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Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

Ratings of beauty are neither subjective nor reducible to evolutionary adaption.

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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