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Why Looks Still Matter as Women Gain Power

Physical attractiveness is affected by evolutionary esthetics.

Physical attractiveness matters for everyone but especially women.1 This is often attributed to power inequality. As women gain economic and political power, their beauty should matter less. Yet, this is not happening. Why?

How we are perceived by others from childhood on is very much affected by physical appearance. Women's appearance matters more in most areas of their lives, from dating and marriage to happiness and health.1

A Feminist Perspective

The feminist perspective emphasizes male objectification of women as the root cause of a feminine obsession with appearance. This scenario holds that because women have little social power, they are obliged to fit in with masculine prescriptions for their appearance, sexual attractiveness, and social acceptability.

This approach encounters some seemingly incompatible phenomena. One is that women's own ideals for their appearance are often more exaggerated, and unrealistic than masculine ideals are. For instance, women typically want to be thinner than men wish them to be. They are generally more dissatisfied with their appearance than men are.

Other anomalies include the fact that the pressure women feel to reach unrealistic standards of beauty are often exerted by other females. An example of this would be female high school students teasing their acquaintances who are overweight.

Another problem is that as women attain greater economic power, their concern over physical appearance seems to increase, rather than decrease. Hence their increasing spending on clothes, cosmetics, beauty treatments, cosmetic surgery, and so forth. This suggests that much of the interest in improving appearance is discretionary, rather than the result of unfair treatment by men.

Many social scientists have switched from blaming men to blaming mass media for promoting lookism but this argument encounters a chicken-and-egg problem. It is equally plausible to say that mass media prosper when they give female consumers what they want as to say that female preferences are driven by media representations of beauty.

Evolutionary psychologists argued that the greater importance of appearance to women than men is baked into our species by natural selection.2

Evolutionary Psychology

There are three key pieces of evidence supporting the view that women's greater physical attractiveness is an evolutionary adaptation. First, women have an extensive range of bodily modifications that enhance their attractiveness.2 These range from the hourglass figure of highly attractive women to better hair, permanently enlarged breasts that serve as a sexual signal, and traits that exaggerate youthfulness from shortened faces to greater storage of subcutaneous fat and proportionally smaller hands and feet than men.

Second, women are more attractive in early maturity when their reproductive value (or expected fertility) peaks.

Thirdly, males and females perceived women as more physically attractive than men supporting the view that they were modified by natural selection to make them more physically appealing.1 Can these ideas help to explain why modern gender equality brings little relief from lookism?

Is it a Basic Issue of Esthetics?

Darwin recognized that some species evolve traits that enhance their attractiveness to potential mates. This is generally the male but, for our species, females are clearly the more ornamented sex based on their greater perceived physical attractiveness.

Of course, it makes no sense to have spectacular signals like the peacock's tail if potential partners do not respond appropriately to them.

This reaction is facilitated by behaviors such as erecting the tail feathers and strutting about conspicuously. This phenomenon helps explain why women are so obsessed with image, grooming, and clothes in most societies.

It is certainly true that some gender differences of this kind can be counteracted by how children are raised and there are societies, like the Wodaabe of Niger, where men take more care of their appeartance than women do.3 Nevertheless, some aspects of esthetics may be baked into the brain before birth. One clue here is that exposure to testosterone increases the likelihood of being attracted to women, even for genetically female fetuses.4

Good luck trying to educate that out of existence.


1 Jackson, L. (1992). Physical Appearance and Gender: Sociobiological and Sociocultural Perspectives. Albany: State University of New York Press.

2 Barber, N. (2002). The Science of Romance. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

3 Bovin, M. (2001). Nomads Who Cultivate Beauty: Wodaabe Dances and Visual Arts in Niger. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordic Africa Institute.

4 Ehrhardt, A. A., Meyer-Bahlburg, H. F. L., Rosen, L. R., Feldman, J. F., Veridiano, N. P., Zimmerman, I., & McEwen, B. S. (1985). "Sexual orientation after prenatal exposure to exogenous estrogen." Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14, 57-77.