Beautiful People = The Best People? 

lovers-5Men go for looks because they are trying to mate with the healthiest, most reproductively viable women. Right? Even though to most widely spread their genes, guys will mate with just about anyone.

Yet women don’t care about looks so much because, even though women are very picky, clear physical cues to the best genes aren’t all that important. A man’s resources are what matter.

So say evolutionary psychologists.

Hmmmm. Maybe not.

Women care about resources and not looks for evolutionary purposes, they say, yet a man’s resources weren’t important to our earliest ancestors where property wasn’t especially valued and the bulk of the diet came from food that women gathered.

Turning to women’s looks, what is considered attractive varies from culture to culture, and all of the following have been considered attractive in some society: obese, plump, skinny, big boobs, small boobs, big butt, small butt… Mayans had once admired cross-eyes and the Yapese like black teeth. The Thonga prefer tall, powerful women yet Chinese women were once mutilated to create abnormally small feet.… I could go on.

So a guy called “Catfish” wondered:

Do you believe that it is possible to exclude sexual selection from human society at all? Do you think it is related to what we find attractive?

I do think that there are evolutionary adaptations. Dark coloring protects people who live near the equator from damaging sunlight, while people near the North Pole evolved to have lighter coloring to let the sunshine — and the vitamin D — in.

But that doesn’t explain why gentlemen prefer blondes.

Light color is predominantly preferred, worldwide. But not because it’s healthier worldwide.

Few instincts grant freedom

Humans have very few instincts, which gives us freedom.

We are more symbolic than instinctual, and light coloring has taken on some high status symbolic meanings. For instance:

  • Colonized people wanted to mimic the lighter coloring of those wielding imperial power
  • Outdoor work tends to be lower status — and it also tans the skin

But after Coco Chanel returned from St. Tropez with a deep tan, whites began seeking a deep tan, too. Because they wanted to look like they had also just returned from St. Tropez, or the Caribbean, or Hawaii, or the backyard pool.

And in fact, much of our cultural preferences are for things that are completely fake: bleached hair, fake-tan skin, abnormally skinny, unnaturally large breasts…

I ask:

How can a preference for fake be adaptive?

And since such a wide variety of looks have been preferred, why can’t variety be valued?

Hierarchal preferences and domination culture

The notion that some looks are better than others creates a mindset that some people are better than others.

It’s reflective of domination culture — our continuing racism and patriarchy being expressions of that mindset.

If you can get people to believe that the world is naturally hierarchal it’s easier for rulers to rule.

But since few will end up at the pyramid’s top, most people will be hurt by this.

A few will prosper. Like those who are already at the top.

And a lot of product is sold by making people feel bad about themselves — and offering a “cure” (blonde hair dye, blue contact lenses, miracle bras, boob jobs, liposuction, gym memberships, diets, clothing to make you look skinnier or curvier…)

Fake ideals sell more product because no real person actually looks like “that.” (Even models don’t actually look like themselves once Photoshop has finished with them.) It’s not real but we all learn to value the look, anyway.

Beauty ideals aren’t adaptive

Being drawn by beauty would not create a healthier species. In fact, many beauty ideals are not healthy.

But even if beauty did alert us to the healthiest among us, it would not help the species overall. People usually mate with those who are similar on the “attractive scale” of any particular culture. So instead of lifting the species, the most attractive people would mate, moderately attractive people would mate, and people considered unattractive would mate.

Charles Darwin, himself, questioned the notion that sexual selection adequately explained human behavior, noting that in his own time men were attracted to women’s mental charms, wealth and social position. Yes, men and women, alike, are attracted to people who are smart, charming, emotionally intelligent, fun, warmhearted, high status and who share their interests.

Meanwhile, given the ideals we have, some men can’t get aroused without a particular bra size. And more than two-thirds of the young women I’ve surveyed spend at least some time distracted from sex because they are thinking about how they look.

Sex and relationships are both harmed.

How does that help to perpetuate the species?

And isn’t it a bit dull when everyone looks the same, anyway?

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 5, 2016, in body image, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.

  1. “And isn’t it a bit dull when everyone looks the same, anyway?”
    I couldn’t agree with that last line more, what makes us so unique as a species is the fact that we all are completely different (except identical twins of course) and have our own characteristics, yet media and our society tries to persuade us into thinking we aren’t enough. Anyone can change just about anything they aren’t happy with if you have the money, yet when we achieve the ‘ideal’ look we are still not happy. Everywhere we look we are given tips on how to lose weight, how to contour your face, or what the latest trends are. We all want what we can’t or don’t have, those with curly hair envy those with straight, brown eyed people envy blue or hazel, the not-so-well-endowed envy those who are, and the list goes on. In a perfect world I would like to think that what we wanted out of a partner is a combination of both, but there are some people out there so vain that all that matters is looks and material objects. Things come and go, beauty can fade, but ultimately a person’s personality is what we are stuck with and it’s personality that truly makes a person unique. Yes behaviors do change as well but for the most part we have become who we are after a certain age and all the beauty tricks and diet fads will fail and become irrelevant. We first judge a person on their looks so I do believe we do need to be comfortable with ourselves because the way we carry ourselves shines through before getting to know a person. If certain things like tan skin and blond hair is what makes you feel confident about yourself then so be it, but we should not let the young boys and girls think that what they see on TV or the internet is the standard. The best people are the people who are happy and do what is good for themselves and others, despite what mainstream media tells us what is ‘in’.

  2. Ironically, it’s not that I’m unattractive that makes me feel unfair beauty standards are put on me, it’s more that lack of resources part. Not that I’m stunningly attractive, definitely not. I do think that regarding the idea people are attracted to the “smart, charming, emotionally intelligent, fun, warmhearted, high status and who share their interests”, I have to say that many likely connect on their lack of charm, lack of intelligence, their trashiness, craziness, inadequacy, and even crassness and so on.

    I also would like to throw in there, regarding your question “why can’t variety be valued?”, can I just state the obvious that some men out there, and some women, if not many of both sexes do value a variety. I’m inclined to believe that valuing a variety would be a sign of greater intelligence (more highly evolved maybe), but I guess it’s not my place to make that claim, especially since I lack the resources to attract the bombshell I’ve been longing for to have “my” children (rhetorical statement to accentuate my point, I’m not hellbent on perpetuating the human race, I sincerely hope no one else is either).

    • A change toward valuing variety might be more important in the media — what women are told is valued — than what men actually value. Because I know that men are more generous than media is.

  3. Appearance does play an important role to men but I do not believe that men go for the prettiest women because they are the healthiest. I believe men go after the prettiest women because pretty women are like trophies. Men like to “break necks” towards other men meaning to show off.
    I agree that pretty women go after non-handsome men because they have those resources that allow those women to live a very comfortable lifestyle. People say that, “money can’t buy happiness.” I disagree with that statement because money talks in today’s society. Rich but non-handsome guys are with the most beautiful women in the world. I’m sure those guys know that those women might be gold diggers but I know those men are happy.

  4. It’s ridiculous how fake ideas and ideals actually do sell and very good in todays society. We have revolutionized to the point that the unreal and fake is appealing to us and we find it completely normal and beautiful. The high demand in fake accesories that make us appear appealing to society such as hair extensions, colored contacts, waist trainers, and so on have skyrocketed in the last 10 years or so. One will never satisfy a physical beauty standard worldwide because it varies in every country, every culture, every region otherwise you would look like a totally deformed horrific creature walking around.

  5. I feel like the whole idea of wanting to mate with someone with pretty looks goes back to those times where people would eat people’s blood so that they can look young and healthy, but really this is just a matter of some psychological disorder, because no one can be as “healthy” and it’s insane to want to mate someone with beautiful looks, because really, who wouldn’t want to be happy, with only someone who shares some common things? or doesn’t care about your looks? Doesn’t care what color you are as long as they’re for sure going to be there for you. I would be okay with that person, in my opinion and of course it will take a while to look for someone you like, but why take the chance when there’s someone already perfect for you. Nobody in this world is bound to be perfect.

  6. Oh yes, I have so much feelings about this issue: girls obsessed with having good-looking, big eyes, legs like pencil… Some girls care too much about others opinion about their shape, so some of them take diet pills to keep a good figure. I have a friend flied to Korea for plastic surgery just because her boyfriend said her eyes were too small. But I want to say that “fake face” can’t help us build real confidence and we really don’t need to care so much what people think about our apperance. Don’t let people make judgement about our face. Things can help girls to be attractive are self-confidence, smile from the heart, and health. My favourite song is Meghan’s “All about that Bass”. The reason why I like this song is it shows us we are perfect and we can show it without fake. We should care more about our inside beauty.

  7. A theme here is that beauty is not an effective trait to chaise for betterment of human survival. After all, how could people of such varying tastes and fringe fetishes have advantageous genes on their minds? However I think this reads too much into the many eccentricities man has evolved in the later stages of our existence. Not when people were fighting off bears and wolves, living in the most primitive of shelters, but later on when people had a rudimentary yet evolved way of living with more stability to be enjoyed.

    Though these preferences pop up at a relatively early stage of civilization, that stability of having crops to depend on harvesting or effective hunting tools to use for sustenance inhibits the ability to branch out into having different cultures, and instead keeps them in a red-alert, survival mode. In this simpler mode, most of human evolution has come about. And that was when such benefits such as straight eyes, clear skin, functioning limbs, and more probably sculpted the artwork that is the human body.

    • I’m unclear on when you think most of our genetic evolution took place. But it surely took place during the 95% of human experience before we had agriculture and large settlements. And it turns out that looks aren’t a very good indicator of health, especially since what is considered attractive varies from place to place, and even person-to-person.

  8. Of course every person ought to be able to feel good about themselves, inside and out. But I wonder, instead of changing externally, why don’t people do something about who they are inside first? Nowadays, people care too much about outward appearance, and There is no limit to people’s greed. So many people adapt a preference for fake. One of the problems is that plastic surgery. Plastic surgery growing among younger teens. Now, even the teens who do not need plastic surgery want it. Plastic surgery is not all bad, and getting plastic surgery is a right everyone has. However teens should not be allowed to get plastic surgery. Getting plastic surgery cannot be taken lightly It becomes one of the trends. It’s unfortunate, but in today’s society, people have forgotten that it’s what’s inside a person that counts, not what’s on the outside.

    • I agree. Often times people don’t feel beautiful because of what is inside – that’s what needs to get fixed.

    • > It’s unfortunate, but in today’s society, people have forgotten that it’s what’s inside a person that counts, not what’s on the outside.

      I wonder if it ever was different.

  9. yesenia M Zamora

    This post is completely true and I agree. I feel that many of us, people, go towards fake images. We are inspired, or many are inspired, by fake images that media and social media gives us.
    Society is harming relationships because everyday there is a new expectation. This expectations can make people sick, mentally sick. The medias have been impacting many people’s self esteem. Many women and men have changed their ideas of what should be part of a relationship, love. Bodies and looks are the main focus and this is why sex and relationships are being hurt in this new era.

  10. Reading the last paragraph, i couldn’t help but think about that Playboy interview a few years ago when John Mayer said that he couldn’t get it up unless he was with a white woman. When mainstream media perpetuates beauty standards like this, it reduces people’s worth to how attractive other people find you. Children absorb these ideas and become adults who uphold them, too.
    Many things Americans generally find attractive are also difficult or nearly impossible to achieve if you weren’t already born with them (light skin, thigh gaps, straight hair, full lips etc.). My skin color is the first thing I remember being self-conscious about, but with more women of color becoming visible in the entertainment, academic, and political world, maybe our beauty standards will begin to broaden or eventually go away altogether as time goes on.

  11. By the way you asked why men seem to prefer blondes?
    There’s this explanation, someone having health issues does effect their appearance – “you don’t LOOK so well” – so having light color hair it’s easier to spot any signs of healt issues whereas dark hair can cover these signs

    Same thing with the eyes. Eyes can reveal heath issues. Radiant eyes appear more attractive because they indicate good health.

    • The only place where light coloring is healthier is in far north latitudes. So in most of the world darker color and will be healthier.

      • I meant that it’s easier to spot a health problem on light colored hair.

      • That may be true with something like jaundice. Although the whites of your eyes would still show the problem. Which problems did you have in mind?

        But maybe flaky skin would show up better on darker skin.

        Regardless, if you live anywhere but the most northern latitudes you will be less healthy with lighter skin.

    • If apperanace of some trait can be explained by evolutionary logic, it doesn’t mean that the explanation is feasible. There are mechanisms that lead to random changes in genomes over time, e.g. genetic drift: . Not everything in our genomes is the result of selection.

      So ideally if one would like to verify if some trait is a result of selection, they needed to establish which parts of the genome affect that trait. And then find the evidence of selection in those parts by comparing them across different organisms.But behaviour in this regard is super tricky, as we have very few clues about how genomes affect it, this relationship is incredibly complex. Even eye color is encoded by multiple genes. Behaviour is super complex. So we have to wait for a very long time before me can make any biological conclusions about whether “gentlemen go for blondies” for health reasons or not.

  12. Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior by P. Gray and J. Garcia makes some very good points about sexual behavior.
    It’s a very good reading for anyone who believes or not in evolutionary psychology.
    If natural selection didn’t exist then there wouldn’t be a reason for men being on average bigger than women are?
    Why not men and women having the same body type?
    Heck, why even having two different kinds of chromosomes X and Y that mix up and create different sexes and not just have one sex?

    Sure many men would be interested in finding a wealthy woman, who wouldn’t like not having to work?

    But the very basis of the dating scene is that most men are attracted to women’s looks, regardless social status and occupation, whereas most women are attracted to men’s personality and social status.
    The main question for men when looking for a woman is “is she good looking?”
    The main question for women when looking for a man is “can he take care of things?”
    A man having resources isn’t necessarily what makes men attractive, it’s the traits that the man has that made him resourceful.

    Imagine a man loosing his cool under stressful situations, running away from problems and protecting his woman?

    Now imagine a man who never looses his cool, find a solution to problems with clear thinking, being a handy man and always willing to protect his woman no matter what.

    Men are attracted mostly to how women look and women are attracted mostly to what men do.
    That’s why most of the times men take the initiative to approach and talk to women. And how men decide if they should approach a woman they know nothing about her? Judging by her looks
    And women decide if they are interested in that man by judging his behavior and actions.

    Seriously, how many times has a woman gone to pick up a guy from his home for a date, knocking on his door and offering him flowers and a box of chocolates?

    • I do believe that sexual selection plays a role, Explaining why people around the equator have dark skin and it gets lighter as you go toward the poles.

      But even Charles Darwin, himself, questioned the notion that sexual selection adequately explained human behavior, noting that in his own time men were attracted to women’s mental charms, wealth and social position. Yes, people are guided by much more than instinctive cues toward reproductive fitness. Men and women, alike, are attracted to people who are smart, charming, emotionally intelligent, fun, warmhearted, high status and who share their interests.

      The reason men ask women out is tied to patriarchy. As a culture we expect men to take the lead and to be tough and able to withstand rejection, So we have made it the male role.

      Despite that most of my women students have asked a man out, so it certainly isn’t like women can’t do it. Other women want to but they’re afraid they will come across as desperate or sluts. That’s cultural.

  13. I’ve said this many times as to what defines beautiful when it comes to people and to me, it is often about personality and a person’s nature as looks are insignificant. when you can’t see looks someone else is bound to comment on how attractive someone is and it’s easy to take one’s word for it but it’s all very well right then and there as you have to probably spend long enough with a person just to know whether it was even worth noting whether they are beautiful or not I guess.

  14. Great post ~ beauty is this flowing of current perception at a specific point in time, and in many ways so irrelevant to real beauty. One friend of mine who is on the heavy side said to me a few months ago (in jest and smiles), “do you know a century or so ago, my body type would have rocked the world :-)” Pick a point in time, and you could be in a totally different world.

  15. Georgia! Been awhile since I got to read blogs, glad to see you’re still examining our poor mislaid culture. I’m curious what you think about the differences in (mass-market) notions of gender attractiveness as time goes on and males seem to be increasingly required to be “perfect” physical specimens too. Not as rigid of expectations as women have, but we’re getting there. (I saw a clip of Jurassic Park the other day and was noticing how Chris Pratt had to replace his American-male sized belly with 10-pack abs to be taken seriously or get an “attractive” role instead of the goofy putz role.)

    If males are increasingly being subjected to the same artificial standards, is it a matter of time until we’re getting bicep implants?

  16. “Men go for looks because they are trying to mate with the healthiest, most reproductively viable women. Right? Even though to most widely spread their genes, guys will mate with just about anyone.

    Yet women don’t care about looks so much because, even though women are very picky, clear physical cues to the best genes aren’t all that important. A man’s resources are what matter.

    So say evolutionary psychologists.”

    Is it really state of the art in the science (not just PUA “theorists” tales)?

    • Nice to hear from someone I quoted in the article 🙂

      And this is actually official theory. Although there are two schools of evolutionary psychology, One of which does not agree with all of this — they think that both men and women tend toward monogamy.

  17. A very balanced analysis. “much of our cultural preferences are for things that are completely fake”- methinks this is true in every society and in every country.

  18. Yes evolutionary psychology doesn’t make any sense! There are clear contradictions to all the theories. It’s just men trying to justify their caveman behavior and sound smart about it.

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