Some aspects of beauty
Some aspects of beauty appear to be cross-cultural. For example a study of people in England and Japan found that both British and Japanese men consider women with large eyes, high cheekbones and narrow jaws to be most attractive (Buss, 1994). In his research, Perret created computer composites of the faces of 60 women and of the 15 women who were rated the most attractive. He then used computer enhancement to exaggerated the differences between he composite of the 60 and the composite of the 15 most attractive women. He found that the image which showed higher cheekbones and a narrower jaw was rated as more of an attractive image.
Similar results were found for the image of a Japanese woman. Works of art suggest that the ancient Greeks and Egyptians favored similar facial features. In our society, tallness is an asset for men, although college women prefer dates that are medium in height. Tall women tend to be viewed less positively (Sheppard & Strathman, 1989). Undergraduate women prefer dates to be about 6 inches taller than they are, whereas undergraduate men are discouraged from asking them out. A few walk with a hunch to minimize their height. Plumpness is valued in many cultures. In Western society today, both sexes find slenderness engaging.
Women generally favor men with a V-shaped body. Although both genders perceive obese people as unattractive, there are fascinating gender differences in perceptions of the most desirable body shape. College men generally find that their current physique is similar to the ideal male build and to the one that women find most appealing (Franzoi & Herzog, 1987). College women, in contrast, generally see themselves as significantly heavier than the figure that is most attractive to males, and heavier still than the ideal female figure. But both genders err in their estimates of the preferences of the opposite gender.
Men actually prefer women to be heavier than women expect, about halfway between the girth of the average woman and what the woman thinks is most attractive. And women prefer their men to be somewhat thinner than the men assume. A flat-chested look was a hallmark of the enchanting profile of the 1920’s flapper era, but in more recent years, men seem to desire women with medium sized breasts. Interestingly, we tend to perceive large busted women as less intelligent, competent, moral and modest than smaller breast (Kleinke & Staneski, 1980). This is clearly a case in which people over attribute a physical feature to dispositional factors.
Both men and women are perceived as more attractive when they are smiling. So, there is a good reason to, as the song goes “put on a happy face” when you are meeting people or looking for a date. Other aspects of behavior also play a role in attraction. Women viewing videotapes of prospective dates preferred men who acted outgoing and self expressive. Men viewing videotapes responded negatively to women who role played the same behavior patterns. College men who showed dominance in a videotape were rated as more attractive by female viewers. But women showing dominance were not rated as more attractive by men.
Despite the liberating forces in recent years, the cultural stereotype of the ideal woman still finds a place for demureness. That is not to suggest that self-assertive, expressive women mend their ways to make themselves more appealing to traditional men; assertive women might find nothing but conflict with traditional men anyhow (Reis et al. , 1990). Psychological characteristics such as warmth, fidelity, honesty, and sensitivity were rated higher in importance than physical attractiveness as desirable qualities in a prospective partner for a meaningful, long-term relationship (Nevid, 1984).
Physical attractiveness won out when subjects were asked to consider the qualities that are most important in a partner for a sexual relationship. Overall, however, men placed greater emphasis on the physical characteristics of their partners for both types of relationships than did women. Women placed more value on qualities such as warmth, assertiveness, wit, and achievement orientation. The single most highly desired quality students wanted in long-term partners was honesty.
Although personal qualities may assume more prominent roles in determining partner preferences in long-term relationships, Nevid argues, that physical appeal probably plays a filtering role. Unless a prospective date meets minimal physical standards, we might not look beneath the surface for more meaningful traits. Nevid’s findings are replicated in studies on mate selection. Women tend to place greater emphasis than men on traits such as professional status, consideration, dependability, kindness, and fondness for children. Men place relatively greater emphasis on physical allure, cooking ability and even thriftiness (Buss, 1994).
Gender differences in the traits that affect perceptions of attractiveness seem to be rather sexist. Some sociobiologists believe that evolutionary forces favor the survival of men and women with these preferences because they provide reproductive advantages (Fisher, 1992). As discussed in Rathus, Nevid and Fichner-Rathus (1997), some physical features such as cleanliness, good complexion, clear eyes, good teeth, good hair, firm muscle tone and a steady gait are found universally appealing to both genders. Perhaps such traits have value as markers of better reproductive potential in prospective mates.
According to the “parental investment model”, a woman’s appeal is more strongly connected with her age and health, both of which are markers of reproductive capacity. The value of men as reproducers is more intertwined with factors that contribute to a stable environment for childbearing, such as social standing and reliability. For such reasons, sociobiologists speculate that these qualities may have grown relatively more alluring to women over the millennia (Buss, 1994). Sociobiological theory is largely speculative and not fully consistent with all the evidence (Kakutani, 1992).
Women are attracted to physically appealing men and women tend to marry men similar to them in physical attractiveness and socioeconomic standing. Aging men are more likely than younger men to die from natural causes. The wealth they accrue may not always be transmitted to their spouses and children, either. Many women may be more able to find reproductive success by mating with a fit, younger male than with an older, higher-status male. Even sociobiologists allow that despite any innate predispositions, many men desire and maintain a sexual interest in older women. Human behavior is certainly flexible.
By and large, we rate what is beautiful as good. We expect physically attractive people to be poised, sociable, popular, mentally healthy and fulfilled (Feingold, 1992). The expectations of them are to be persuasive and hold prestigious jobs. We even expect them to be good parents and have stable marriages. Physically unattractive individuals are more likely to be rated as outside of the mainstream. Unattractive college students are even more likely to rate themselves as prone toward developing problems and psychological disorders. These stereotypes seem to have some basis in reality.
It seems that more attractive individuals are less likely to develop psychological disorders, and that the disorders of unattractive individuals are more severe. Also, attractiveness correlates positively with popularity, social skills and sexual experience. The correlations between physical attractiveness and most measures of mental ability and personality are trivial though (Feingold, 1992). One way to interpret the data on the correlates of physical attractiveness is to assume that these links are all innate, in other words, we can believe that beauty and competence genetically go hand in hand.
We can believe that biology is destiny and throw up our hands in despair. But a more useful way to interpret the data is to assume that we can do things to make ourselves more attractive and also more successful and fulfilled. Remember that having a decent physique or figure, grooming ourselves well and attending to the ways in which we dress are linked to attractiveness. Attractive people are also more likely to be found innocent of burglary and cheating in mock jury experiments (Mazzella & Feingold, 1994). When found guilty, they are handed down less severe sentences.
Perhaps we assume that more attractive people are less likely to need to resort to deviant behavior to achieve their goals. Even when they have erred, perhaps they will have more opportunity for personal growth and be more likely to change their evil ways. Attractive children learn early of the high expectations of others. Even during the first year of life, adults tend to rate physically attractive babies to good, smart, likeable, and unlikely to cause their parents problems (Stephan & Langlois, 1984). Parents, teachers and other children expect attractive children to do well in school and be popular, well behaved and talented.
Since our self-esteem reflects the admiration of others it is not surprising that physically attractive people have higher self-esteem. According to the matching hypothesis, we actually ask out people who are similar to ourselves in physical attractiveness rather than the local movie star look-alikes. The majority motive for asking out matches seems to be fear of rejection by more attractive people. Shanteau and Nagy (1979) asked female undergraduates to choose between two possible male dates on the basis of physical attractiveness and probability that the man would accept the date request.
Women preferred not to pursue men who were either very unattractive or very unlikely to accept the date. Moderately attractive men who were highly likely to accept the date was chosen most often. In a second phase of the experiment, women were asked to choose a date on the basis of the photo alone. Again, most women chose moderately attractive men. Perhaps they assumed that the most attractive men would be less likely to accept the date. The quest for similarity extends beyond physical attractiveness. Our marital and sex partners tend to be similar to us in race and ethnicity, age, level of education, and religion.
Here are some findings of the National Health and Social Life Survey (Michael et al. , 1994, p. 45-47). Nearly 94 percent of single White men have White women as their sex partners, 2 percent are partnered with Hispanic American women, 2 percent with Asian American women and less than 1 percent with African American women. About 82 percent of African American men have American women as their sex partners, nearly 8 percent are partnered with White women and almost 5 percent with Hispanic American women.
About 83 percent of the women and men in the study chose partners within five years of their own age and of the same or a similar religion. Of nearly 2,000 women in the study, not one with a graduate college degree had a partner who had not finished high school. One reason why most people have partners from the same background as their own is that marriages are made in the neighborhood and not in heaven (Sheppard & Strathman, 1989). We tend to live among people who are similar to us in background, and we therefore come into contact with them ore often than with people from other backgrounds.
Another reason is that we are drawn to people whose attitudes are similar to ours. People from a similar background are more likely to have similar attitudes. Similarity in attitudes and tastes is a key contributor to initial attraction, friendship, and love relationships. There is also evidence that we may tend to assume that physically attractive people share our attitudes. When attraction is strong perhaps we like to think that all the kinks in the relationship will be small and can be ironed out. Not all attitudes are necessarily equal.
Men on computer dates at the University of Nevada are more influenced by sexual than religious attitudes (Touhey, 1972). But women are more attracted to men whose religious views coincided with their own. The women may have been relatively less interested in a physical relationship and more concerned about creating a family with cohesive values. Attitudes toward religion and children are generally more important in mate selection than characteristics like kindness and professional status. Similarity in tastes is also important.
May and Hamilton (1980) found that college women rate photos of male strangers as more attractive when they are listening to music that they like as compared to music that they don’t like. If a dating couple’s taste in music does not overlap, one member may look more appealing at the same time the second is losing appeal in the other’s eyes and all because of what is on the stereo. Reciprocity is a powerful determinant of attraction. We tend to return feelings of admiration. We tend to be more open, warm and helpful when we are interacting with strangers who seem to like us.
Romantics believe that irresistible forces propel them toward an inevitable meeting with their beloved, but social psychologists take a more hardheaded view of the matter. They have found that attraction and the tendency to like someone else are closely linked to such factors as proximity, physical attractiveness, similarity, exchange and intimacy. Proximity is usually the most important factor in determining attraction. The closer two people live to each other, the more likely they are to interact, the more frequent their interaction, the more they will tend to like each other.
Conversely, two people separated by considerable geographic distance are not likely to run into each other, and thus have little chance to develop a mutual attraction. The proximity effect has less to do with simple convenience than with the security and comfort we feel with people and things that have become familiar. Familiar people are predictable and safe thus more likable (Bornstein, 1989). Physical attractiveness can powerfully influence the conclusions that we reach about a person’s character. We generally give attractive people credit for more than their beauty.
A common message of advertisers is that there is something wrong with our bodies. Although we may try to shrug off these messages, knowing that they are clear attempts to sell products, they still affect our image of the way we ought to look. Such advertising is not limited to the West. In both Japan and China advertisers push a soap that supposedly slims the body by “sucking up fat through the skin’s pores” (Marshall, 1995). Today, television programs rank high among the mass media’s attempts to influence how we feel about our bodies.
Marshall studied television talk shows that feature women and weight. There were three categories identified that reflect how obese women feel about themselves and how audiences react to them. Disgusting was the most prevalent category, disgust about fat people prevails. The overweight people sometimes cry as they are confronted by rude stares and nasty personal remarks. The host may play the role of the sympathizer, sometimes even with a close up of them wiping away a tear. Pathetic was the next category and is sometimes difficult to separate from disgusting, it contains an element of compassion.
When obese children are featured, for example, the guests express sympathy, even a bit of hope for change. The last was the bizarrely beautiful and with these shows they featured obese people and guests who find them sexually attractive. The women, who often say they are happy with their weight, may strike provocative poses. The audience still views them as freaks, however. The universal concept of beauty has many factors that psychologist must examine to fully understand. Culture and media are probably two of the strongest.
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