Is There A Universality of Attractiveness?

October 19, 2012

Being the geek that I am, I’ve been reading a pretty geeky book called Future Science, which is a compilation of essays from young, upcoming scientists in different fields. There is one essay in the book that is relevant to the topic of beauty. And I thought it would be interesting to share the main points on here. This is after all a beauty blog, so it is a perfect place to muse about the powerful role that beauty plays in our lives.

What makes people attractive and why? The answer to this question may be arbitrary, depending on individual taste or cultural preferences. But if you are coming from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, you may look to evolutionary advantages for an explanation. In her essay, “On The Universality of Attractiveness” Coren Apicella seeks to understand attractiveness preferences from an evolutionary standpoint.

According to evolutionary accounts, those who preferred mates based on superior physical qualities would have had  greater reproductive success than those who didn’t have such preferences. And therefore, they got to pass on their genes (along with their attractiveness preferences) onto their offsprings, who then chose a mate that allowed them to have greater reproductive success. And so on, and so forth.

To find out whether certain traits are universal and evolutionarily significant, Apicella sought out hunter-gatherer groups as the basis of her study. An interesting fact to note from the essay is that “humans have been hunter-gatherers for most of our species’ time on the planet, practicing agriculture for only 5 percent of the 200,000 years Homo Sapiens has been in existence.”

The Hadza from Tanzania are one of the few remaining groups of people who still practice this hunter-gatherer way of of life. Because they are relatively isolated from Western media and ideals, Apicella chose them to test for universal agreement on what traits are considered attractive. She set out to examine whether the Hadza found the same things attractive as Western people and whether these features deemed attractive are actually related to health and reproductive success.

The Hadza People. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Findings of the Study

The study focused on one aspect of the face, body and voice that have been found attractive in the Western population: facial “averageness,” waist-hip-ratio in women, and vocal pitch.


Although it may seem odd, average faces are generally perceived as more attractive. This has been determined through studies that have taken photos of individual faces and superimposed them to create an “average” face, which was deemed by test subjects more attractive than any of the individual faces. Researchers have suggested that this preference for averageness may be based on the idea that because of natural selection, “traits that are common in a population are common because they worked.”

To test whether the Hadza also had a preference for averageness, Apicella and her research partner generated pairs of computer-morphed more-average and less-average faces for each sex. She found that the Hadza subjects considered averageness more attractive in Hadza faces but ignored it in Caucasian faces. She suggests that this is because the Hadza have not had enough exposure to Westerners in order to have an idea of what an average Caucasian face looks like. According to Apicella, this demonstrates how experience can influence our mental representations of what is average and what we find attractive in the opposite sex.

Female Body Shape

The waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is used to assess attractiveness in women. Hip size indicates pelvic size and the amount of additional fat storage that can be used as energy, while waist size is associated with a woman’s reproductive or health status. The preference for a certain WHR can be shaped by local circumstances. For example, preference for ample hips may vary depending on the availability of food within a society. In societies where the availability of food does not depend on seasonal variability, a lower WHR may be preferred. This can be reflected in the way that Hadza men prefer a higher WHR in women, while Western men prefer a lower WHR.

Previous studies however have only used frontal views of women and ignored the buttocks which should also contribute to determining WHR. Apicella’s study takes into account both the frontal and profile views, and concludes that there is less disparity between American and Hadza preferences for the WHR of women.

Voice Pitch

Studies have found that low-pitched male voices are generally preferred by women and high-pitched female voices by men. Apicella tested this theory by noting the reproductive histories of high pitched Hadza women and low-pitched Hadza men. Although there wasn’t enough evidence to affirm the evolutionary explanation that these traits are indeed associated with greater reproductive success, she did find that women who were breast-feeding preferred men with higher-pitched voices while women who weren’t breast-feeding preferred men with lower-pitched voices. This suggests that, depending on their circumstances, women’s masculinity preferences may change between men who exhibit high testosterone levels (lower-pitched voices) but may be less likely to invest in relationships and offspring and men who have less testosterone but may make faithful husbands and fathers.

Hadza Women. Image Source: Wikipedia.

My Thoughts

I think it’s interesting that Apicella chose to test for those traits (averageness, body shape, voice pitch) but then barely mentions symmetry and proportionality. These are the traits that I would imagine to be universally pleasing.

The idea of “universality” however, as presented in Apicella’s study, means finding attractive preferences that are shared across different cultures, even ones that have not been influenced by Western culture. But as to whether these traits really are universally attractive in absolute terms, the findings were inconclusive. Averageness might be a trait considered attractive by both Western and non-Western groups of people like the Hadza, but even then, it’s still a trait that requires familiarity with a particular group in order to determine what is average. So it is by no means an absolute measure. There are too many factors that can influence what might be considered attractive by a group of people.

Also, when you attempt to explain attractiveness and beauty from an evolutionary standpoint, the explanatory scope is limited to one thing and one thing only: reproductive success. It’s a one-dimensional take on beauty. If you’re looking for a mate with whom you can successfully reproduce superior offsprings, then perhaps these are the physical traits that you should look for. But then again, maybe not. Some traits deemed attractive in mates because they reflect health may actually be detrimental to health. For example, the Hadza men prefer women who have high waist-to-hip ratios. Fat reserves are valued in societies where food is sometimes scarce. But there are many health risks that comes with abdominal fat, such as metabolic diseases and reproductive cancers.

When it comes to choosing mates, physical traits are not the only consideration that must be made. The Hadza knows this. When asked to list the traits most important to them in choosing a spouse, the Hadza men and women listed good character and foraging ability above attractiveness. It seems that trustworthiness and the ability to provide for your family is still a priority, even across different cultures.

If we are to study attractiveness based on evolutionary adaptations, then we can only imagine how these preferences must change over time as we continue to evolve as a species. This is just my hunch, but what happens when we evolve into our digital and robotic forms (the inevitable outcome that my geeky self predicts)? What then? Will we still pick our mates based on their pelvic width? Somehow, I have a feeling that our attractive preferences will be very different indeed.

“There is certainly no absolute standard of beauty. That precisely is what makes its pursuit so interesting.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

Future Science – Cutting-edge essays from the new generation of scientists.

4 thoughts on “Is There A Universality of Attractiveness?

  1. The Girls On Fire

    Et ben !! Très intéressant tout ça !!
    Je pense que les Hadza ne m’aurait pas choisie car je suis une mauvaise chercheuse de nourriture et j’ai la voix grave !! Je ne sais pas me nourrir normalement !! ;D
    J’aurai aussi pensé que la symétrie et la proportionnalité étaient des critères d’universalité !!

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