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Smedley et al.

1 Smed, Julie Anne , Mary, Tricia Tara Boyce English 312 1 June 2012 The Source of Physical Attraction: Biology vs. Culture By the time you finish reading this paper, you will know whether or not you will die alone. You will be clued in as to what ignites the initial desirability that leads to sexual attraction. There are a variety of perspectives on this issue; genetics, cultural background, media, and personal preference are all argued to affect the definition of physical attractiveness. Some say that physical attraction is different from person to person, while others claim that the meaning of beauty is generally universal. When we start to consider these factors related to attractiveness, it leads one to wonder: What effect do media and culture have on what is considered attractive? Are they mirrors, simply projecting our evolutionary preferences back to us, or do they participate in a more direct manner? Are our preferences shaped by the media or deeper biological factors? Some argue that if physical attraction were merely a biological phenomenon, there would be little variation in standards of beauty among different cultures. After all, what constitutes a physically attractive person does vary from culture to culture. As Darwin put it, It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body, (Cunningham 268). Which physical features someone finds attractive in the opposite sex depends on what he or she is most accustomed to seeing. For example, according to Cunninghams book on personality and social psychology, a study on attractiveness in Asian culture proved that Asian people prefer a round, childlike face with a small smile. Asians also

Smedley et al. 2 find that the whiter the skin, the more attractive a person is. In contrast, Western culture finds darker skin and a mature face attractive (Cunningham 270). Stereotypesa social phenomenondevelop because people naturally look different depending on their genetic makeup. These differences are viewed either positively or negatively, depending on an individuals cultural context. As a result, not everyone will be attracted to the same person. Even within the same culture, standards of attractiveness can change with the passage of time. The media, for example, is a factor that seems to have influenced societys perception of attractiveness throughout the years. In the past, the ideal woman of the West had a full, voluptuous body. Curves in any form were a good thing and men viewed a woman with meat on her bones as healthy and fertile (Alice). This was sexually desirable at that time. On the other hand, this view of the attractiveness of women has evolved into something different. Today, the media portrays the ideal woman as thin and possessing a darker skin tone; women are considered beautiful who embody this image. As a result of the media, beauty has changed 180 degrees in the past century. Even limiting our discussion of physical attraction to the present decade, we can clearly see deviations from any supposed standard of beauty across national and tribal boundaries. Harkening back to the study mentioned earlier, Asians look for different physical qualities in a person than do Westerners. Other studies also support the subjective nature of cultural standards of physical attractiveness. For example, researchers found that men and women from different cultural backgrounds judge attractiveness in terms of a perceived level of masculinity or femininity. They observed that in the West, men and women find androgynous men more attractive than masculine men, but in Namibia, perceived masculinity plays a dominant role in interactions between male and females (Malach Pines 98; Brown et al. 586). In

Smedley et al. 3 other words, in Namibia, a man who appears more masculine is considered more attractive. In the United States and other Western nations, a man whose masculinity and femininity are more balanced is generally considered more attractive. A closely related complication to defining attractiveness universally is that specific traits associated with masculinity and femininity themselves vary drastically from one society to another. This is because gender-role stereotypes are subjective. That is, different groups of people (be they entire societies, family groups, or individuals) define and do gender differently (Lorber 54). When so much of what a person considers attractive rests on socialization and subjective gender norms, it seems impossible to assume a biologically determined explanation for physical attraction. Cultural differences mean different preferences in a potential mate, which means different conceptions of physical attractiveness (Malach Pines 97). Up to now, we have discussed several arguments for a socio-cultural approach to physical attractiveness. However, cultures themselves are products of evolution. Norms and standards form by necessity, in response to geographical, environmental, and biological factors. Indeed, as one scholar put it, The social theories [of romantic attraction] emphasize the role played by social forces such as socialization, social norms, and gender-role stereotypes, but, as we will argue for the remainder of this paper, Evolutionary theory views romantic attraction as a cultural means to a biological end, (de Munk qtd. in Malach Pines 97). Though standards of beauty and attractiveness seem completely subjective, these cultural conceptions of desirability are shaped by evolutionary factors. Culture (and the media influences within it) is but a reflection and a response to biology. In their book The Psychology of Physical Attraction, evolutionary psychologists Viren Swami and Adrian Furnham describe the general guidelines for what men and women each find

Smedley et al. 4 attractive: Women have evolved to be attracted to desirable qualities of men that are correlated with the ability to provide indirect resources. Similarly, men have evolved to be attracted to detectable qualities of women that are correlated with peak reproductive potential. They point out, however, that these traits are not always easily detected (Swami, Furnham 32). Some traits are more obvious than others. Examples of readily identifiable traits are body shape for men and women. In many cultures, women find men attractive if their shoulders and chest are broader, and their waist narrow, creating a triangular shape. Such a shape is indicative of upper body strength and development (Swami, Furnham 62-63). Men, on the other hand, tend to find the hourglass figure most attractive for women. Statistical findings show that this body type is related to higher fertility, and lower susceptibility to disease (Swami, Furnham 72). These findings show that for both men and women, specific body types arent considered attractive just because they please the eye, they please the eye because they indicate evolutionarily favorable traits. Another example of how attractiveness is a function of biology is how color relates to how attractive we perceive people as being. According to Andrew J. Elliot and Daniela Niesta in their article Romantic Red: Red Enhances Mens Attraction to Women, non-human primate females display more red skin tones when they have increased estrogen levels, eliciting higher sexual interest from males. Elliot and Niesta argue that the presence of red has a similar effect on human males, making them view women as more attractive or sexually desirable when placed on a red background. Elliot and Niesta reason that, From the biological predisposition standpoint, men, like other primates, interpret red as a sexual signal, to which they are inherently inclined to respond in an appetite fashion, (1152). To prove this point, Elliot and Niesta conducted an experiment in which men were

Smedley et al. 5 divided into two groups, one group viewing a black and white picture of a woman on a red background, the other group viewing the same photo on either a white, gray, green, or blue background. In every trial, the men who saw the womans photograph on a red background rated her as more attractive and more sexually desirable than did men who viewed and rated the woman when backed by a different color. Given the results of this experiment and the observed biological function of red in non-human primates, it can be concluded that perceptions of physical attractiveness have roots in evolutionarily favorable traits. Even though Swami and Furnham, referenced earlier, propose genetics as the major determinants of physical attractiveness, they are quick to acknowledge the role that culture plays. They state that, It should be clear that the biological determinants of beauty do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they occur within social and cultural contexts that have a tremendous impact on what is considered physically attractive and unattractive, (Swami, Furnham123). However, the acknowledgement of cultural impact in attraction does not denote a lack of biological influence in cultural preferences. For example, one may think that scarring or tattoos on an African tribesman is a purely cultural ploy to enhance physical attractiveness. But these scars or tattoos may represent the tribesmans ability to endure pain (as both scarring and tattoos involve a painful process). A tribesman with less scarring or tattoos may viewed as less able to endure pain and therefore less attractive. The more heavily scarred tribesman would be thought to pass on better genetics of endurance to his children. Likewise, a woman from Norway may perceive a large man as being extremely attractive and a woman from Nepal may see a small man as being attractive not out of strictly cultural ideals, but out of evolutionary needs. A fisherman in Norway would need a large thick body to handle heavy equipment and strong ocean conditions while a man in Nepal needs

Smedley et al. 6 to be small and agile so that he can more easily manage the steep terrain. Thus we see that features which may be viewed as purely cultural may have evolutionary links to a desire for environmentally fit offspring. Television and the media take part in the attractiveness equation as mechanisms by which possibly favorable traits are suggested to the publics collective mind. As we take in images portrayed in television, Internet, magazines and other mediums, we view them through complex evolutionary lenses, identifying more readily with those traits that meet our environmental and biological needs. Some of these traits, such as an ideal body type, are found more attractive and therefore occur more frequently because advertisements and entertainment that reflect this ideal are more successful. Our research suggests that culture and media are merely reflections of genetically favorable characteristics. Because we are constantly exposed to aspects of culture and media, we assume that those affect our personal preferences. However, when we look closer, we see that these influences are tools by which genetically favorable characteristics are reflected back to us, although what is favorable varies from culture to culture. With this in mind, as our evolutionary needs change, we will also see a change in what we perceive in being attractive. Your genetic hand has been dealt, but how you play it remains to be seen. The game of attraction depends more on your knowledge of the game than your genetic endowment. Genetics may deal the cards, but culture informs you of how best to play them. So, dont worry, even if you have a bad hand, if you play your cards right you wont have to spend the rest of your life alone.

Smedley et al. 7 Works Cited Alice, Lynette. How the Media Changes Our Perception of Beauty. Helium.com. Helium, Inc. 21 June 2009. Web. 25 May 2012. Brown, Jill, James Sorrell, and Marcela Raffaelli. An Exploratory Study of Constructions of Masculinity, Sexuality and HIV/AIDS in Namibia, Southern Africa. Culture, Health & Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care 7.6 (2005): 585-598. Print. Cunningham, Michael R. Their Ideas of Beauty are, on the Whole, the Same as Ours. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68.2 (Feb. 1995): 268-271. Print. 25 May 2012. Elliot, Andrew J., and Daniela Niesta. "Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men's Attraction to Women." Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology 95.5 (2008): 1150-1164. PsycARTICLES. Web. 24 May 2012. Lorber, Judith. Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender. Paradoxes of Gender. Ed. Judith Lorber. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994. Print. Malach Pines, Ayala. "The Role Of Gender And Culture In Romantic Attraction." European Psychologist 6.2 (2001): 96-102. PsycARTICLES. Web. 28 May 2012. Swami, Viren and Adrian Furnham. The Psychology of Physical Attraction. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.