The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Why Women Feel Bad About Their Appearance

Lookism does not explain body image discontent.

Women underestimate their attractiveness whereas men are overly complacent about theirs. Why the difference? It is tempting to imagine that this is simply a reflection of continuing power imbalances favoring men. Yet, there is a simpler explanation. Women care more about their appearance because looks are more consequential for them.

It is important to establish that feminine worries about physical attractiveness are not due to a general lack of confidence that social psychologists see as emblematic of low social status in a society. As David Brooks (1) writes:

For decades, surveys indicated men had higher self-esteem than women. But there is some evidence that the gap has narrowed or vanished. A 2011 study from the University of Basel based on surveys of 7,100 young adults found that young women had as much self-esteem as young men.

Despite higher global self-esteem, women do not feel good about their appearance. This disconnect can be attributed, at least in part, to concerns about body image. According to Linda Jackson, “Although females are more dissatisfied with almost all aspects of their bodies than are males, most of their dissatisfaction centers around weight issues, namely, around being too fat.” (2, p.186)

Concern about being overweight is unlikely to go away for two good reasons. The first is that overweight is becoming a bigger objective problem as time goes on. The second is that the slender standard gets more extreme as women make strides in careers and project an image of professional competence rather than stereotypical femininity(3)

Why women are more concerned about their appearance

In general, women are much more concerned about their appearance than men are. The key reason for this is that their appearance is central to how they are evaluated by others (2).

That phenomenon is often rejected as “lookism” but giving it an unpleasant name is not going to make it go away. We sometimes need to remind ourselves that we are an evolved species on this planet.

The evolutionary process of sexual selection changes us so as to attract mates. Men’s facial hair makes them more sexually attractive to women, for instance. This is a sexual signal analogous to the brightly colored feathers of peacocks and other male birds. This phenomenon was revealed in experiments but most women seem unaware of it (3).

Humans are rather unusual in the sense that sexual selection affected both sexes but apparently did more work on females than on males. This is consistent with a variety of evidence that women’s physical appearance is more important for their dating success than is true of men (2).

Sexual selection altered female facial proportions making them more stereotypically youthful. For that reason, highly attractive women such as movie stars seem much younger than their actual age.

The cosmetics industry also labors to remove signs of age-related damage to the skin. The relevant evolutionary psychology is that with aging women are less likely to conceive and have less of their reproductive lives ahead of them. Men who selected youthful-looking women as spouses would thus have sired more children.

The other key sexually-selected trait of women is their hour-glass shape that inspired painters over the ages. This stereotypically feminine shape is also exaggerated in highly attractive women such as movie stars and beauty pageant winners (3). It is crafted by sex hormones so that women are most curvaceous during the most fertile years of their lives.

The operation of sexual selection on women has numerous practical consequences. Women are perceived as more attractive than men. They are also perceived as sexier which is why attractive women are more prominently featured in advertisements on the premise that sex sells.

Women also spend huge amounts of money on clothes, cosmetics, and other products and services that enhance their physical appearance. One might argue that this is further evidence of insecurity about their appearance produced by the burden of being evaluated by men based on their appearance (lookism).

Yet, men often evince a frustrating obliviousness to the beauty endeavors of their sweethearts. I never heard a man saying he wished that his girlfriend would spend more time and money on her appearance.

The truth is that women’s insecurity about their appearance is driven by competition with other women. We see this quite clearly in connection with the slender standard of attractiveness where women wish to be more slender than men find attractive (3). The reason, of course, is that they want to beat their competitors – other women.

1. Brooks, D. (2013, April 22). The confidence questions. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013.04/23/opinion.brooks-the-confidence-q...

2. Jackson, L. A. (1992). Physical appearance and gender. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

3. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance: Secrets of the sexual brain. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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