note how he says this derives from a linguistic misunderstanding and translation error. Tembo's article ends off on a speculative note, but the linguistic and cultural analysis of his people seems pretty clear, and if it is similar for many other african groups, it really brings into question the true nature of many of the quotes you have here, and the notion of indigenous light-skin preference in SS africa.

Anonymous said...


Are you seriously quoting Tembo's (a Marxist race-denier) as evidence against Peter's article? The use of the word "white" as a description of lighter skin is near-universal in world languages like Classical Chinese since ancient times and caries no racial meaning, especially in racially homogeneous populations. So "uswesi" as a word for "white" is not surprising, with all linguistic evidence showing this usage predates European contact. There is ample genetic and anthropological evidence of the universal favoritism towards lighter-skin women among human populations (since its a feminine trait) including SS Africa such as their own art and folklore. Tembo's entire paper relies on the discredited notion of language controlling thought and beauty standards being learned behaviors, both of which has been debunked by cognitive science.

here is so more info:

Anonymous said...

"Are you seriously quoting Tembo's (a Marxist race-denier) as evidence against Peter's article?"

I don't see what's wrong with that given how Peter brought his paper up to begin with and quoted him to support his theory. But wait- once it was pointed out that his paper isn't entirely supportive of Peter, he's suddenly a "marxist race-denier" and can't be used.

Get out.

"So "uswesi" as a word for "white" is not surprising, with all linguistic evidence showing this usage predates European contact."

Tembo made a strong case "uswesi" does NOT mean lighter skin, but a change in skin tone that's accompanied by ovulation regardless of skin color. It's on you to prove otherwise.

"There is ample genetic and anthropological evidence of the universal favoritism towards lighter-skin women among human populations (since its a feminine trait)"

Right, but the bulk of this is in regards to Eurasia or recent Eurasian-derived populations (like the Americas). SS africa (and other places) could be different.

" including SS Africa such as their own art and folklore."

Wrong. If what Tembo argues is true, it calls just about every one of those quotes about skin color preference into question, most of which are cursory references that don't have much analysis beyond, and could very well be derived from mistranslations/misunderstandings. The only one that is backed by an extensive analysis is the one on the Igbo. And for that matter, the one on the Ila, Lunda, Luvale, and Chokwe, is ironic, given how it claims "light skins are admired just as much as is shown to occur among the Ibo"- the paper on the Igbo, while showing the Igbo prefer both light women and men, does not indicate anything like very dark skin going in hand with witchcraft (I have likewise never once heard this anywhere in Africa, despite all of the superstitions revolving around albinos.)

You also mention art- like what? Have you looked at the female masks of the people in question? Take for example this mask of the Luvale people:

Note this:

"Nalindele is a variant Pwevo mask - tribally specific to the Luvale / Lwena people. They were almost always light in colour or red and depicted a stylish adult woman - perhaps white. In Makishi Lya Zambia - M. Jordán - pg 172 it says; The name NALINDELE is probably related to the term chindele (pl. vindele), used by the Luvale and other Angolan and Zambian peoples to refer to a white person. This may explain the light 'skin' color and the form of NALINDELE's facial features."

The mask doesn't really have "european" features- it has very disproportionately large "eyes" and a proportionately smaller nose, a hallmark of exaggerated neoteny. The nose still however has an african shape. And to top it off, the mask's color is a peculiar red tone I can't say I haven't seen any african having a skin tone genuinely resembling. This could be the misunderstanding Tembo describes in action.

And for that, note how it says it's a "variant" of a pwevo (meaning "woman") mask, and this "nalindele" variant is almost always "red." If you look at other pwevo/pwo masks on that site or google, they range from black to much lighter, sometimes lighter than even the nalindele variant- and the nalindele variant ranges in color as well. Googling "nalindele" turns up masks that aren't red at all, but brown or black.

This pretty much all goes in line with the what Tembo argues for.

I can't help but think "White, 1954" isn't entirely honest, especially how it's a single-page "correspondence".

And I can't help but think you're full of it and trying to save face.