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Starting with psychology
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4.5 Physical appearance

Our society places particular value on physical characteristics. Curvy body shapes, long legs and luxurious hair are characteristics that are often seen as desirable in women. For men it might include characteristics such as muscularity, tallness and a firm jawline. For both sexes there is youthfulness, white even teeth, and facial symmetry. There is a vast amount of media coverage implicitly favouring, and in the case of the advertising industry explicitly promoting, these models of attractiveness. Films, magazines and television all contribute to what might be termed the tyranny of body shape images. There is a whole industry that aims to mould consumer preferences, and so sell products, by distorting the reality of normal into the unreality of ideals such as the so-called ideal of women being size zero.

Because the ideal of attractiveness based on physical characteristics rather than personality traits (such as kindness, intelligence, thoughtfulness, sense of humour) is continually being promoted in western societies, you might assume that relationships in the west would be based on physical characteristics. This assumption has been found to be true, but only up to a point. Whether or not it is true might be to do with the reason for the relationship, short-term fun or longer-term commitment.

Research suggests that what is valued in a partner also differs along gender lines. Catherine Cameron et al (1977) in a study of personal adverts found that women tended to promote themselves in terms of socially favoured personality and physical characteristics, such as sense of humour, outgoing, slim, attractive and so on. On the other hand, men tended to highlight their economic status, so will often use terms such as ‘professional’ or ‘homeowner’. This difference seems to suggest that women ‘think’ that men look for personal attractiveness whilst men ‘think’ that women want security – the wording of the adverts reflecting what each gender ‘thinks’ that the other is looking for – is supported by a range of research.

Activity 8: Testing Cameron's research

Timing: 0 hours 25 minutes

Find the personal ads section of a magazine or local newspaper. Go through the first twenty ‘women seeking men’ and make a brief note of how the women describe themselves, then do the same with the first twenty ‘men seeking women’. Do your findings support Cameron et al's findings?


In this activity you started with a research question related to gender differences in how people promote themselves to potential partners. You then identified relevant ‘gender samples’ and then you undertook an analysis of the samples in relation to defined categories, which are items in the adverts that promote ‘socially favoured characteristics’ and those ‘promoting economic status’. So your research involved you taking a considered approach to ‘testing’ Cameron et al's findings.

Clearly the sample would be too small and the source too limited to provide a thorough test of gender differences in how people promote themselves in personal ads these days.

Some psychologists suggest that in order to understand why particular physical attributes are deemed attractive we need to consider human evolution. Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection states that characteristics that give an animal or human the best chance of survival and of reproducing themselves will be prized. These psychologists would suggest that attraction based on physical characteristics is related to features which indicate healthiness and especially fertility.

Viren Swami and Adrian Furnham (2006) have undertaken an overview of recent research which examined this suggested influence on attraction based on physical characteristics. Their research focused on the heterosexual male perspective.

They pose the question of whether there are physical characteristics that are found to be attractive across cultures. If so, do these characteristics signal procreative potential as predicted by psychologists taking an evolutionary approach to explaining behaviour? Swami and Furnham conclude that there is research evidence to suggest that there are characteristics that have been shown to be attractive across cultures. The physical characteristics for females focus on body shape, especially the waist to hip measurement ratio (WHR). A WHR measure of 0.8 means that a person's waist measurement is 80 per cent of their hip measurement.

Figure 9: Waist/hip ratio

For a woman a WHR of around 0.7, is better than a high WHR, of 0.9 and over, in terms of health and fertility. In most cultures men will rate women with a 0.7 WHR as more attractive than a woman with a higher WHR. Popular evidence to support this is the fact that present day catwalk supermodels, as well as film stars of the 1950s such as Marilyn Monroe and, going back even further, the famous (armless) statue of the Venus de Milo all have WHRs in the 0.7 range.

However body weight may be even more important than WHR in determining attractiveness and Swami and Furnham report on research that shows some variation among cultures when they looked at this measure. Generally, in economically developed societies men tend to prefer women with a lighter build, while men in economically developing societies tend to prefer a heavier build. These cultural differences are explained by evolutionary psychologists suggesting that in societies where food supplies were poor or uncertain it was understandable that women with a high body weight would be seen as better choice of partner. In economically developed societies these more basic considerations which are focused on survival in difficult environments are not relevant and other factors may come into play.

The evolutionary approach is controversial, with most psychologists viewing it as much too simplistic, but it does offer a wide-ranging explanatory framework within which to begin to understand and interpret human behaviour.

The work of Swami and Furnham above has introduced some of the cultural variation in what people consider to be attractive for potential intimate relationships. There are a range of other features that have been considered to influence attractiveness. Whereas signs of healthiness are most important, once these have been considered, signals of wealth or status may be taken into account. In the last few decades in western societies people have often valued suntanned skin and slimmer builds as this indicates someone has the resources to eat a healthy diet and take part in exercise as well as go on expensive holidays or at least to a tanning salon. Interestingly with the dangers of sun tanning being researched and publicised people with tans or at least sunburned skin are now viewed more negatively.

There are numerous examples, taken from different cultures, of more unusual physical adornments that have been considered to be attractive. In China the practice of female foot-binding was carried out for hundreds of years before being banned in 1911. The process was started when girls were about five years old and the ideal was to have feet no longer than four inches. As you can imagine this was an extremely painful process and girls and women were often unable to walk more than the shortest distance. This was a status symbol and only carried out on girls from wealthy families who would be expected to marry into a similarly wealthy family. Girls from poorer backgrounds would be expected to work, which would be impossible with bound feet. Similarly in Renaissance Europe women would often blacken their teeth to appear more attractive. The explanation for this is that sugar was only available to the very wealthy and sugar did cause teeth to rot and turn black so by painting your teeth black you could appear to be of high economic status and therefore a desirable person.

Rex Features
Figure 10: A bound foot

More recently, tattoos and skin piercing (currently popular in western societies) have become a must-have adornment for many people. These are just some examples of the kaleidoscopic range of body adornments that have been found to be attractive for different cultures. And there is the world-wide industry of male and female make-up, clothing design and cosmetic surgery that focuses so obviously on enhancing physical features. Our desire to establish intimate relationships will lead us to seek out certain people and present ourselves in the way that we feel will be most attractive to others. This in turn is shaped by the particular culture that we live in.

The emphasis our society places on physical attractiveness would suggest that each of us would seek long-term romantic relationships with the most attractive people we meet. But some of the research into relationship formation suggests that we are in fact more realistic and that we tend to form relationships with partners who are more of a physical ‘match’ to ourselves. This is called the matching hypothesis and has been supported by a number of studies. In one Bernard Murstein (1972) showed pictures of ninety-nine couples to participants. The pictures were separate so the participants could not know who paired with whom. Participants were asked to rate each picture for physical attractiveness. The scores for physical attractiveness of the real couples were much more similar than scores for randomly assigned couples.

This matching hypothesis does not contradict the previous view that we are attracted to people who are physically very attractive, but just highlights how, when it comes to actually making a choice, we temper ideals with a sense of realism. This process is sometimes explained in terms of costs and rewards. The costs of searching for a dream partner would be so high, if you consider the time needed and the likelihood of rejection if they are much more attractive than you are. Similarly people are not usually attracted to someone who is much less attractive than they are, because while the costs would be low, so would the rewards. Other psychologists suggest that, rather than being afraid of rejection, we are actually happier with someone more like ourselves, which ties in with what you were reading earlier about being attracted to people who are similar to us in all sorts of ways.

Think back to the information about schemas in Section 3.4. A schema is defined as a mental framework in which you would file all your knowledge about certain objects, situations, groups of people, even yourself. The view being suggested here on relationship formation suggests that people carry a mental schema that includes a set of characteristics that they would favour in a partner and that they seek out people who more or less conform to this. Research on schemas shows that factors other than appearance or physical attractiveness are seen as being more important when seeking a long-term partner. David Buss (1994), for example, studied unmarried college students in the US and found that the three top characteristics looked for in an ideal partner were: kind and understanding; exciting personality; and intelligent.