Eva Ritvo M.D.

On Vitality

Beauty Matters Part 1: The Hardware of Sexual Attraction

Discover and wield the hidden ancient hardware of sexual attraction and beauty.

Posted Nov 04, 2014

ALL WOMEN ARE BEAUTIFUL. Yes that's right. I bet the men reading that statement are thinking YEP and the women reading it are thinking IS SHE CRAZY? THAT'S RIDICULOUS! I am going to show you how both the typical male and female hardwired response make sense, and as this series progresses, I'll show you how to transcend your beauty hardware and update your beauty software.

We hope our male readers will hang in there and learn a few things about themselves. Also, as a female professional, well past my twenties, and a mother of two daughters, I want to make something very clear: this discussion is about empowerment. I'm here to discuss our ancient programming and how it leads to beauty stereotypes, superficiality, and sexism--and I promise that before this series of 5 articles is complete, I'll lay out the steps to transcend our programming and focus on the real beauty that is within the grasp of everyone. 

We may not be consciously aware of it, but we all agree on what beauty is. Beauty is hardwired in our brains. We even see evidence of newborns reacting to beauty, and core traits of beauty are found across cultures and generations. While the “beauty” topic may appear to be just for women, we’re really talking about how we are all controlled by ancient hardware, and how to take advantage of, or more importantly not be sabotaged by, our design.

When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors experienced a far stricter division of labor, and male and female brains were designed to accomplish radically different tasks. The hunters needed to be driven by vision and situational awareness and the gatherers had to spend their days multitasking and cooperating.

Moreover, procreating presented very different challenges to men and women. For a man, with a very small investment, he could hit the genetic lottery so why not play as often as possible. For a woman, her investment was going to be enormous and she had better be very choosy about her mate.  The number of times she was going to be able to roll the dice was exponentially lower than her male counterparts. Women are, and always will be, the rate-limiting step in reproduction.

Over the course of millions of years, these gender-specific drivers left their mark in our genes. They have become the hardwiring that directs many of our seemingly inexplicable behaviors in the modern world.

The Hardware: Why do we even have built-in wiring for beauty?

the neuroscience of sexual attraction
The whole purpose of primal attraction is to maximize the chances of healthy offspring. It is a complex but licketysplit mind game that is dedicated to minimizing genetic risk and maximizing the odds for the next generation.

Viewing attractive faces triggers the reward pathways in our brain. These are the same pathways that fire up when we are eating, spending money, having sex, and using cocaine.  We feel compelled to act. Men have the desire to connect sexually and women have the desire to make themselves more beautiful. This readily explains the male penchant for pornography and fashion magazines for women. Our built-in beauty wiring is clearly still a powerful driver in society today.

According to Dr. Nancy Etcoff, we all love to look at smooth skin, shiny hair, curved waists and symmetrical bodies because over the course of evolution, the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success. I call this our beauty hardware, and although some might find it distressing, I believe that understanding our wiring is empowering. Once we understand beauty hardware, we can then evolve and expand our concept of beauty and make choices from a much more modern and powerful place.

By hardware, I mean the beauty archetypes we are born with. Yes, we really do come preprogrammed knowing what is and what is not beautiful. Our ancestors’ survival depended on it. Back in the hunter-gatherer days when our brains were first evolving, only about half of the babies survived at all. Of those, only about 60 percent made it to an age where they could reproduce. We of course are all descendants of those few successful hunter-gatherers.  

So who made it and who didn’t? The ones who made it were the ones who were physically strong and well cared for by the group. Not only did they need to be strong enough to conceive and carry a child, but they also needed to stay alive long enough to raise their incredibly dependent young. Human infants have by far the longest period of total dependency on a maternal figure compared to other mammals or our non-mammalian friends. Because of this prolonged dependency, men had to choose women who were young and in excellent health if they wanted their offspring to survive.

Also due to the long dependency, women were most successful at passing on their genes if they confined their childbearing years to their middle ones. Human females are one of the few species that have such a sharp rise and decline in fertility. It makes no evolutionary sense to bring a child into the world if you won’t be alive long enough to raise him or her to independence. Ah, menopause finally makes sense. Don’t keep procreating! Concentrate on what you have already produced.

Men don’t have the same dramatic and early peak as women, as it’s typically easier to replace the paternal rather than the maternal role. Men have a much easier time looking attractive as they age. In fact, they often get better looking with age, because while their fertility isn’t declining as rapidly, their ability to take care of the young is often increasing, making them an even better mate choice. Hence, the popularity of the May-December romances and websites like Sugar Baby Sugar Daddy. This makes sense from a strictly evolutionary survival standpoint, and the trend endures to modern times.

The truth is that we cannot alter our hardware. On average, a 20-something-year-old woman will be seen as more beautiful than a 44 or 66 year old woman, at least when judged and processed by our beauty hardware. There is no escaping our ancient hardwiring when it comes to our primal responses to archetypes of beauty.

We are, however, completely able to update our software. But to successfully update our beauty software, we must further understand our beauty hardware.

What is the Beauty Archetype that triggers our beauty hardware?

love at first sight
The brain is remarkably simple and complex all at the same time. Our brains are wired to look at pretty women, and whether it’s on TV, magazines, or the internet, the women we find attractive have much in common. We watch the Miss World pageant and may disagree on who should win, but only rarely would a viewer say anyone of the contestants wasn’t beautiful.

A massive study, called the International Mate Selection Project by David Buss, showed that in 10,047 people surveyed in 34 out of 37 cultures from 6 different continents and 5 islands, men valued appearance more than women.  In every culture studied, Buss found common traits associated with: “Clear skin, smooth skin, lustrous hair, long hair, symmetrical features, absence of open sores, pustules, or lesions, relatively small waist, relatively large breasts, and a low waist-to-hip ratio.” These characteristics, along with symmetry and averageness, signal good health and are now called “beautiful.”  Collectively, these traits form a sort of universal beauty archetype, and it is this archetype that our brains are hardwired to search for.

The beauty archetype is powerful and pervasive in our brains. Did you know that:

  • Babies as young as a few hours old will stare longer at attractive faces?

  • By one year they will play longer with attractive dolls and cooperate better with attractive sitters?  

  • Men can accurately tell if a woman is ovulating, even if they have no idea how they could know such a thing and study after study has documented that they consistently find ovulating women more attractive?

  • Strippers make twice as much money while ovulating, earning around $53/hour?

  • Strippers on oral contraceptives earn about as much ($37/hour) as those who are menstruating ($35/hour)?  

  • Women (at least those not on hormonal birth control) can even detect genetic compatibility, completely unconsciously?

  • Men are subconsciously aware of the subtle scents characteristic of early pregnancy, and avoid those women?

Clearly, we are driven by ancient hardware connected to fertility, whether we know it or not.

Sometimes, we find the hardware drives us to engage in risky behavior. Multiple studies have shown that women are more extroverted, more risk-taking, and travel greater distances while ovulating. Driven by ancient urges, women are wired to engage in behaviors that make it more likely to find a mate outside one’s usual social group. In ancient times, the farther you traveled, the greater the chances of finding new genes. The closer you stayed to home, the more likely a woman was to encounter a relative.

Even though the modern world is packed with extraordinary genetic diversity across billions of people, our hardware is from an era when our genetic universe only consisted of hundreds. The urge to wander (which peaks during ovulation) was essential for the survival of our species. And speaking of wandering, women are more likely to cheat while ovulating.

As much as we like to think we are fully in control of our behavior, these examples should make it clear that there is much more going on in this complicated game of attraction.   

Up next:

Beauty Hardware, Part 2: The Hardware of Porn & Hunting

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