Masculine, feminine faces valued more in industrial world

By Eric Sorensen, WSU science writer

Hewlett-80VANCOUVER, Wash. – In a world of cover girls, matinee idols and celebrated sexiest men and women, it’s easy to think that humans have always put a lot of stock in a masculine or feminine face.

It turns out that’s largely a habit of people in the modern urban and industrial world. Barry Hewlett and Adam Boyette asked the Aka, the hunter-gatherers of Africa’s western Congo basin, and they said how masculine or feminine one looks doesn’t really amount to much.

“The Aka are just very generous,” said Hewlett, a Washington State University Vancouver anthropologist who contributed to a study of male and female preferences in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “When you ask them, ‘Who would you marry in this camp?’ you hear, ‘They’re all attractive to me.’ They all have this very strong egalitarian ethos that tries to minimize differences between people.”

Nearly 1,000 participants worldwide

The study, which involved 22 researchers and looked at 12 populations with varying economic systems, found that women’s preference for masculine men and men’s preference for feminine women exists largely in highly urban, industrial economies.

The study team, led by researchers at Brunel University London and the University of Bristol, showed 962 participants photographs that had been digitally manipulated to show varying levels of masculinity or femininity. They then asked participants which faces looked more attractive for short and long term relationships and which faces appeared most aggressive.

Participants who preferred more feminine or masculine traits of the opposite sex—men with smaller eyes, thin lips and sharp jaws and women with round faces, fuller lips and larger eyes—tended to come from more developed populations. Participants who thought masculine males looked more aggressive tended to come from more urban populations.

Contradicts prevailing understanding

The findings go against long-standing thinking that masculine and feminine looks were important elements of attractiveness in ancestral populations.

“Cultural context dramatically impacts what we see as attractive or not,” said Hewlett.

In developed nations, he said, gender-based notions of attractiveness are heightened by media and role models who seem to personify feminine and masculine ideals. Previous researchers tended to bias their studies by focusing on so-called WEIRD participants—Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.

But hunters and gatherers probably did not rely on the facial appearances of potential mates as much as we do now, Hewlett said.

“Evolutionary psychologists emphasize that these particular patterns would have evolved in this long history of hunting and gathering,” he said. “This paper questions that it was part of the evolved psychology of hunter-gatherers.”


Barry Hewlett, WSU Vancouver professor of anthropology,, 541-264-8199, 360-546-9449