The Puzzle of Pretty Boys

Sure, women lust after boy toy actors and buff soccer players. But that doesn't mean they won't happily get hitched to an average guy. Men's looks matter, but not for the reasons you think.

By Carlin Flora, published November 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Male appearance hasn't gotten much play in the canon of Western civ. A handsome face could probably boost cologne sales at the local department store, but could it launch 1,000 ships? We know intuitively that men's looks aren't as important as women's. And yet, they do matter. Men like Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt are widely heralded as easy on the eyes. But what exactly are good looks worth to the average guy on the mating market? The price, it turns out, is always in flux.

Is She Really Going Out With Him?

You know the sitcom trope: An adorable, whippet-thin wife is married to a pudgy everyman whom she's constantly nagging—cue the groans. But the comedy writers are getting at a fundamental truth: Male beauty is more in the eye of the beholder than female beauty, and this pairing is therefore perfectly realistic.

Since looks are indicators of genetic and developmental health, the strict definition of handsome is just as standard and universal as it is for pretty: Symmetrical men with average-size features are considered objectively handsome, because they were dealt good DNA and raised in a salutary environment. And just as female sex hormone markers, such as big eyes and lips, make women especially attractive and fertile-seeming, male sex hormone markers, such as strong jaws and tall stature, render men virile and "hot." Hence People magazine's "Sexiest Men Alive" favorites: Matt Damon has quite the jaw; David Beckham is steamily symmetrical. But in the real world, a man who deviates from these glossy standards can fare quite well, compared to women who fall short of the feminine ideal.

Claudia Brumbaugh of Queens College asked more than 4,000 participants to rate photographs of young men and women on a 10-point scale. The men's judgments of the women were very much in agreement. But the women showed more variety in their ratings. Some even gave very high marks to men others found downright ugly. (Just as Jennifer Lopez sees something in Mark Anthony that I don't.)

Looks are simply not at the top of the list for ladies, hence the lack of accord. What women really care about in a man is status and resources. That means that their assessments of a guy's looks are filtered through those other qualities, leading to a subjective interpretation not necessarily shared by other women. Since looks are what's most important to men, they, on the other hand, can easily make a snap judgment. Their sight doesn't get muddled by conjecture about personality or prestige. Because men are not primarily valued for their looks, even their attempts to improve them serve other ends: While stylish wardrobes do boost attractiveness, it's only because they increase a man's cachet, not his raw handsomeness. That's why a few choice accessories, or "peacocking," as VH1 dating coach Mystery calls it, can make or break a guy's bar crawl.

Another reason women don't easily agree on who's attractive is that their definitions of "high status" vary so greatly—and it may have little to do with financial resources. Scruffy hair and a guitar slung over a shoulder may boost the hotness quotient for some girls, while business attire signals a good prospect to others.

A Time and a Place For Macho Men

Certain environments can influence a man's sex appeal. Lisa DeBruine and colleagues at the University of Aberdeen found an intriguing connection between a country's health status and the types its female citizens find attractive. Women from countries with healthy populations preferred digitally "feminized" versions of a man's face, whereas women from countries with poor health chose digitally "masculinized" men. (Think Britain's Robert Pattinson versus Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo.) Macho men with high testosterone levels are thought to be more robust; perhaps when life is precarious, a man who is willing to cuddle is not a priority.


Women also perceive men differently depending on what they want. Those interested in a short-term fling will choose a handsome man over a less handsome one, wallet size be damned. But when they are seeking a long-term partner, other qualities, such as a willingness and ability to support children, take precedence over a well-chiseled chest. Of course these calculations aren't cold and clear cut, and other factors—who happens to be nearby and single—compete with our innate tendencies. Still, the pattern prevails overall.

Sometimes a preference for a short-term or long-term mate is driven by the time of the month. Ovulating women prefer masculine-looking men, while pregnant women prefer men with softer features that essentially broadcast a willingness to care for and protect them.

The Gay Gaze

Heterosexual and homosexual men are united on one front: their "absolutist" approach to looks. One line of research has shown that "boys will be boys" regardless of their sexuality. Aaron Glassenberg of Harvard University found that gay men prefer masculine faces, compared to feminine versions of the same face. Just as straight men like the most feminine-faced women on average, gay men operate under the same attraction mechanism, preferring the most masculine-faced men.

In further evidence of the importance of looks for gay and straight men, Richard Lippa, a professor of psychology at California State University in Fullerton, asked a large group of homosexuals and heterosexuals to look at photographs of people whose looks were previously rated. He then measured the time they spent looking at each picture. All participants took more time staring at better looking subjects. But the time increase was smaller for women—they weren't as affected by the uptick in hotness.

Also, while straight and gay women spent a decent amount of time looking at people of both genders, men—gay and straight alike—were much more focused on their preferred gender. Gay men don't bother sizing up women, and straight men don't bother checking out men.

"Both gay and straight men have, more than women, a focus on youth and beauty in partners," Lippa says. Anecdotal evidence points to a particularly strong enthusiasm among gay men for sculpting and styling. "If you are trying to appeal to men, as gay men are, it might make sense for you to be concerned with fitness and grooming," he surmises.

The Plight of the Gorgeous Groom

No one said it's easy being ugly: Handsome men earn, on average, five percent more than less good-looking colleagues. The economist Daniel Hamermesh even worked out that over the course of a career, a comely guy will rack up $250,000 more than his least attractive peer.

But a good-looking guy has a unique reproductive bind: Because handsome men come closest to having the access to multiple partners that most males only dream of, they may in fact have a harder time settling down and feeling satisfied in relationships over the long haul.

James McNulty, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee, interviewed couples talking about goals and analyzed how supportive the partners were. Attractiveness was also rated. Relationships in which the wife was objectively better-looking than the husband were more supportive than other match-ups. The worst combination, in terms of warm, positive interactions, were women paired with better-looking men. "What mattered was relative attractiveness," McNulty says. "Perhaps the husbands with better-looking wives wanted to hold on to them, because they were 'out of their league.' That meant they were more willing to provide support, whereas more attractive men didn't feel they were getting as much out of their relationships. They may have even felt resentful about missing out on other opportunities."

The average-to-below-average-looking guy won't likely have this problem. But neither will he have the problem of his female counterpart. Whereas the brightest, most compassionate women have many times been reduced to looks-based punch lines (recent Supreme Court nominations jump to mind), men—especially accomplished ones—are essentially shielded from such objectification. Bald men, even you have little to fret about: A British survey found that only one percent of female respondents agreed that a full head of hair is necessary for someone to be handsome.