As a young boy, I was often intimidated by beautiful women. I only began to conquer this social anxiety when I concluded that the situation was symmetrical; women probably thought the same thing about handsome men. Later, I began to notice that many women don’t agree with my early conclusion. As evidence, here’s a conversation from Seinfeld:
George: “Why not? It’s a good look for a woman.”
Elaine: “Well, the female body is a… work of art. The male body is utilitarian, it’s for gettin’ around, like a jeep.”
Jerry: “So you don’t think it’s attractive?”
Elaine: “It’s hideous. The hair, the… the lumpiness. It’s simian.”
George: “Well, some women like it.”
Elaine: “Hmm. Sickies.”
I’ve lost track of the number of times my straight female friends have expressed similar tastes. Why should attractiveness be asymmetrical? Here are my current hypotheses, listed in order of decreasing likelihood:
It’s common for two genders of a given species to experience drastically different selection pressures. One gender’s evolution is usually influenced by sexual selection more than the other. For instance, male peacocks have experienced more sexual selection than female peacocks, which has resulted in drab females and beautiful males. The same effect occurs with cardinals. Notice that the males in both species evolved features which are actually counter-productive in terms of camouflage from predators.
In the case of humans, women seem to be shaped by sexual selection more than men. Women have much less body hair than men, which doesn’t seem to confer any nonsexual advantage. Female humans are also the only mammal to have permanent breasts; all other mammals’ teats swell for nursing but shrink away to practically nothing afterward. These characteristics imply that women really are objectively more beautiful than men in the sense that their evolutionary fitness has been defined more by attractiveness.
Our society has been male dominated for most of recorded history. As a result, advertisements for products have been aimed at men because they controlled most of the wealth (and, sadly, still do in many countries). Attractive women help to sell anything from beer to cars. Straight women aren’t the target of these advertisements, but they’re exposed to them regularly because they live in the same world that men do. As a result, even straight women tend to associate beauty with the female body.
I think most people would agree that the genitals of either gender aren’t aesthetically appealing. They may elicit sexual arousal, but a woman looks more… elegant(?)… with her legs closed. So it might be more accurate to say that a woman’s less flattering features are simply better hidden.
A man’s sex drive seems to be more visual than a woman’s, though it’s hard to be sure because of the current social taboo against female sexuality. If true, this probably means that a woman can detach her visual sense of beauty from her sex drive more easily than a man could. This hypothesis seems to imply that gay men would disagree with the concept of objective female beauty.
More women than men could be bisexual, but evidence in this direction is skewed by the greater prejudice against gay men compared to lesbians. Does anyone have more recent, credible sources regarding these issues?
As a heterosexual male, I’m biased towards believing that women are objectively more attractive because of my sexuality. Straight women experience a different bias based on vanity. It’s flattering to believe that one’s gender is more beautiful than the other. Lesbians are biased in both ways. Gay men, on the other hand, could offer the most critical judgment because they’re not biased by sexuality or vanity.
Is the notion of objective female beauty mistaken, have I missed a hypothesis, or do you think I’ve ranked them in the wrong order?Last modified February 6th, 2012