In this day and age, a disproportionately large emphasis is placed on physical attractiveness and external appearance. The catwalks are dominated by impossibly thin, young, attractive men and women — the superlative epitome of physical attractiveness, or so we are indoctrinated into believing. However, this is not just cultural dogma gone mad: there is a scientific basis as to why they are largely perceived as attractive and why the media flagrantly encourages us to aspire to these ideals, with information galore on diets and images of archetypal celebrities who fit this mould.
Obviously different cultures and societies will have varying perceptions of beauty and what characteristics constitute an attractive person. Science blogger Rebecca Donatelli concurs, arguing that “it is a combination of cultural and biological factors combined that make some people more beautiful than others”. On a biological basis, some things are found to be universally attractive, such as facial symmetry; those with symmetrical faces are deemed more attractive than those with asymmetrical features.* This could perhaps be due to the fact that symmetrical features are thought to be indicative of health, as our genes initially determine that we should develop symmetrically. Infections during pregnancy can cause asymmetries and only those who are able to withstand these are successful in retaining more symmetrical features, allowing facial symmetry to be a visual marker of health.
Dr Marquadt, an avid researcher of human attractiveness, suggests that the most beautiful face is one that closely adheres to the “golden ratio” of mathematical proportions which are derived from the number phi (1.618). He has designed a mask which is made up of various shapes — all measured on the calculations of phi, arguing that the closer a person’s features adhere to these proportions, the more attractive they are perceived to be.
Youth, of course, with its obvious indication of female fecundity, is shown to be rated as more attractive. Fertility in women decreases with age, so the notion of ideal partners for a male being ‘half their age + 7’ is not too far from the truth. Heading now to physical attraction with regard to body shapes, studies show that women with a waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) of 0.7 are deemed the most attractive, with researcher Devendra Singh observing that all of the Miss America winners from the 1920s through to the 1980s all had a WHR that very closely corresponded with the ideal of 0.7. This again links to fertility; a WHR of 0.7 is present when a woman produces the required amount of hormones, which ultimately means the candidate will have sufficient energy to rear her offspring. Additionally, those with WHRs close to 0.7 are shown to be less prone to a variety of diseases and infections, all of which are important factors in the mating game.
On an evolutionary basis, women seek out men with the best traits to procreate with. Qualities like financial security, strength and dependability being fundamental to the rearing of potential offspring. Women play a much larger role than males in the process of childbearing and thus are choosier when it comes to selecting males; attractiveness is not rated as highly amongst women as it is with men. Universally women tend to prefer men who are a few years older than them and with income generally increasing with age, it is no wonder that women may have a biological and social bias to being ‘gold-diggers’ — or simply seeking financial security and stability for their potential offspring.
*For more about facial symmetry and beauty, please check out “The Weekly Scientist on Beauty” on www.impactnottingham.com.