Scientists: “We’ve figured out what makes people sexy!”


Breaking news from science: beauty is quantifiable! You can measure it! Did you think that beauty was subjective? It’s not. Did you think that people were attracted to different appearances? They aren’t. All men are attracted to the same woman. She’s…Jessica Biel! And the rest of us? We just occasionally remind men of Jessica Biel in some small way.

I was watching a documentary on Netflix called The Science of Sex Appeal. I was nervous. I was waiting to be told by the most prominent scientists at the most prominent research centers and universities that I would never be hot. And then I was waiting for them to explain to me why not, using some very serious-looking equations, a bunch of fancy computer generated diagrams, and a legion of student participants who all eagerly confirmed their hypotheses.

It wasn’t the first time.

In college, I took a social anthropology class with Robert Trivers, who Wikipedia refers to as “one of the most influential evolutionary theorists alive today.” (And who would ever question Wikipedia’s sincerity?) It was a big class. There was a giant projector screen. And on the screen were giant images of women’s faces and bodies. Hip-to-waist ratio was really, really important, I learned. Soft, round breasts were by far the best option. Facial symmetry was key. I went back to my dorm and looked in the mirror. Hmm….There was a chance I’d find a mate. If he didn’t look at my face too much.

Here’s a simple test (for women) to find out if you’re evolutionarily desirable (i.e. can get a lot of dates and the best possible partner):

Does your face reflect Plato’s Golden Ratio? Is it perfectly symmetrical? Do you have large, clear eyes? Is the space between your eyes at least as wide as the length of one of your eyes? Are your teeth naturally white and straight? Do the lengths of the parts of your lips that are not directly under your nose measure the same, added together, as the width of the bottom of your nose? Is your chin delicate and your eyebrows thin and low? Is your skin clear? Is your hair thick and lustrous? Do you have a tiny waist and full hips? Are your breasts big, round, and perky, yet soft? Are your legs long, with tapering ankles? Do you speak in a high, sweet voice? Do you smell delicious?

If you answered yes to all of the above, then you are the perfect woman (Jessica, is that you? Get out of here! Now you’re just bragging). Every man wants you. You can choose any partner you want. Evolution has favored you, and scientists will fall at your elegant, slender feet, amazed at witnessing the perfect specimen.

(Good, wouldn’t want to miss out on the butt. So important for our research. source)

For men:

Are you broad-shouldered, low voiced, and muscular? Is your face symmetrical? Is your chin strong and your eyebrows thick? Do you have very little fat anywhere on your body? Are you tall?

No? That’s OK. Do you drive an expensive, tricked out car? Do you make a lot of money? Good. Phew.

In the end, I liked the documentary. It had all these fantastically funny moments. Like when a woman on the street is handed a photo of a guy who was previously rated unattractive by other women, and who now has an invented income of $375,000 stamped alongside his image. She’s asked to rate his attractiveness on a 1-10 scale. She glances at the picture for about a second and goes, “Ten!”

Researchers at UCLA found that the most attractive bodies didn’t even exist in nature. Like, the waist-hip ratio that men favored was so extreme that if it showed up on a real woman, she wouldn’t be able to give birth. Trying to explain what the deal was, the scientists called this type of male preference a form of biological laziness. As in, guys respond to things that look feminine, so the more exaggeratedly feminine, the better. Oh, good, it’s definitely female. I can mate with it. Done.

A member of a car club, standing in a parking lot full of neon green and pink ghetto cars with monster truck wheels and flame decals explains (scientifically, of course), “The bottom line is you need a nice car to get a nice chick.”

The whole facial symmetry thing got me wondering, but at that point my suspicions were confirmed. I’m an evolutionary failure. From a very young age, when I saw a guy with a fancy car, I automatically liked him less. I assumed his priorities are all wrong. He spent all his money on a stupid car! What’s left for our potential offspring?

And when people in the film were sitting around rating each other’s attractiveness, I was pretty surprised at how harsh they were. Women who looked gorgeous to me were getting 4.5’s. Not a single person, except for the low-ranked guy with the imaginary fortune, got a 10.

After an exercise in which about twenty young men and women were told to pair up with the most attractive partner they could, the researcher remarked that they’d ended up choosing partners at about the same level of attractiveness, just as expected. It was the best they could do. But there I was, thinking that the low ranking pairs looked great, and that guy who was supposed to be a stud looked too annoying to count as appealing.

I also kept wondering about how everyone felt. How did the test subjects feel, when told to compete for the “sexiest” match? How did the beautiful, heavyset UCLA researcher feel, designing “ideal” computer animated body models in her lab? How did the researcher with the high-pitched, nerdy voice feel, studying how women were so much more likely to choose a man with a low, rumbling voice?

I know, that’s not really the point. And I’m all for scientific inquiry. But whenever I come across research about evolution and beauty, and a bunch of hardworking people in white coats who are proudly proclaiming that they’ve cracked the sexiness code, I end up feeling relieved that regardless of what they’ve found this time (and it’s usually more of the same anyway), I, as an evolutionary failure, am able to find women other than Jessica Biel stunning. I’m able to fall madly in love with a man who doesn’t even own a car, and whose voice is softer and sweeter than my own. And I’m able to go through life with a face that doesn’t have a golden ratio on any part of it, being, for the most part, pretty satisfied. Maybe one day I’ll have some lopsided kids with big noses and subpar hip-waist ratios. But I’m going to try my hardest to point out to those kids that they are just about as beautiful as it gets. Maybe they can even be scientists who run a lot of experiments on how people are a lot more attractive than they think they are. Or about how we all need to get over this stuff. Or about how being able to write really clever books set in allegorical fantasy worlds is the most attractive feature in any potential partner. Much more so than eyebrows with a perfect hair count.

(Hot. source)

*  *  *

Un-roast: Today I love my manly eyebrows. As I said to Bear, when I was telling him about the documentary, “My eyebrows could take your eyebrows.” He said, “Like, in an eyebrows battle?” “Yeah.” And it’s true. And I’m proud of them for that.

P.S. I talked to Trivers a few times after class, mostly out of indignation. He seemed, as far as I could tell, to think my face was cute. Sort of validating, if I’m being totally honest.

P.P.S. Not sure why Jessica Biel came up so much in this post. I saw a movie with her in it a few days ago. That could be it.

P.P.P.S. There’s a discussion on Blogfrog’s Daily Break about this. I started it, but I don’t have high hopes for it.


Kate on November 1st 2010 in beauty, body

12 Responses to “Scientists: “We’ve figured out what makes people sexy!””

  1. San D responded on 01 Nov 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    In the spirit of “lets get out and vote tomorrow, and in the context of what you saw in the documentary, I would like to add that I think one of the reasons Sarah Palin gets “listened to” more than lets say Meg Whitman (who by the way has the same message- Republican) is because of their ratings on the “sexy meter”. Apparently to some voters, the better looking you are on their ‘beauty scale’ the more credible your message. Same with male candidates, just ask Richard Nixon when he ran against the hunk John F. Kennedy. Messages and politics aside, I really do think people go for the one that looks better. Rather have a country run by a prince than a toad, or a princess than a witch. Hillary Clinton never scores high either on the “looks” meter, so her message got overlooked as well.

  2. rachel responded on 01 Nov 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    “Oh, good, it’s definitely female. I can mate with it. Done.” Hilarious!

    Explanations like that show the biases inherent in all scientific work. (Which was your post about objectivity? I know this came up before.) There’s no reason to believe reproductive impulses have anything to do with beauty. – Especially if we accept the all to often stated ‘fact’ that men are programmed to mate with as many women as possible. There are obvious heterosexist biases in the idea that beauty is defined by mating potential. Where does same sex attraction fit into that rubric? And btw, I categorically reject the argument that heterosexuality is normal or norm making because it is more common than homosexuality, because it’s impossible to know what the ‘natural’ incidences of same vs opposite sex attraction would be outside of culture.

    I find the whole effort to tease out the relationship of culture to nature tedious, and even dangerous, because often ‘science’ seems to say, “Look, culture isn’t just socially constructed: we value X, because of this natural motivation.” As if that theory justified the sexism, homophobia, ageism, weightism, etc in our contemporary world, even though whatever natural motivation may have once existed has little to do with our postindustrial society.

    Unroast: I like that my hair turns curly in the rain, especially a few days after its last wash. I’m giving experimenting with cutting back shampoos from every other day to once or twice a week.

  3. Ellie Di responded on 01 Nov 2010 at 2:06 pm #

    I took a nonverbal communications class, human sexuality class, and a biopsych class during my undergrad, and all of these points were hammered in during each one. Amazing that it’s so pervasive in scientific literature and yet people in reality have so many different preferences. I felt the same irritation and anger that you do, but it’s hard to argue when it’s in black and white like that. I fought/fight against it by remembering my OWN preferences and the ways they deviate from the “norm”.

  4. Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday responded on 01 Nov 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    @San D
    I’ve heard that before! I’ve also heard that when televisions first came out and candidate debates were broadcast on both radio and TV that the TV viewers rated the more attractive candidates as the clear debate winners.

  5. zoe (and the beatles) responded on 01 Nov 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    i watched this documentary a little over a year ago and found all the same issues with it as you did. it depressed me because all the people i found wildly attractive in the “scientific tests” scored low. also, where in the hell does personality come in to play here? that drove me nuts, too. a typically “beautiful” person can lose all their “beauty” for me the moment he or she opens their mouth. personally, i kind of want to call bullshit on this entire documentary.

    because i, too, am an evolutionary failure. whenever someone in a nice car drives by i instinctively laugh and find him less attractive and more of a joke. money does not motivate me to see the “sexiness” in another person. like…at all. in addition, i do not have long, tapered legs. my eyebrows are pretty thick (i kind of love them. a lot). i wouldn’t call my boobs round but they’re full. regardless, beauty is objective. science, at least i think, is a joke concerning this one. i’m so glad you chose to write about this, kate! i was just looking at it in my netflix instant queue, too. i think i might rewatch it!

    unroast: today i love my ability to compartmentalize and move on. i had a really difficult weekend but i am accepting what i need to accept and taking positive steps toward happiness. yay for not dwelling (like i used to!)!

    (and by the way RACHEL — i have curly hair and wash my hair about 1-2 times a week. it has never been more strong, thick, and awesome! i totally recommend it!)

  6. Cindy responded on 01 Nov 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    and where does one buy THAT smart monster truck.




    total mockery of a real monster truck…which of course is a total mockery of a real truck…and real men.


    I’m a personality girl myself…AND HUMOR.
    we all fade a little with age. but if your man can make you LAUGH…Your set!

    true story…my husband and I were wathcing some news thing (okay he was watching and I was knitting) and anyways there was a newscaster lady…real pretty…and she just didn’t fit in. She didn’t look the part…

    my husband made a comment about it and said “she’s not taken seriously but she had a lot of credentials”

    and I took a look (knit , purl…man I was busy)..
    and knew immediately what it was. SHE had the biggest, prettiest doe-ey eyes…innocent, sweet.
    not at all like the shrewd, bitty eyes of other analyists etc.

    she looked sweet and innocent.

    he just sat there with his jaw open….for a while.

    YOU REALLY think that’s it?


    it’s not fair. really. we all get what we get..and here’s a situation where her pretty and feminine looks didn’t help her really. (excpet who cares, she was on a big network news station) but people don’t “take her seriously”.


  7. Wei-Wei responded on 01 Nov 2010 at 11:06 pm #

    I think that imperfections is what makes every single one of us awesome. I mean, breasts that are round and soft can be pretty awesome, as can having long legs, but if everyone’s just striving towards that ideal where’s the individualism? It’s the same message, over and over and over again: be yourself, because you’re PERFECT the way you are.

    The end. I’m hungry. Screw being cute and small and slender. I was made to be averagely big boned. I need lunch now.

  8. Wei-Wei responded on 01 Nov 2010 at 11:07 pm #

    Oh, and an unroast: I got a really bad haircut. Like. My bangs are too short. They end above my eyebrows. But I kinda like the liberation a bad haircut gives me because now I want to cut off all my hair.

    ….bad idea, but good feeling.

  9. Joanne responded on 02 Nov 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Reading this made me think of a n article a while ago about how men categorize a woman’s relationship worth based on her face and body. A woman with a “scientifically beautiful” face is considered good long term relationship material, where as a desired body shape/hip to waist ratio is only good for sex. Really? Well, I guess I’ll never find a loving partner because my nose is lopsided but I work out a lot. Thanks, science.

    I’m pretty sure these studies are all funded by plastic surgeons who want women to hate themselves more.

  10. rachel responded on 02 Nov 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    Out of curiosity I decided to watch this documentary. Ten minutes in, I think it’s BS and weak science. Lots of interviews with people articulating normative ideas of beauty, implying that common wisdom = biological imperative. Then when doing an uncontrolled experiment about symmetry, researchers find 8/10 people prefer symmetrical faces. 8/10 hardly seems very definitive. I could go on about the flaws here.

  11. rachel responded on 02 Nov 2010 at 7:12 pm #

    One more:

    “A woman’s breasts clearly signal that she’s passed puberty and is therefore able to reproduce, so it’s no surprise that they attract attention.”

    False. Girls start developing breasts before they begin to menstruate and begin to menstruate before they ovulate.

  12. Eat the Damn Cake » Being friends with gorgeous women responded on 01 Jul 2011 at 9:13 am #

    [...] In the studies about sex and beauty, they always have people rate their partners and themselves. They think it’s so interesting how people gravitate toward other people of the same level of attractiveness. “Look, they’re both a three!” [...]