Beauty Treatment: The Look of Love

Which expressions do the sexes find sexy?

By Rose Pastore, Sarah Stanley, published September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

What's more attractive—a smile or a scowl? Researchers at the University of British Columbia polled subjects about the attractiveness of photos of the opposite sex. The images showed faces displaying either happiness, pride, or shame, three emotions researchers view as social because they reveal how we feel about ourselves, "which tends to be closely related to how others feel about us," says study author Jessica Tracy. Turns out men and women are attracted to very different things when they scan potential mates' mugs. —Rose Pastore


The allure of male athletes might have less to do with musculature than with the poses they strike after a win. Hetero-sexual women were most sexually attracted to men with their chins lifted, chests puffed out, and fists raised in the air. Pride implies success and high status, and a successful man is likely to be a good provider with superior genes.

Shame shows that you understand and respect social norms. "It says, 'I know I've done wrong and I feel bad about it,'" Tracy says. (Picture broody Robert Pattinson on Twilight posters.) But puppy eyes won't always work: College-age women thought shame was second only to pride in sexiness, but older women found it as unexciting as a smile.

It seems like nice guys finish last after all, at least in the realm of instant attraction. Previous research has shown that smiling can make you seem less dominant, so perhaps women are turned off by the lack of overt power, Tracy says. A smile can also indicate sexual receptivity, which might seem like a sign of desperation on a guy.


Overwhelmingly, men thought happy ladies were the sexiest. "A woman who's smiling is conveying that she's interested," Tracy says. "And that's what men are usually interested in finding out—will this woman have sex with me?" Apparently nothing says "I'm available" like a flash of your pearly whites.

Shame's allure in women may stem from a mix of cultural expectations about female submissiveness and the fact that shame indicates trustworthiness and knowledge of social norms. But women needn't go overboard in displaying contrition: Another recent study found that a chemical in women's tears actually reduces arousal in men.

Men didn't rate proud women as ugly, just less attractive than the cheery or ashamed ones. Pride is a proxy for power and status. "Evolutionarily speaking, that's not something men are looking for in mating," Tracy notes. Still, what someone responds to at a glance is not necessarily what they're looking for in a long-term relationship.

The Makeup Paradox

 Young woman with mime makeup on
First impressions often become permanent perceptions, but women wearing glamorous makeup may seem less appealing over time.

Harvard University researchers showed men and women images of models with different amounts of makeup. When subjects got only a quarter-second glimpse, they rated women with heavier cosmetics higher in attractiveness,likability, trustworthiness, and competence. But given unlimited viewing time, the trust and likability advantages disappeared, suggesting that cosmetics impact reflexive and reflective judgments differently.—Sarah Stanley