T. Joel Wade Ph.D.

The Mate Market

How Biology Affects Self-Perception

New insights on how we evaluate our own attractiveness.

Posted Nov 02, 2017

Science proves what many of us have long thought to be true: Women’s self-esteem is based more on their physical attractiveness, while men’s self-esteem is based more on their relative status and flow of resources. Evolutionary psychology explains why.

Humans evaluate potential mates based on a number of factors, all of them shaped by evolution to assist us in selecting the most viable mate. Women evaluate men based on their dominance, status, masculinity and good health. Because women are looking for a mate who can protect and provide for potential offspring, the physical traits generally found to be sexually attractive in men are those classic high-testosterone indicators of broad chests and shoulders, strong chins and muscular upper bodies.

Men, for their part, are looking for a fertile, healthy woman who would make a capable mother. Waist-to-hip ratio happens to be one of the strongest indicators of fertility and health in women. Now, because men are mainly seeking a fertile, healthy woman and because these are attributes men can assess through a woman’s appearance (mainly her waist-to-hip ratio), men’s evaluations of women as potential mates focus more heavily on a woman’s appearance. A woman’s evaluation of a man as a potential mate, on the other hand, does take appearance into account but also includes his status in society, his dominance over other men and his access to resources.

You see where this is going, yes?

Because women have been evaluated based on their appearance since the dawn of humanity, women naturally care more—and worry more—about their appearance than men do. Men, of course, have their own set of issues to worry about. If a man can’t find a good job or has trouble providing for his family, he feels emasculated. From an evolutionary perspective, he’s not being a good mate. It’s not about society conditioning women to be superficial or men to be bread-winning workaholics; it’s about what evolution has ingrained in the human species.

But does this also apply to self-perception?

Hallowell (1949, cited in Barkow, 1978) reports that one’s self-perception, in general, can be the product of evolution. Similarly, Buss and Schmitt (1993, pp. 221 and 230) state that evolutionary characteristics may influence self-evaluation. But, no one had actually empirically verified this. So, in research I conducted examining Whites and Blacks’ self-perceptions I confirmed that one’s assessment of her/his sexual attractiveness and physical attractiveness are also influenced by biological adaptations and that physical and sexual attractiveness are different. I found that evolutionary biological criteria apply to physical and sexual attractiveness for White women, but more so for sexual attractiveness, and that African American women evaluate themselves based more on their sexual attractiveness. This difference is most likely due to social conditioning: because many of the models of physical attractiveness are White women, Black women refrain from judging their own physical attractiveness on these criteria. They focus instead on sexual attractiveness, which, evolutionarily speaking, is more important. This difference is consistent with how evolutionary processes can be affected by one’s environment as Crawford and Anderson (1989) point out. Nevertheless, it is clear that biology also affects self-perception.


Barkow, J. H. (1978). Social Norms, the Self, and Sociobiology: Building on the Ideas of AI Hallowell [and Comments and Reply]. Current Anthropology, 19(1), 99-118.

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: A contextual evolutionary analysis of human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232.

Crawford, C. E., & Anderson, J. L. (1989). Sociobiology: An environmental discipline? American  Psychologist, 44, 1449-1459. 

Wade, T. J. (2003). Evolutionary theory and African American self-perception: Sex differences in body-esteem predictors of self-perceived physical and sexual attractiveness, and self-esteem. Journal of Black Psychology, 29(2), 123-141.

Wade, T. J. (2000). Evolutionary theory and Self‐perception: Sex differences in body esteem predictors of Self‐perceived physical and sexual attractiveness and Self‐Esteem. International Journal of Psychology, 35(1), 36-45.