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Beauty May Be In Eye of Beholder But Eyes See What Culture Socializes

If you poll the masses, make sure you know who they are.

I just conducted a study that found Black women are more attractive than women from other racial/ethnic groups. I polled myself, 3 different times over 5 hrs. The results are statistically significant and show strong test-rest reliability. I have pretty charts that summarize the data.

Not convinced?

Of course, you're not. My opinion doesn't represent anyone other than me, no matter how many times I decide to poll myself (and for the record, I don't think women from any racial group are any more attractive than women from any other)


Perhaps! But fellow Psychology Today blogger Sutoshi Kanazawa doesn't seem to think so.

In case you missed it, Kanazawa, in his most recent PT post (which has been removed from the site) Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women? reported that

...women of all races are on average more physically attractive than the "average" Add Health respondent, except for black women. As the following graph shows, black women are statistically no different from the "average" Add Health respondent, and far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women. (read full post here)

Here's the pretty chart:

Kanazawa's data

Mean latent physical attractiveness

But it gets worse:

This difference (in what he calls "objective" attractiveness) is not, he explains, "due to race differences in intelligence."

So, basically, Kanazawa would have us know, Black women are more ugly and more dumb than women from other racial groups.

The evidence?

Kanazawa reported that

Add Health measures the physical attractiveness of its respondents both objectively and subjectively. At the end of each interview, the interviewer rates the physical attractiveness of the respondent objectively on the following five-point scale: 1 = very unattractive, 2 = unattractive, 3 = about average, 4 = attractive, 5 = very attractive. The physical attractiveness of each Add Health respondent is measured three times by three different interviewers over seven years.

It sounds scientific. And it is possible that it is, but Kanazawa doesn't give us enough information to know, and when necessary information is missing, I tend to think the author is trying to hide something.

Who are the Add Health respondents, racially speaking? And who are the interviewers? And why is there no discussion of the racial Zeitgeist in which the "study" took place?

In a different "study", this might not matter. Here, it is of crucial importance.

Kanazawa's claims aside, there is no single "objective" standard of beauty. We all know, for example, that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". Yet, even this folk wisdom is incomplete. Sure, there are individual differences. I don't think for a moment that Kanazawa would deny this.

The point is that there are also group differences, not in attractiveness (as Kanazawa claims), but in cultural messages about what is and is not attractive. Standards of beauty, like most other beliefs, are socialized and change not only from place to place but also over time. In both the United States and England, (where Kanazawa lives and works), standards of beauty are essentially "White" standards, because whites comprise the majority of the population and have disproportional control over both media and fashion. And while it is not just White respondents who are socialized this way (internalized racism has been well documented), it is certainly the case that White Americans and Europeans (who are less likely to have received more positive messages about Black beauty) would show the strongest anti-Black bias.

As long as this is understood and framed accordingly, there is no problem with the data Kanazawa reports. What they show is that because Black faces and bodies don't fit mainstream White standards of physical attractiveness, both respondents and interviewers show an anti-Black bias. Unfortunately, Kanazawa fails to consider either sample bias or socializing effects. Even if he believes, as he apparently does, that human behavior is entirely "evolutionary", good science requires a careful analysis of sample bias and an explicit discussion regarding the study's generalizability. Without this kind of methodological analysis, Kanazawa's entire premise -- that there is such a thing as a single objective standard of attractiveness -- is fatally (and tragically) flawed.

It is worth noting that Kanazawa repeats this same flaw of omission when he explains that the attractiveness results are not due to race group differences in intelligence, as though there are no scholarly critiques of IQ measures in general and their racial bias in particular.

These are not trivial omisisions. They are the necessary context that gives readers the information they need to draw their own conclusions.

Those who have been following the story will know that Kanazawa's original PT post sparked an outrage on Twitter. I was part of the outraged. I think it was well deserved. At the same time, as both a blogger and a scientist, I don't want the content of either my research or my writing to be decided by popular vote. I value academic freedom, as well as my freedom of speech, and would never advocate for the restriction of either. The editors of Psychology Today removed Kanazawa's post, and they were right to do so, not because Kanazawa voiced an unpopular opinion, but because he failed to support his unpopular opinion with sufficient evidence and provide it with the necessary context.

Was Kanazawa held up to a higher standard that other bloggers? Was this post singled out for special treatment? These are questions that only the editors can answer, but I'd guess that this post was, in fact, singled out, and deservedly so!

Extraordinary claims (especially those that hurt and damage marginalized groups) require extraordinary evidence and editorial oversight. This isn't censorship -- no one is disputing Kanazawa's right to publish this on his own site -- It's socially responsible publishing and editing and I'm proud to write for a publication that recognizes this.


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