Science Scene: Sexual attraction based on cultural and individual preferences

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Photo Credit: Victoria Smith | Daily Texan Staff

With Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” hitting the top of the charts, it was only a matter of time before scientists looked into whether “boys like a little more booty to hold at night,” as Trainor claims.

In a recent paper titled “Lumbar curvature: a previously undiscovered standard of attractiveness,” researchers found that their subjects — UT students in this case — prefer protruding posteriors, at least when they occur as the result of a particular
back curvature.

There’s no shortage of studies looking into what traits heterosexual men find attractive in women. Throughout the research, two themes emerge again and again: Different cultures have different preferences, and there are huge variations within those cultures of what individuals prefer.

One of these studies — published in Nature, a scientific journal — looked at cultures removed from the influence of Western media and found that men in two of the three examined tribes, on average, preferred women whose body mass indices would classify them as overweight. The men in these tribes also thought the overweight women looked healthier than those with wasp-waisted figures.

Other studies have found a racial component to attraction. A study in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology showed pictures of women to men in different countries. The pictures used were cartoons, so the researchers could change the characteristics as they needed to for the study. When they did, they found men in Barbados greatly preferred dark-skinned women, whereas men in Pakistan had a preference for paler women.

Research looking into what heterosexual women find attractive in men is also all over the map.

One study’s results suggested women think facial scarring is a turn on, but only when they’re looking to have a short-term relationship. Another study looked at what happened when men attempted to put on a suave, sexy voice — it didn’t help.

A paper from a group in Australia attempted to compare women’s preference for penis length with height and found the two characteristics contribute about equally to a man’s attractiveness. The same study found that shoulder-to-hip ratio contributed more than either of those two traits.

Before jumping to conclusions about what men or women want, it’s crucial to keep effect size in mind. One study compared women’s opinions on men with various beard lengths and found the heavy-stubble look to be the most attractive, whereas light stubble was the least. But the differences in score between these two groups were insignificant. 

There’s a temptation to offer evolutionary explanations for male attractiveness and link women’s tastes to where they are in their ovulation cycles, but research does not support this idea. A meta-analysis that pooled the results of 58 other studies concluded any differences in attraction linked to menstrual cycles resulted from studies with smaller sample sizes or less rigorous protocol.

Similarly, caveman instincts do not control men. A study with more than 3,000 participants across 10 countries found the smaller the country’s gender gap, the less men reported a desire for women who adhere to female roles that evolutionary explanations favored. Specifically, in countries where women are educated and paid as well as men, men are less likely to value a good cook or housekeeper in their spouse and also less interested in her chastity.

This is to say that, while there may be beauty standards within a given culture, they aren’t universal. There is also no accounting for taste, let alone considerations such as personal chemistry and compatibility. If other people like the way you look, that’s great, but the only person you need to please is yourself.