Friday, April 24, 2009

A Sociological Perspective on Physical Attractiveness

Cultural, social, or time period environments can have a strong effect on the degree to which people determine certain traits to be attractive. As part of the socialization process, children typically learn what their culture or time period considers attractive. Media, including written as well as visual forms, such as films and cartoons, for example, frequently portray "villains" or "bad" individual as less attractive, while protagonists are frequently depicted as attractive. This often leads to the perception that beauty can be equated with goodness or virtue in certain ways and certain time periods or cultures. Indeed, the term for "beautiful" or "attractive" in many languages, is literally that the person "looks good". Children are shown examples of what is considered beautiful in the form of dolls and pictures on magazine covers. Perception of what is considered as attractive and appealing is also very heavily influenced by other dominant cultures and the impact of their value systems.

One of the more important properties is symmetry, which is also associated with physical health. Large, clear eyes are also important. Large eyes are often considered to mark a high degree of attractiveness in East Asia, perhaps because some Asians consider large eyes relatively more rare in Asian populations, and are often spoken about in Asian culture; Asian culture often notes ethnic non-Asians for the size of their eyes. (Nose size and structure can also be determinant in attractiveness, especially in Asian cultures.) Facial symmetry is seen as a universal determinant of health and therefore of beauty. A person of either gender who is considered as attractive in various cultures has been found to have facial symmetry based on the golden ratio of 1:1.618. Plastic surgeon Stephen Marquardt developed an ideal beauty mask marked with various outlines of facial features based on the golden ratio. The faces that are judged as most attractive are found to fit the mask.

Olfactory signals, or smell,can influence the perception of attractiveness. Almost universally, the heavy body odor emitted by those with strongly smelling sweat or those who have not frequently bathed is considered unattractive (with the occasional exception of certain fetishes). However, the smell of the human body, that is, insofar as it has not reached the unpleasant degree of body odor, is often considered a sexually attractive factor. Indeed, organisms, including humans, emit pheromones, which frequently cause them to be perceived as sexually attractive to others. Moreover, many human cultures favor the use of fragrant substances, such as perfume or cologne, or of fragrant soaps and body products. Individuals using such fragrances are typically considered attractive in such cultures, and not exclusively sexually. Additionally, individuals who have freshly bathed, including young children, can often be considered highly "pleasant", "clean", or "beautiful".

Determinants of male physical attractiveness
Sexual attraction for males on the part of females is determined largely by the height of the man. Males at least a few inches/centimeters taller than prospective female partners are more likely to be perceived as handsome. It would be preferable if the man is at least a little above the average in height in the given population of males. This implies that women look for signs of dominance and power as factors that determine male beauty. Other properties that enhance perception of male attractiveness are a slightly larger chest than the average, and an erect posture. Women seem more receptive to an erect posture than men, though both prefer it as an element of beauty; this fact appears correlated to the preference for males who demonstrate confidence, physical strength and a powerful bearing.

During the social revolutions following the Second World War, the concept of male beauty became increasingly accepted by mainstream male populations in the West (previously, the idea of a man being preoccupied with his appearance was considered slightly abnormal; there are still some proscriptions in many societies of the world, including that of China, where the term choumei 臬美 (literally: stinking beauty) still has some strength). The beginning of the rise of the gay movement in the late-twentieth century Western world began to influence consideration of what was physically attractive in men (leading to the formation of the metrosexual, a heterosexual man who embraces the traditionally feminine concern for his appearance.

Today, certain characteristics are generally accepted throughout the Western world as signs of physical attractiveness. These are, of course, far from universal:
The attractiveness of a muscular physique largely arose as a social backlash against effeminate homosexual men - in order to set themselves apart, many straight and gay men built muscular bodies as a symbol of their masculinity. Today, muscular physiques are generally desired by most men in the West, but extreme over-development can be viewed as undesirable to some women. This stems from the differing reasons for homosexual men versus heterosexual women to prefer muscular physiques. Gay men consider muscularity attractive for the above cultural reasons. Heterosexual women, in the United States, tend to prefer muscularity because of its association with a working class occupation. (It is important to note that, while women in Western societies prefer wealthy men, they can be attracted to lower class personality and physical traits.)

The popularity of particular hairstyles changes constantly. Hairstyles are very easy to alter, are generally the least conformist expression of individuality, and as a result men can be regarded as attractive regardless of the form of their hair. Differentiation line between forehead and hair-mass is an indication of masculinity. A hair-line with a degree of protrusion over the temples is typical of masculinity. In certain cultures, like India, having a big forehead is considered a sign of good fortune.

In Western societies, men and women of all races often agree that a face with pronounced cheekbones and often a heavily-set jaw is physically attractive. These are currently viewed as indicative of a "masculine personality". These skeletal features in addition to a slightly elongated face can make the masculinity more heightened and the male much more attractive. A dimple in the center of the chin is also often regarded as an attractive feature.

Determinants of female physical attractiveness
The determinants of female physical attractiveness include those aspects that display health and fitness for reproduction and sustainance. These include correlates of fertility such as the waist-hip-ratio, mid upper arm circumference, Body mass proportion and facial symmetry. Scientists have discovered that the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is a significant factor in judging female attractiveness. Women with a 0.7 WHR (waist circumference that is 70% of the hip circumference) are invariably rated as more attractive by men, regardless of their culture. Such diverse beauty icons as Marilyn Monroe, Twiggy, Sophia Loren, Kate Moss, and the Venus de Milo all have ratios around 0.7. The ratio signals fertility—as they age, women's waists thicken as their fertility declines.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is another important universal determinant to the perception of beauty. The BMI refers to the proportion of the body mass to the body structure. However, in various cultures, the optimal body proportion is interpreted differently due to cultural learnings and traditions. The Western ideal considers a slim and slender body mass as optimal while many ancient traditions consider a plump body-mass as appealing. In either case the underlying rule applied in determining beauty is the BMI and hence displays how cultural differences of beauty operate on universal principles of human evolution.The slim ideal does not consider an emaciated body as attractive, just as the full-rounded ideal does not celebrate the over-weight or the obese. The cultural leanings are therefore just social emphasis on specific phenotypes within a parameter of optimal BMI.The attraction for a proportionate body also influences an appeal for erect posture.

As with males, a slightly larger chest in females is considered in many cultures to be an attractive sign of reproductive fitness.Besides biology and culture, there are other factors determining physical attractiveness. The more familiar a face seems, the more highly it is judged, an example of the mere exposure effect. It is seen that when many faces are combined into a composite image (through computer morphing), people find the resultant image as familiar and attractive, and even more beautiful than the faces that went into it. One interpretation is that this shows an inherent human preference for prototypicality. That is, the resultant face emerges with the salient features shared by most faces and hence becomes the prototype. The prototypical face and features is therefore perceived as symmetrical and familiar. This reveals an "underlying preference for the familiar and safe over the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous" (Berscheid and Reis, 1998). However, critics of this interpretation point out that compositing computer images also has the effect of removing skin blemishes such as scars and generally softens sharp facial features.

The degree of skin complexion on the spectrum of dark to light also plays a role in determining male attractiveness, but has historically been more prevalent as a determinant of female attractiveness, although by the 20th century this had begun to change. It is inconsistent between cultures whether darker skin or lighter skin will be favored: in some, lighter tones are preferred, while in others, tanned or darker skin is preferred.In the 20th and 21st century Western world, tanned skin has been considered highly attractive for both men and women. A theory for why this is so is that sometime during the 20th century it became possible for those with higher incomes to travel around the world. Many of these people would travel to the French Riviera, and upon returning, would have a nice tan. Thus, the tan became a symbol of status.Another reason that tan are now favored (especially to Western Society) is that tanning will give a glow and "make skin shinier", which is more appealing to the skin that is pasty (rather than pale), rough (dry), not "glowing".

Prior to this, lighter skin was preferred, as this was considered a marker of a more "cultured" individual or "gentlewoman" who could spend time indoors or undershade, and did not engage in outdoor labor. Also, racism was involved in this situation as a lot of people associated darker skin tone with negative impact such as "dirty" and "low-status', etc. One example is the segregation between "White" people and the "Coloured" people in the United States in the early years. In eastern parts of Asia, including Southeast Asia, this preference for lighter skin remains prevalent. (However, certain sub-cultures, such as the ganguro of Japan, indicate preference for a darker-skinned ideal as an ironic version of the California beach girl and as a statement against mainstream Japanese standards of beauty).

In Asia (East Asia in particular), fair skin is associated with youth, since skin darkens with exposure to the sun and ageing. This appreciation of youthful beauty is not exclusive to East Asia and can be linked to the phenomenon of neoteny. Thus, it is hardly surprising that sales of skin whitening products in East Asia contribute significant profits to the cosmetics industry. This liking for fair skin however is not a recent development and, in China, for example, can be traced back to ancient drawings depicting women and goddesses with fair skin tones. In those periods Chinese brides were often described and praised to suitors as being fair-skinned, a trait usually only associated with girls from royalty or nobility who could afford to stay indoors most of the time.

Adapted from the Wikipedia article "Social effects of attractiveness", under the G.N U Free Docmentation License.

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