The adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder posits a subjective interpretation of physical attractiveness. Yet there is strong consensus between observers as to which individuals are beautiful. To what extent are evaluations of beauty agreed-upon within and across cultures? And insofar as there is agreement regarding what qualifies as beautiful, what explains this consensus?

In the U.S. there may be racial differences in the perception of ideal body shape (Cohn and Adler 1992; Lovejoy 2001; Webb, Looby, and Fults-McMurtery 2004), but assessment of facial attractiveness does not vary by race (Cunningham et al. 1995; Moss, Miller, and Page 1975). Moreover, there is at least some evidence of cross-cultural consensus in rating facial attractiveness (Cunningham et al. 1995). This cross-cultural consensus is often interpreted as providing evidence that preferences for physical attractiveness are universal evolutionary adaptations, and insofar as physical attractiveness may be linked with reproductive potential such evolutionary adaptations are plausible. Indeed, there is evidence that individuals with symmetric features are preferred as partners and symmetry is associated with parasite resistance (Thornhill and Gangestad 1993).

However, it is clear that perceptions of physical attractiveness are also subject to social forces. For example, ratings of physical attractiveness are higher when the target is believed to be a citizen of a high-status nation (Kowner 1996). In western societies, ideals of female beauty, particularly female body shape, have changed notably over historic time. Examining data on Miss America pageant winners and Playboy centerfolds, Freese and Meland find that these women’s waist-to-hip ratio varied systematically over the 20th century (Freese and Meland 2002). Likewise, these cultural icons have become increasingly thin (Garner et al. 1980). In fact, modern preferences for women’s BMI may lead men to seek women who are too thin for optimal fertility (McClintock 2011). Examination of male centerfolds over recent decades suggest that ideals for men’s bodies have also changed, becoming increasingly lean and muscular (Leit, Pope, and Gray 2001). Not only is ideal male body composition historically variant, women’s preferences for men’s beardedness suggest social rather than purely evolutionary influences: Women find men with light stubble most attractive for either short or long-term relationships (Neave and Shields 2008), yet shaving (and hence stubble) is a modern innovation

Still, despite both evolutionary and social forces that encourage agreement in physical attractiveness ratings, perceptions of beauty are nevertheless somewhat subjective. Perhaps most interestingly, perceptions of beauty are altered for individuals in committed romantic relationships. Not only do partnered individuals rate the physical attractiveness of other-sex targets less favorably than do single individuals (Simpson, Lerma, and Gangestad 1990), they also rate their romantic partners more favorably than do third-party unacquainted raters (Barelds et al. 2011). To some extent this may capture the subjective component of physical attractiveness preferences—we likely select partners that adhere to our own idiosyncratic deviations from the agreed-upon cultural idea. However, given the tendency to rate potential alternative partners more negatively, idealizing one’s partner may also serve as a means of maintaining the relationship. In any case, when in love, it seems that beauty may indeed be (partially) in the eye of the beholder.

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Barelds, Dick P. H., Pieternel Dijkstra, Namkje Koudenburg, and Viren Swami. 2011. "An Assessment of Positive Illusions of the Physical Attractiveness of Romantic Partners." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 28:706-719.

Cohn, Lawrence D. and Nancy E. Adler. 1992. "Female and Male Perceptions of Ideal Body Shapes: Distorted Views Among Caucasian College Students." Psychology of Women Quarterly 16:69-79.

Cunningham, Michael R., Alan R. Roberts, Anita P. Barbee, Perri B. Druen, and Cheng-Huan Wu. 1995. "'Their Ideas of Beauty Are, on the Whole, the Same as Ours': Consistency and Variability in the Cross-Cultural Perception of Female Physical Attractiveness." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68:261-279. 

Freese, Jeremy and Sheri Meland. 2002. "Seven Tenths Incorrect: Heterogeneity and Change in the Waist-to-Hip Ratios of Playboy Centerfold Models and Miss America Pageant Winners." The Journal of Sex Research 39:133-138.

Garner, David M., Paul E. Garfinkel, Donald Schwartz, and Michael Thompson. 1980. "Cultural Expectations of Thinness in Women." Psychological Reports 47:483-491.

Kowner, Rotem. 1996. "Effect of Group Status in Physical Attractiveness Preferences--From the Japanese Case to a General Cognitive Perspective." Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs 122:215-248.

Leit, Richard A., Harrison G. Pope, Jr., and James J. Gray. 2001. "Cultural Expectations of Muscularity in Men: The Evolution of Playgirl Centerfolds." International Journal of Eating Disorders 29:90-93.

Lovejoy, Meg. 2001. "Disturbances in the Social Body: Differences in Body Image and Eating Problems among African American and White Women." Gender and Society 15:239-261.

McClintock, Elizabeth Aura. 2011. "Handsome Wants as Handsome Does: Physical Attractiveness and Gender Differences in Revealed Sexual Preferences." Biodemography and Social Biology 57:221-257.

McMurtery. 2004. "African American Men's Perceptions of Body Figure Attractiveness: An Acculteration Study." Journal of Black Studies 34:370-385.

Moss, Martin K., Richard Miller, and Richard A. Page. 1975. "The Effects of Racial Context on the Perception of Physical Attractiveness." Sociometry 38:525-535.

Neave, Nick and Kerry Shields. 2008. "The effects of facial hair manipulation on female perceptions of attractiveness, masculinity, and dominance in male faces." Personality and Individual Differences 45:373-377.

Simpson, Jeffry A., Margaret Lerma, and Steven W. Gangestad. 1990. "Perception of Physical Attractiveness: Mechanisms Involved in the Maintenance of Romantic Relationships." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59:1192-1201.

Thornhill, Randy and Steven W. Gangestad. 1993. "Human Facial Beauty: Averageness, Symmetry, and Parasite Resistance." Human Nature 4:237-269.

Webb, Tammy T., E. Joan Looby, and Regina Fults


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