It’s easy to joke about men’s taste in women. Women do it all the time. It’s the staple of most comedians’ repertoires. For all the jokes men tell about “dumb blondes” there are at least an equal number of jokes about “dumb jocks” or men who “think with the little head instead of the big one.” In some ways, it might be true that men are simpler creatures with regard to their mating preferences, but for the empirically minded critical thinker, such a simple generalization is unacceptable.
David Buss, in surveying 37 countries over several decades, learned a great deal about what men want in women. Men have different evolutionary pressures than women, so we should not be surprised that the traits they find desirable in a mate should also be different. Here, then, is a summary of what men say they want, what they actually get, and why.
We learned that women prefer a man who is slightly older. Luckily, men are amiable to this preference. Across all cultures, men prefer younger women. The age gap varies widely based on the type of society, but it never varies so far that men prefer older women.
The preference for younger women is no evolutionary mystery. A woman is at her maximum reproductive capacity when she has reached puberty but has not borne any offspring. Many tribal cultures have words for this state. The Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon refer to a woman as moko dude, which translates roughly to “postpubescent but childless.” This kind of terminology is repeated all over the world.
In the U.S. and most of Western Europe, the age preference is approximately 2.5 years. This works out nicely because most Western women prefer a man approximately 3 years older. If this seems to defy the notion that men always want a woman who’s just old enough to start having children, consider that dating and mating are also social functions. In the U.S., dating is much more social than reproductive. In fact, most people prefer not to reproduce in the majority of their relationships. This is a case of the environment modifying our preferences within the limits of the genetic template.
Most polygamous cultures are highly centered around childbearing as a primary goal of marriage — much moreso than in Western Post-Industrial Nations. Not surprisingly, in countries where polygamy is practiced, the gap between men and their prefered mates increases. We would expect this based on the observation that men take longer to accumulate enough wealth to afford a second, third, or fourth wife. Most forty year old men can easily father a child, and their accumulated wealth allows them to have their pick of the most desirable females.
Men’s desire for youth, then, is a hardwired trait. The expression of this desire changes based on the environment. Where dating and mating are more social than reproductive, men tend to prefer women a little younger. Where reproduction is the main goal, men tend to prefer women at the peak of their reproductive potential, regardless of the age of the man.
Even more than age, beauty is the most maligned of men’s preferences in women. Before writing this article, I did a google search for blogs about men’s tastes in women, and it was hard not to find complaints about how many men refuse to look at a woman for what she is inside instead of outside. It is undeniable. Men want beautiful women. It has always been so.
Most women are ok with this state of affairs, or at least resigned to its truth. The great debate is over what constitutes beauty. In some feminist circles, there is a lot of discussion of what ought to constitute beauty. As my readers know, I’m not a big fan of beginning with what “should be.” We can reinvent human nature in any number of ways, and many of them would make good science fiction, but if we’re going to have any chance of functioning well in the real world, we need to dismiss our prejudices from the outset and focus on what is real.
There are two categories of traits which have shaped men’s physical preferences in women — Appearance and Behavior. Healthy skin and hair, bright eyes, symmetry, muscle tone, and other physical clues are easy to understand and not at all unique to men. Women prefer the same things in men. Behavioral clues are things like high energy levels, animated facial expressions, and a healthy looking youthful gait.
For people who want to believe that beauty is completely in the eye of the beholder, I’m afraid science has proven you wrong. There are several things that are viewed as universally unattractive in humans. These preferences cross all cultures, religions, races, and environments.
- Signs of disease, such as lesions, sores, and rashes
- Poor complexion
- Significant asymmetry
In keeping with the observation that men desire youth, signs of increased age are universally considered less attractive than signs of youth. There are no cultures that predominately prefer white hair to more youthful hair colors. There are no cultures that prefer wrinkled skin to smooth skin.
Across cultures, when subjects are asked to evaluate the attractiveness of women in photographs, the ratings always go down proportionately with the age of the woman. Men’s evaluations drop much more sharply than women’s once there are visible signs of aging. The ages of the judges hardly matter.
Among the nay-sayers, there is a strong desire to attribute these preferences to learned social conventions. Our preferences for physical beauty are imposed upon us, they will say. Many of them seem to imagine a world where dating and mating would be based almost exclusively on personality, intelligence, and other more dignified and refined measures of worth. Alas, they are wrong.
Judith Langlois, et al, (1) demonstrated conclusively that infants between the ages of 2 to 3 months, and also 6 to 8 months, are attracted to the same faces as adults. Make no mistake of the significance of these findings — When adults were asked to rate female faces by attractiveness, and the same faces were shown to infants too young to have been socialized, the infants showed the same preferences. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder’s preferences are largely determined by their genes.
The elements of physical beauty in women are not arbitrary nor are they culturally defined in the broadest strokes. When vastly different cultures of differing races are asked to rate the attractiveness of women outside of their race and culture, they agree on the broadly defined traits that define female beauty. That is, Asians can look at Caucasians and vice versa, and both races pick out the same females as attractive in both cultures. These results have been replicated enough times, and between enough widely divergent cultures and ethnicities to be well established.
Symmetry is beautiful. This fact was discovered almost accidentally when it was demonstrated that across cultures, men prefer composites made up of computer-modified photos of multiple women. The computer would “average” the photos of four, eight, sixteen, or thirty-two different faces. The more faces that were used in the conglomerate, the more attractive the results were judged.
The fact is, most people are not very symmetrical. You can prove this to yourself with a basic photo editor. Take a straight ahead photo of yourself and cut it in half, top to bottom. Paste one side to the other to make a perfectly symmetrical image of yourself. Then repeat the process using the other half of your face. Be prepared, though. You might be shocked at how incredibly different your two sides look.
When thirty-two faces are merged in a computer, the result is highly symmetrical, since each individual face’s quirks and imperfections will be largely filtered out by the other faces. When researchers measure the symmetry of females with very precise instruments, their findings are incredibly clear. Women who are closer to being perfectly symmetrical are nearly always judged to be more attractive than those who are significantly asymmetrical. (This fact is often overlooked by women who think they need to go to a plastic surgeon for bigger breasts or a smaller nose. Perhaps they’d be better served making their face more symmetrical!)
Proponents of the cultural standard paradigm are often quick to point out that the most obvious physical preference — slimness vs. plumpness — varies greatly between cultures. From Titian to Twiggy, men’s preferences for various body shapes seems as arbitrary as winning the lottery.
But they’re not.
It is true that there are cultures where chubby women are more attractive than skinny women, and it’s true that some men like 48Ds and others like 32As. However, when the data from very diverse cultures is examined more closely, it becomes clear that the preferences are far from arbitrary. In countries where food is scarce, plumpness is a sign of social status and wealth, while in countries where food is abundant, it is a sign of laziness and lack of discipline. In cultures where the sexes occupy significantly different social roles, men tend to prefer women who are “obviously” women. That is, big breasts and hips, curves, and other “feminine” attributes tend to be highly prized. In very egalitarian cultures where men and women work side by side in most areas, more androgenous features tend to be preferred.
There is another observation that appears to be nearly, if not totally ubiquitous. Men prefer women with a waist-to-hip ratio between 0.67 to 0.8. There has been a bit of critical backlash about this number because it is possible to find cultures that fall outside of this range. However, as noted above, there are always environmental clues that give us an idea of why men prefer something out of the ordinary. It is never arbitrary.
Mates as Status
I mentioned at the beginning that this would not be a sugar-coated article, and here’s where the rubber meets the road. Like it or not, men view mates as status symbols. This is not a new thing. It’s a deeply rooted part of our evolutionary history. With the notable exception of the religiously celibate (or, more precisely, those who have portrayed themselves publicly as religiously celibate) men in all cultures are judged by their peers, by other women, their families, and society, and one of the main criteria is their mate.
Recall that women desire men with status, wealth, and intelligence. Note that men possessing these qualities in spades generally have their pick of a large number of very attractive women. We cannot deny that both men and women who see another man with a very attractive woman view him as having social status, wealth, intelligence, and the other qualities women find attractive.
Studies bear this out clearly. Across all cultures, men are judged by their women. I can’t stress enough that this state of affairs is not the “fault” of anybody in particular, and it’s not an imposition of the media or culture or some kind of false morality. It’s the way humans work, and it begins with women. Women prefer men to have lots of good qualities. The best women get the best men, on average. Both men and women are intelligent enough to recognize the connection. Across a hundred and fifty thousand years of human development, this connection has become hard-wired. It may not be fair, but it’s true.
Researchers have proven the concept in many ways. Both men and women have been asked to evaluate men in pictures with their “spouses.” (In reality, the same men took multiple pictures of different “spouses” of varying attractiveness.) Across the board, across cultures, men and women rated less attractive men with highly attractive women most favorably — more favorably than very attractive men with very attractive women. The results are clear. If a man has overcome his physical limitations and mated with a highly desirable woman, he has got something very, very good going on.
Researchers have approached it from the other angle. They have examined men in various professions and of varying social status. With startling regularity, they are able to predict the socially acknowledged level of attractiveness of a man’s wife or girlfriend based solely on his social status. This kind of prediction works best in a highly stratified society like America, where the very richest men are orders of magnitude more wealthy than the poorest, but even in societies with very small income gaps, social status — as much as wealth — is an unambiguous indicator of a man’s wife’s attractiveness. (It should also be noted that men of higher status and wealth also tend to have the largest age gap — they marry women significantly younger than themselves.)
I would be remiss if I didn’t address the claim that the media inflicts a false sense of beauty on the public. This, after all, is one of the most common claims made by feminists and defenders of “beauty in the eye of the beholder.” I hope by now I have demonstrated that standards of beauty are not arbitrary. This being the case, the claim of media imposition of values is at least partly false.
There is another compelling argument against the claim. If you ask any first year marketing student, you will learn that marketing is not about convincing people to buy what you have to sell. It’s about selling what people want to buy. When an ad agency takes on a product that is not selling well, they don’t attempt to change people’s minds about the product. Rather, they attempt to change the image of the product to reflect what people want! This is no small observation, and it is also not arbitrary. Advertisers know from billions of dollars of research — far more research than has been devoted to any ”hard science” — that it is a deeply ingrained part of the human psyche.
Knowing this, we have to admit that advertisers don’t impose beauty on us by selling their products. They impose their products on us by selling us beauty, which is what we like in the first place. I’m reminded of a recent ad campaign by Axe. Axe is shampoo, deoderant, and body spray. Nothing new or interesting there. There are sixty kinds of each on every grocery store shelf in America, and all of them work just fine.
Axe’s advertising department wants to sell more of their product than their competitors, and they don’t have much to go on. Their product isn’t much better than any other. So, like most advertisers, they turn to sex. Since this is a product for men, they want to associate themselves with very hot women. Axe went out and about and found the women most likely to appeal to their target audience, and put them in commercials. Sales of Axe skyrocketed.
Here, we must ask a pointed question. Is Axe selling beauty? No, they are not. They’re selling deoderant, and they’re using what works — beauty. Axe is not telling young men to like this kind of woman:
Axe observed that young men like this kind of woman, and used her in their ads. They’re not interested in changing the way men view women. They’re interested in changing the buying habits of men who want deoderant.
While it’s true that this could be a chicken and egg kind of question, we must ask ourselves — who was the first ill-fated advertiser who sought to change the standards of beauty, and what was he changing it from? There has never been a time in human history when men did not have preferences based on their genetics and the environment through which their genes expressed. Why would an advertiser use something men didn’t want at the time to try to sell something? That’s just not the way it works. At any given point, advertising is a reflection of men’s preferences, not a precursor.
To be sure, there is a snowball effect. Once something becomes popular, more people do it. That’s why fashion is such a cyclical thing. But the realization that we must come to is that perceptions of beauty predate fashion and media. They must. The root cause of humans’ perception of beauty is human nature — not the media.
Having addressed this, we must also admit that the media does have a profound effect on our perceptions. In multiple studies, it has been clearly demonstrated that a man’s perception of his own mate’s attractiveness is highly variable based on the amount of exposure he has to more attractive women. In a nutshell, watching lots of hotties on TV does make a man value his own mate less. The media also designs its ads to give men the impression that they can improve their own status in society by using a certain product. This leads him to believe that perhaps when his status improves, he can find a better mate.
There’s no doubt that the media is not in the business of making your marriage secure. There’s also no doubt that it gives many young women the impression that their own bodies are not up to the standard of the “average woman” in society. That’s the whole point — to make them want to buy something that will improve their social standing. We should be very wary of trusting the media with any of our relationship problems. They do not have our best interests at heart most of the time. However, it is simply a mistake to attribute blame to the media for our obsession with this or that body type. If you were to spend a million dollars on an advertising blitz in a culture where food was very scarce, you wouldn’t do well to put lots of skinny girls in the ads. Media reflects the culture. It is not the cause of culture.
Men want faithful women. The math behind this is clear. When a woman has a child, she is 100% certain that it is her child. Unless a man has literally had 24/7 surveillance on his mate since several weeks before conception, he can never be 100% certain of fatherhood. Therefore, men who developed effective mechanisms for judging (and enforcing) the fidelity of women would be far better represented in the gene pool. Thus, the preference for female fidelity.
Across the world and throughout history, well over 90% of laws regarding chastity, fidelity, and adultery have been designed to keep women faithful to their husbands. While we have every right to decry the practice from a modern egalitarian perspective, we cannot avoid the reality of its existence, nor can we deny the same genes in us today. Whether we like it or not, men get very jealous of women’s fidelity, and are strongly driven by their genes to ensure it at any cost.
Indeed, the institution of marriage seems a clear cut example of ensuring fidelity. Until very recently, marriage was specifically for the purpose of reproduction. Queens have been killed for infertility, after all. (Ironic, since many of them were probably perfectly fertile and their husbands were the ones with the problem.)
Men’s obsession with virginity is an evolutionary adaptation. There can hardly be any doubt. Women are taught from a very early age that their virginity is literally their worth. In the Bible, there are accounts of God telling the Israelites to conquer a city and kill all the women who have “known men,” keeping only the virgins for themselves.
If we step back from our feelings on the matter, it becomes very difficult to imagine anything other than male interests that would cause such a standard to develop. Modern research has demonstrated conclusively that not only does virginity have no particular health value to women, but sexual activity is very healthy, and the health benefits are not significantly different between married and unmarried women.
It’s a Short List
If you’ve read the previous article about what women want, you’ll notice that this list is actually very small, even though the explanations get involved. In a nutshell, though, these are the things that men across all cultures value in women: Youth, Physical Beauty, Fidelity, and Status as a result of having a mate.
Many readers are probably bristling at this list. After all, it’s obvious that many men do value other things — shared values, kindness, sexual adventurousness, generosity, empathy, intelligence, and a host of other traits. The important distinction is this: Men do not value any one of these traits significantly across all cultures. The purpose of identifying only those characteristics common to virtually all men is that we want to eliminate culture from the equation. We want to know what is the core of human nature. From that core, we can understand how environments dictated different cultures, which dictated different values.
It is not my purpose to suggest or imply that women only have value if they possess the traits I’ve detailed above. Far from it. As a product of my own culture, I have a larger set of traits that I desire in women, some of which supercede beauty, youth, and even fidelity. As with all descriptions of human nature, we must be careful to separate the descriptive from the prescriptive. I wish that there was not so much pressure on women to be more attractive than their peers, but my wish doesn’t change reality.
Only by describing reality as it is can we hope to understand what kinds of changes in human behavior are even possible, and what we can do to affect the changes we desire. Acknowledgement of the roots of human nature is very painful to a lot of people, and I do sympathize with them. After all, I’m well beyond three years older than the youngest, most attractive women, and I don’t display nearly the physical prowess I did when I was twenty. I’m not particularly symmetrical, and I have distinctly British teeth. Trust me — I wish human nature was not the way it is. Nevertheless, women want men with money and men want young pretty women.
A Final Challenge
I have no doubt that I will get many irate responses and emails about this post. I’ll be accused by feminists of promoting the status quo, or of asserting sex-negative values of women, or of trying to devalue women by making them into pieces of valuable meat. To these people, I issue a challenge. Before you throw me under the bus, you must do two things:
1) Demonstrate a scientifically valid alternative explanation with voluminous empirical data that contradicts the finding that men across all cultures do in fact prefer the things I’ve said. These findings are not just hocus pocus. They are the result of years of study across 37 diverse cultures representing the farthest extremes of human society available. If male nature is NOT the way I’ve described it, you’ve got a tough row to hoe to prove otherwise.
2) Provide me with a convincing argument explaining why I, or anyone else, should not acknowledge ubiquitous human behavior as innate. In other words, assuming you cannot prove that the facts are wrong, give me a good logical reason why we should ignore the facts and claim that human nature is something other than what all humans all over the world do!
There are a lot of things about human nature I’m not fond of. However, my desire for things to be different doesn’t stop me from acknowledging the way things are. I do not deny for an instant that some of the interpretations of the data presented here may be dead wrong. There may be another explanation for why men have always valued youth in women, but until someone presents a very compelling case, it’s hard to argue against the same logic that works in all other sexually reproducing social species.
That’s so important that I have to restate it in stronger terms. The explanations for human behaviors are based on the exact same evolutionary theory that successfully describes and predicts the sexual behavior of all other sexually reproducing creatures. That isn’t to say that all our explanations are correct. Rather, if someone is going to offer another reason, they have a huge task in front of them. They must explain why humans are exempt from evolutionary theory, or they must use another evolutionary mechanism to explain the behavior.
For those who will accuse me of jumping on the sociobiology or evo psych bandwagon, please understand that the criticisms of both disciplines are in their theories, not in the data. It is very likely that the data in these studies is good. Men do marry younger women, and have for as long as we’ve been keeping data. Evolutionary biologists, sociobiologists, and evolutionary psychologists are all trying to find the best way to use evolution to describe the mechanism that causes the observed behaviors. If you, the critic of this article, are not prepared to offer an alternate evolutionary explanation, then you must exempt humanity from evolution, and that, I’m afraid, is an impossible task.
(1) Langlois, J.H., Roggman, L.A., & Reiser-Danner, L.A. (1990). Infants’ differential social responses to attractive and unattractive faces. Developmental Psychology, 26, 153-159
Suggested further reading: