Face vs body attractiveness

A person’s attractiveness is determined by many different criteria, and even something as simple as physical attractiveness can be broken down into smaller parts.

For example, a woman’s facial appearance might be a good way of working out how young she is, which is important to men because younger women have a longer reproductive lifespan ahead of them. If a man pairs up with a younger woman, he has a better chance of having a lot of children. Body attractiveness, on the other hand, might be a better signal of how fertile a woman is right now. This is because a woman’s body shape is sensitive to fluctuations in her level of sex hormones, so women who are best able to conceive have shapelier torsos. Body shape is also a good indicator of whether a woman is already pregnant, or too undernourished to endure a nine month pregnancy.

These differences in what the face and the body might contribute to attractiveness led Jaime Confer and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin to make a prediction about men’s preferences. They theorised that when men are looking for a long-term partner, they pay more attention to women’s faces. That way they can pick out someone who’s young and will therefore be able to have children for many more years. Conversely, when seeking a fling, men might look out for women with curves in all the right places, because these are the women who are most likely to fall pregnant after a brief encounter.

The important thing to remember is that men don’t have to be aware of any of this. Weighing up whether a woman is a good bet for a long or a short term relationship is probably something that men do all the time, deep below the level of consciousness.

To test her theory, Confer presented 194 men with a photograph of a woman with her face and body concealed. The men were told that they would have to make a choice as to whether the woman would make a good partner, and to help them make their choice they could either look at her face or at her body.

When men were asked to judge whether the woman would make a good long-term partner, they wanted to see her face more often than they wanted to see her body. But when the men were asked to judge her suitability for a one night stand, they preferred to see her body rather than her face. This backs up Confer’s hypothesis. Men base assessments of a woman’s physical attractiveness on her facial appearance when planning a relationship that will last, but shift to placing greater weight on how her body looks when contemplating a fling.

In case you’re interested, when the experiment was run on women, they preferred to base their judgements on a man’s face, regardless of the type of relationship. Which is the best excuse I’ve come across all month for ditching my gym membership and instead checking myself into the spa for a facial.

Confer, J. C., Perilloux, C., & Buss, D. M. (2010). More than just a pretty face: men’s priority shifts toward bodily attractiveness in short-term versus long-term mating contexts. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(5), 348–353. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the July 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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