Monday, May 9, 2022

Red is beautiful: Perceived femininity of skin color in an African population


Perceived masculinity and femininity of facial skin color. Cameroonian women rated faces of Cameroonian men, and Cameroonian men rated faces of Cameroonian women (Fiala et al. 2022, Supplementary Material).




Women are the fair sex. They are paler than men, who conversely are ruddier and browner. Today, that sexual dimorphism is hardly noticed in Western societies, having been overwhelmed by much larger differences of race and ethnicity and further obscured since the 1920s by the tanning fad (Segrave 2005). But it was noticed earlier. Wherever the visual arts developed—ancient Egypt, the Greco-Roman world, early South and East Asia, Mesoamerica—female figures were given a lighter hue and male figures a darker one (Capart 1905, pp. 26-27; Eaverly 2013; Frost 2010, pp. 35-81; Pallottino 1952, pp. 34, 45, 73, 76-77, 87, 93, 95, 105, 107, 115; Soustelle 1970, p. 130; Tegner 1992; Wagatsuma 1967).


Sexual dimorphism in skin pigmentation


Skin color was first measured objectively in the 1930s, when spectrophotometers became commercially available. By measuring how much light the skin reflects across the visible spectrum, and how much it absorbs, one could identify its pigments and quantify their relative importance. Edwards and Duntley (1939) concluded that male and female complexions differ because of differing concentrations of melanin (brown), hemoglobin (red), and carotene (yellow).


Castration keeps men from acquiring their distinctive complexion:


One of the outstanding characteristics of a human male castrate is the paleness of the skin. After treatment with androgenic hormone, however, the individual takes on a darker and more ruddy hue. This observation suggests that the skin of the castrate is deficient in melanin and blood, and that the androgenic hormone increases the content of these substances in the integument. (Edwards et al. 1941)


Estrogen has similar but much weaker effects, which are further reduced by the other female hormone, progesterone. Ovariectomy thus has much less impact on female skin than castration has on male skin (Edwards and Duntley 1949). The sex hormones seem to alter skin pigmentation not only through ongoing transient effects but also through permanent organizational effects before birth and at puberty.


A hormonal causation is also suggested by the digit ratio. This is the length of the index finger divided by the length of the ring finger, and it tells us the relative proportions of estrogens to androgens in body tissues during development. In adults, the digit ratio correlates with lightness of female skin but not with lightness of male skin (Manning et al. 2004).


Sexual dimorphism in tanning capacity


Men and women likewise differ in tanning capacity. Men tan more than women even when both are equally exposed to the sun. This was shown in a New Guinea study of three body sites: skin on the unexposed upper inner arm; skin on the exposed forearm; and time spent in the sun. Despite identical sun exposure, the men were darker than the women, and more so on exposed skin (Harvey 1985). The same finding appears in another New Guinea study, whose author ruled out the possibility of the women being less exposed, "as in most parts of New Guinea the adult females are responsible for most of the food cultivation and are therefore exposed almost continuously to sunlight." (Walsh 1964).


Differences between human populations


Skin color is more sexually dimorphic where people are medium-colored and less so where they are very fair or very dark (Frost 2007; Madrigal and Kelly 2007). This sexual dimorphism cannot fully express itself in a very fair population because female skin encounters a physiological limit when it lightens after puberty. In a very dark population, male skin likewise encounters a physiological limit to further darkening.


Are there other population differences? Has this sexual dimorphism evolved differently in different populations?


Apparently. A recent paper shows that this sex difference differs qualitatively between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans. When Fiala et al. (2022) measured the skin color of individuals from the Czech Republic and Cameroon, they found that women had fairer skin in both groups. But their skin was fairer in different ways. Among the Czechs, female skin was less red than male skin, in line with previous studies on European or Euro-American subjects. Among the Cameroonians, however, female skin was redder than male skin, and also more yellow.


Adaptation to the natural environment?


Is the redder complexion of African women an adaptation to the natural environment? If the skin is better supplied with blood, does it better cope with UV radiation, heat load, skin injuries, or some other aspect of a tropical environment? Let’s examine these three factors, while keeping in mind that they would have to be more fitness-reducing for African women than for African men.


UV radiation. The yellow pigment of skin (carotene) does provide some protection from UV (Stahl et al. 2012). So it’s plausible that African women compensate for having less melanin in their skin by having more carotene. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the red pigment of skin (hemoglobin) provides UV protection.


Heat load. When more blood is flowing to the skin, heat is radiated away more easily from the body (Hertzman 1959). It may be, then, that the increased redness of African female skin serves to disperse body heat in warmer climates. Nonetheless, we still have to explain why heat load is more fitness-reducing for African women than for African men.


Skin injuries. When more blood is flowing to the skin, wounds heals faster because more leukocytes can reach skin tissues and fight potential infections (Mathieu et al. 2006). Again, we still have to explain why this factor would matter more for African women than for African men. Coetzee et al. (2012) raise a similar objection: if ruddiness is attractive because it indicates physical health, why is it considered unattractive in the case of European women or African men?


Adaptation to the social environment?


Alternatively, the redder complexion of African women may have evolved as an adaptation to the social environment, specifically for gender recognition. In a study using Euro-American participants, people could tell whether a facial photo was male or female, at a rate much higher than chance, even when the image was blurred and provided no useful information other than the degree of redness (Tarr et al. 2001). Sexual dimorphism in skin color has two components: hue (degree of brownness and redness) and luminosity (degree of contrast between lightness of facial skin and darkness of lip/eye area). Hue is the fast channel for gender recognition. If the face is too far away or the lighting too dim, the mind will switch to the slower but more accurate channel of luminosity (Dupuis-Roy et al. 2009; Dupuis-Roy et al. 2019; Jones et al. 2015; Nestor and Tarr 2008a; Nestor and Tarr 2008b; Tarr et al. 2001; Tarr, Rossion, and Doerschner 2002). This gender cue may serve not only to tell men and women apart but also to modify male behavior by reducing aggressiveness and stimulating feelings of care and protection (Frost 2011).


African women maintain this gender cue through a different mix of skin pigments. They have more carotene in their skin, and thus a yellower complexion, to offset the loss of UV protection due to having less melanin. Unlike European women, they also have more blood in their skin and thus a redder complexion. Why is this? Perhaps increased redness does not visually alter dark skin in the same way that it visually alters light skin. When redness is increased, the dark skin of African women may look lighter and the light skin of European women may look darker. The social environment has thus favored lighter female skin in both populations, but the mix of pigments is different.


This gender cue was studied by Fiala et al. (2022) in their Czech/Cameroonian study. Cameroonian women were asked to rate facial photos of Cameroonian men, and Cameroonian men were asked to rate facial photos of Cameroonian women. The results showed a significant correlation between skin color and perceived masculinity/femininity:


The slope between perceived masculinity and colour (higher scores along all three CIELab dimensions, meaning basically lighter skin that allows both redness and yellowness to stand out) of Cameroonian men was negative - 0.29 (CI: - 0.52, - 0.05). In Cameroonian women, the slope between perceived femininity and colour was conclusively positive 0.52 (CI: 0.27, 0.76).


[…] More masculine men in the Cameroonian sample have therefore darker, less red, and less yellow skin colour.

[…] More feminine women thus have a lighter, yellower, and redder skin than less feminine women.


There was no such correlation among the Czechs. This second finding seems to contradict previous findings that facial skin color is used for gender recognition (see above). In those studies, however, the participants were Euro-American or Euro-Canadian, and they were not necessarily conscious of the visual cues they were using. At least on a conscious level, the sex difference in skin color has lost its social significance within the Western world, largely because of the growing importance of racial/ethnic differences in real life and in the virtual life of advertising and the mass media. In addition, the naturally lighter complexion of women has often been reduced or eliminated through deliberate tanning.


Ethnographic data


When we were preparing our joint paper on skin color preference, Pierre van den Berghe examined the Human Relations Area Files, a cross-cultural database. He found a strong association in traditional societies between femininity and lightness of skin color: the ideal woman was described as “white” in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, as “golden” in Southeast Asia, and as “red” in sub-Saharan Africa (van den Berghe and Frost 1986). We were somewhat surprised to see this idealization of female redness in different ethnographic accounts:


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)


Igbo (Nigeria) ‑

“In Ibo culture, however, these yellowish or reddish complexions are considered more beautiful than the darker, ‘blacker,’ complexions.” (Ardener 1954, pp. 71-72)


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)


This ideal is explained at some length by Lugira (1970, pp. 34-35) with respect to the Ganda people of Uganda:


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)


So the question remains open. Female skin may be redder in Africa because of selection by the natural environment, perhaps as a means to reduce heat load or facilitate wound healing. There is also evidence, however, for selection by the social environment.




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Tom519 said...

But how does one account for the fact that in India dark males are not considered more desirable? I guess the caste system plays a role here, but dark Indians--and Indian men in general--are not considered more desirable here in North America.

Peter Frost said...

I addressed this point in my post on light skin preference in Malaysia

The word "desirable" (like "pretty" and "beautiful") has feminine connotations. Darker skin is seen as more masculine but not as more beautiful, and the same may be said for many male traits.

Malaysian women thus have a schizophrenic attitude toward male skin color, with many preferring darker-skinned men:

"Dark-skinned men are sexy"

"Light-skinned men looks like a mummy's boy. Dark-skinned men look independent. I like that." (Izazi 2021, pp. 212-213)

This finding parallels that of Harvey (1995) who found that fair-skinned African American men are seen as less masculine than their darker-skinned counterparts (Abrams et al., 2020). Wagatsuma (1967) reported a similar finding among Japanese women:

"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."

In those cases where Malaysian women preferred lighter-skinned Malaysian men, the stated reason was that they looked cleaner or were more likely to produce lighter-skinned children:

"Light-skinned men looks clean."

"I want a light-skinned man because that will ensure that my child will be light too. If I choose a dark-skinned man, how if my child turned out dark?" (Izazi 2021, p. 211)