According to a new study, women in countries with poor national health prefer men with more masculine faces. Masculinity is supposed to correlate with genetic fitness, which would make Darwin proud. But is it really that simple?
Researchers asked women from 30 countries which they found more attractive — a male face altered to look about 50% more feminine, or the same face made 50% more masculine. In countries with higher disease rates, the women were more likely to prefer the hyper-masculine faces. Researcher Lisa DeBruine tells the Guardian,
Certain environmental factors shift the balance when a woman is choosing a mate, and health is one of those. If a woman lives in an environment where there are lots of pathogens and disease, they are more likely to trade off a good investment in favour of better health for their children. In places where health is less of an issue, women are not so willing to do that.
DeBruine also says, "Differences in ideals of beauty across cultures are often attributed to arbitrary cultural differences. Our research shows that what may seem like arbitrary cultural differences may instead be explained by systematic responses to differences in the environment between cultures." She claims, that is, that some of our sexual preference is evolutionarily rather than culturally determined. This kind of statement is always controversial — it leads rather easily into the excuse for fat stigma that "it's natural to be disgusted by fat women." Of course, there's a big difference between being unconsciously influenced by genetic factors and using evolution as an excuse for bad behavior, and we shouldn't throw out DeBruine's results because they might be politically inexpedient. On the other hand, there are a lot of questions here.
For one thing, women and generally healthy countries didn't always prefer more feminine men, leading researchers to acknowledge that other factors may be at play. There's also a question of what makes a masculine face. The Guardian identifies "larger jaws and deeper brows," and presumably the researchers were working off a consistent physiological definition of masculinity. Still, as Samhita of Feministing wrote in response to an earlier study, "I don't appreciate physical characteristics identified as masculine and feminine as though there is a static way to look manly verses looking feminine. Why is a square jaw masculine?" And finally, DeBruine makes some pretty sweeping statements about masculine and feminine men. She says,
Men who are really attractive tend to be able to pursue whatever mating strategy is best for them. They are more likely to prefer short-term relationships. More feminine men tend to be better providers.
Even assuming that "attractive" men indeed prefer short-term relationships, it's odd that DeBruine chose to equate attractiveness with masculinity her own study found that in some countries the opposite may be true. And are more feminine men actually better providers? If any science-minded readers could provide studies to this effect, I'd be grateful — all I could find was the study Samhita critiqued, in which women perceived square-jawed men as more caddish, and men with finer features as more reliable. Maybe women are able to suss out a man's relationship potential from his jawline, but given how bad people generally are judging others by appearances (the assumption that all fat people are lazy is one example), I wouldn't bet on it. Though I'm not entirely convinced by DeBruin's analysis, I'm interested in the study's political implications. For instance, does the election of manly ex-centerfold Scott Brown show how sick we really are?