Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1998

Gender Differences in Physical Attraction
Chris Hendricks, Dawn Olson
Seth Hall & Jonathan Batt

    In the realm of romance, Feingold (1990) found that being physically attractive appears to be more important for females than males. This stress on female’s physical attributes seems to be the trend in most of the attraction research (Townsend 1990, Graziano 1993, Cunningham, Barbe & Pike 1990). Females overlook males’ physical attributions, seeking status, wealth, or power. In a study by David Buss (1988), this tendency for women to focus on their physical features when pursuing romantic relationships was evident. Buss asked newlyweds what they did when they first met their spouse to make himself or herself more appealing. While men emphasized material resources such as gifts, money, possessions, and bragging about their importance at work, females tended to make physical changes such as dieting, buying new clothes, and getting a haircut or tan (see table). A difference also exists in what qualities women and men notice first when looking at persons of the opposite sex.

Similarities and Differences Between the Sexes in Tactics of Attraction

Tactics used significantly more by males

Tactics used significantly more by females

Display Resources

Wear makeup

Brag about resources

Keep clean and groomed

Display sophistication

Alter appearance - general

Display strength

Wear stylish clothes

Display athleticism

Act coy

Show off

Wear jewelry


Wear sexy clothes

    This gender difference in mating routines is evident across the globe as well. Men around the world are more interested in women who are youthful and physically attractive. However, what men find physically attractive varies from culture to culture. Some cultures value female fatness when courting a women. Anderson, Crawford, Nadeau, and Lindberg (1992) researched the socioecological factors that determine attitudes toward fatness in women. Important factors included food security, climate, value placed on female work, relative social dominance of women, and adaptive reproductive suppression of females in the society.

    Our country has become obsessed with a slim physique. The slim body standard for attractiveness is especially powerful for women. Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, Vogel, and Fantini (1986) looked at the possible causes of the thin standard of bodily attractiveness for women. The first cause they mentioned is the idea that women who want to appear professional and intelligent believe they must be thin due to society’s demands. Also, women who felt that their fathers did not think they were intelligent tended to desire a slimmer body than those women who did not feel that way. The derivation of most eating disorders is this slim body ideal. Women associate curvaceousness with incompetence. More classically "feminine" bodied people may have been considered less professional than men; consequently, those women now exhibit eating disorders. These eating disorders are not simply instances of psychopathology in women, but rather a manifestation of a societal bias against women. This bias level against women has decreased enough to encourage women to strive in education and different professions, but has not decreased enough to eliminate the supposed association between femininity and incompetence.

    Recent research done by Cash and Muth (1997) found compared to men, women had more negative body-image evaluations, stronger investments in their looks, and more frequent body-image dysphoria. This study replicated earlier findings that found that generally women are more discontent with their bodily appearance than men. This discontent is most often due to body weight which contributes more to the eating disorder epidemic. Relative to men, women are more cognitively and behaviorally invested in their appearance. This is a natural result due to the high importance men place on physical attractiveness of their mate. If women focused as much as men on the physical features of their mates, men may also be subject to this preoccupation with one’s body.

    Ironically, a gender gap exists in industrialized North America with vogue_mag.gif (9502 bytes)respect to preferences of slenderness in women. Men prefer women who are plumper than women want to be (Polivy, J., Garner, D. M., & Garfinkel, P.E. (1986). Negel Barber (1998) recently studied the changes in standards of bodily attractiveness in American females and the different masculine and feminine ideals. The female ideal body with relation to curvaceousness can be found in Vogue, while the ideally curvaceous body to men can be found in Playboy. Another interesting aspect of this gender gap is that when ideal sizes change over time, playboy.gif (4842 bytes)women’s changed ideals precede the men’s, and the women’s changes are greater in magnitude. This implies that women may determine the standard. This slim standard is associated with occupational success; however, it is not consistent with men’s preferences or child bearing readiness.

    Men’s ideals for their own physique tends to be "bigger equals better." This preference is consistent with the Freudian construct that men are obsessed with large objects or parts of their anatomy. According to Adam Drewnowski (1995), more men wanted to gain weight rather than lose weight. The use of steroids and excessive weight lifting can accomplish this goal of a larger body. Women however tend to find men of average size to be most attractive. Michael Cunningham (1990) found that women prefer men with moderately broad shoulders who are of medium height and have a chest slightly larger than average, but not as large and powerful as a traditional body builder’s chest. Devendra Singh (1995) examined the role of male body shape, as defined by their waist-to-hip ratio, in women’s mate choices. Again men found in the typical size range were judged as more attractive, healthy, and possessing many positive personal qualities.

    Cunningham also identified a combination of facial features that portray dominance and are therefore thought of as more attractive by women. These features include thick eyebrows, small eyes, thin lips and a square jaw. Furthermore, women are most attracted by an optimal combination of neoteneous, mature, and expressive facial features in addition to grooming attributes. Neoteneous features include large eyes, small nose and full lips; however this is contrary to the "dominance" features. A mature face is defined by Cunningham as having prominent cheek bones and a large chin.

    It is evident that a clear gender gap exists with respect to physical attractiveness preferences. Women desire average size men, while wanting a smaller, thinner physique for themselves. Men, on the other hand, want larger than average bodies for themselves and prefer their female mates to be a bit larger than they would actually like to be. With these differences in preferences, it is no wonder why finding one’s ideal mate can be so difficult!

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 16:32:07 . This document has been accessed 1 times since 1 Jan 1998. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman