By Michael Pertschuk, Alice Trisdorfer, published on November 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
In the November/December 1993 issue, we asked readers to help identify how contemporary men and women perceive and value male appearance. Over 1,500 responded with completed questionnaires and comments. Sixty-four percent were women. The average age for men was 37; for women, 34. The overwhelming majority were white. Occupations varied from businessmen and women to nurses, students, salespeople, secretaries, and homemakers. Most respondents were college educated and 87 percent were exclusively heterosexual. Nearly half had never been married.
Although far from a random sample, our respondents' answers suggested some intriguing trends. Men assumed that male appearance had a greater impact on heterosexual relations than women acknowledged. Yet although most women played down male appearance, there was an identifiable sub-group of women who placed high value on male physical features and sexual attributes. These women were on average slightly older, more financially independent, and rated themselves more physically attractive. But even when women indicated definite preferences for particular physical characteristics, they often seemed to adapt these preferences to the realities of their partner.
One of our main concerns was the extent to which women considered male appearance in choosing partners. Women were asked to rank eight factors in selecting a man for a romantic relationship: four personality variables and four physical variables. We asked men to estimate how women would rank these same factors.
Personality won hands down. Both men and women rated intelligence and sense of humor as most important, sexual performance and physical strength as least important. This suggests that despite escalating cultural emphasis on male looks, both sexes still believe that women choose men more by character than appearance.
Men nonetheless overestimated the importance women place on certain male physical characteristics. They thought an attractive face was more important to women than empathy and the ability to talk about feelings. They also assumed that body build had greater significance than women indicated.
One surprising finding was the importance of cleanliness. We didn't think to formally inquire about such basics as soap, shampoo, and toothpaste. But the most frequent written comments -- all from women -- related to male hygiene. A 44-year-old stated, "While I am not as concerned with the physical appearance of a male partner, cleanliness ranks as number one on my list." Another wrote, "What is the biggest turnoff? Poor grooming. A man who needs a shower, has dirty hands, wears soiled clothes, or needs to brush his teeth is a complete turnoff." Dental hygiene was a particular concern.
Both sexes assumed that a trimmer, taller male would be judged more attractive. Women definitely favored taller males, the majority endorsing the statement that being with a tall man made them feel more feminine. Most women indicated they wouldn't date a shorter man. Almost a third insisted the man be taller than the woman and another third would date a man of their own height but no shorter.
Two groups particularly valued height, taller women and women rating themselves more attractive. But height preference often gave way to practicality: taller women were much more likely to accept a date from a shorter male. As one 5'10" women confessed, "My husband is six inches shorter than I. Initially, I refused to even consider him for this reason. In reality, I was able to train myself to accept something else."
Weight worked much the same way. Overweight men were clearly less desirable to women. Thirty percent of female respondents found men more than 10 pounds overweight unacceptable as dates; 70 percent found more than 20 pounds overweight unacceptable; and at 40 pounds or more overweight, men were unacceptable to 90 percent of respondents.
Male participants were moderately concerned about their weight. About 63 percent would like to lose some weight; approximately half of them would be pleased with a 6-to-15 pound loss. Weight gain was an issue for another 19 percent, who wanted additional muscle mass.
Women, however, tended to be less critical of their partner's weight. Only 44 percent wanted their partner to lose weight, and half of these women would be happy with a modest 6-to-15 pound reduction. Thinner women tended to express more desire for their partners to trim down.
When respondents judged their own attractiveness, there was a major difference in how men and women viewed extra weight. Twenty-five percent of the men who rated themselves "very attractive" were overweight. But even modestly overweight women excluded themselves from this category: only 6 percent of very attractive women said they were too heavy.
Men and women also parted company in the domain of male muscle mass. Men value muscle mass, while women are less interested in oversized biceps and pecs. In ranking male body types, women gave first place to "medium with moderate muscle mass," while "medium with competition muscle mass" came in a lowly fourth. When men estimated women's preferences, however, competition body build narrowly missed second place.
We asked women directly, "how important it is for you that [a man] have noticeable muscles," and we asked men how important muscles were to them. The differences were striking: twice as many women as men said that male muscles did not matter at all.
Male fascination with muscles may have more to do with other men than with women. Men were aware that massive muscles were no major attraction to women. Only 27 percent agreed with the statement, "Men pictured in body-building magazines are attractive to most women." In fact, just 20 percent of women acknowledged finding body builders attractive.
Hair loss was a real concern for male respondents. Men with full heads of hair were a narrow majority (53 percent). Ironically, they were the most worried about hair loss: 38 percent indicated they would be "very upset" if they discovered they were rapidly losing hair. But anticipation may be worse than reality, since only 23 percent of men with thinning hair answered "very upset" on the same item. Older men also expressed less concern.
Apparently balding is easier to watch than experience, as women were relatively unconcerned about male hair loss. Of those whose partner had a full head of hair, only 13 percent would be "very upset" and 24 percent "somewhat upset" at the prospect of his hair thinning. A mere 18 percent of women whose partners had already lost some hair acknowledged being very or somewhat upset. Again, women may be adjusting their preferences to the realities of their mate.
Fifty-two percent of men thought women would endorse the statement, "I generally find bald men unattractive." Only 40 percent of women agreed, and they tended to be younger and more attractive. On the other hand, some women found bald men cute -- especially if their partner lacked an intact scalp. A 24-year-old stated, "In the past I never thought bald men were attractive. Only recently my opinion changed. My recent boyfriend keeps his head shaved and he is just adorable."
Most men agreed that the best way to cope with encroaching baldness was to "do nothing." Hair transplants came in a distant second, with head shaving the third-favorite choice. Buying a hairpiece was dead last. Only eight male participants admitted to wearing a toupee.
Graying hair was another matter. Over a third of the men approved of using hair color to treat premature gray, and more were positive about coloring for older men. Women's attitudes were similar to men's for coloring premature gray but were more negative about coloring for the aging male. As one woman wrote, "Gray hair on men is very sexy."
Our results reflected the current cultural preference for clean-shaven faces. Sixty percent of male respondents were cleanshaven, 21 percent had a mustache only, 19 percent had a beard and mustache. Less than 1 percent had a beard without a mustache.
Men guessed correctly that women would prefer clean-shaven men. Yet while only 14 percent of women overall named "beard with mustache" as their first choice, 55 percent of women whose partner had a beard ranked it first. Once again, women may have brought their judgment in line with their partner.
Most of the comments about facial hair were about beards, and the positive ones were about neatly trimmed beards. Women tended to associate poorly groomed or neglected beards with generalized slovenliness. The goatee was singled out for derision.
Locker room lore suggests that male chest hair is sexy. But moderate hair on arms, legs, and chest was the choice favored by a plurality of women. There were no written comments on body hair, suggesting few strong feelings.
Next to hygiene, male genitals elicited the most comments. Both sexes thought men placed too much emphasis on organ size. Over 71 percent of women agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "Men seem too concerned with the size and shape of their genitals." Only 9 percent disagreed. Many comments made it clear that sexual skill and sensitivity overshadow the importance of size. As one woman wrote, "It's not what a man has that matters so much as how he uses it."
Seventy-eight percent of male respondents reported being circumcised. Preferences reflected these percentages; 42 percent of women reported a strong preference for circumcised men, while only 7 percent preferred uncircumcised men. However, better than half the women with uncircumcised partners expressed some degree of preference for an uncircumcised penis.
In general, women cared more about penis width, while men thought length would matter more. Men underestimated by half the percentage of women who did not care about length. Men also assumed that women's size preference was a matter of appearance. In fact, the number one reason women preferred a thicker penis was that it was "more satisfying during intercourse." A wider penis can deliver extra stimulation to the clitoris, while a longer penis reaches a part of the vagina that is poorly innervated.
A few women stated that "ideal" size depended on the sexual activity involved. Several pointed out that fellatio and anal sex were more pleasurable with a smaller penis.
Women who rated themselves as more attractive were particularly concerned with larger size. Of women describing themselves as "much more attractive than average," 64 percent cared strongly or moderately about penis width, and 54 percent cared about penis length. Women who rated their own looks as average were about 20 percentage points lower.
Women who disliked a large penis offered two arguments: too large a penis can be painful, and well-endowed men can be unimaginative lovers. A British woman wrote, "Men with big penises are all too prone to think they've got all it takes, and therefore don't show much variety/ingenuity/empathy. Ordinary or even small-sized men have provided me with more orgasms."
But many women who extolled exceptional dimensions maintained that women saying otherwise were deluding themselves. One exuberant 44-year-old stated, "If women say the size of a man's penis doesn't matter they haven't been with a man with a big one!! Fabulous!" A 32-year-old commented, "Penis size matters much less in terms of appearance than in tactile terms. When women say size doesn't matter, they're usually lying."
Sense of humor 3.0
Ability to talk about feelings 3.6
Ability to empathize 4.0
Facial appearance 4.4
Overall body build 5.4
Sexual performance 5.7
Physical strength 7.3
Sense of humor 3.3
Facial appearance 3.7
Ability to talk about feelings 4.0
Overall body build 4.2
Ability to empathize 4.3
Sexual performance 5.7
Physical strength 7.2
IMPORTANCE OF MALE MUSCLE MASS TO:
Extremely 10% 4%
Moderately 38% 24%
Slightly 38% 43%
Not at all 14% 30%
HOW WOMEN FEEL ABOUT PENIS:
Care a great deal 8% 13%
Care moderately 34% 38%
Care a little 31% 28%
Care not at all 27% 21%
By Michael Pertschuk, M.D., Alice Trisdorfer, Ph.D. and Paul D. Allison, Ph.D.