Physical Attractiveness, Defining Characteristics

Michael R Cunningham. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. 2009. Sage Publication.

The perception of physical attractiveness involves the judgment that a person’s overt appearance is cute, beautiful, handsome, sexy, nice, fashionable, or desirable. The diversity of synonyms conveys the fact that perceptions of physical attractiveness are complex and multidimensional. Judgments of physical attractiveness can vary as a function of the nature of the perceptual target (child vs. adult), the current motives (such as lowered self-esteem or ovulation) and demographics of the perceiver (White, Black, Asian, male, female), and the perceiver’s culture and historical epoch (Renaissance vs. present, West vs. East). For example, people use different criteria when evaluating the physical attractiveness of a newborn baby boy, compared with that of a 21-year-old man. Furthermore, some criteria can change over time. For example, male beards were popular in the 1860s through the 1880s, unpopular in the 1920s through the 1950s, popular again in the 1960s and 1970s, and so on.

Physical attractiveness is based on a combination of desirable features and qualities that communicate diverse messages to the perceiver. Physical attractiveness cannot be reduced to a single dimension, such as youthfulness, sexual dimorphism, symmetry, averageness, or fashion, but each can be influential depending on the facet of physical attractiveness under consideration.

Despite such complexity, judgments of physical attractiveness involve an underlying orderliness that can be interpreted. To understand such judgments, it is necessary to analyze the categories of features and qualities that cause someone to be seen as more or less physically attractive. The categories involve neotenous (babyface), sexually mature, expressive, grooming, and senescence (aging) qualities.

Neonate Qualities

Neonate qualities are the babyface characteristics displayed by infants and young children that contribute to perceptions of cuteness. The young of many mammalian species differ in consistent ways from the adults of that species, such as having larger eyes, more rounded forehead, smaller muzzle, and softer, lighter hair. Such features likely evolved through natural selection, when newborn offspring with those features were seen as cuter and given better care by adults. Consequently, they were more likely to survive and reproduce than newborns with other features.

Through random variation, some adults retained cute babyface qualities as they grew up. Those features may have been adaptive by eliciting a portion of the indulgence and care that is usually given to children. Conversely, it may have been adaptive for perceivers to be attuned to cute features because young adulthood is the period of greatest health and fertility. But perceivers can be deceived by adults who retain the overt appearance of youth, but lack the other gifts of youthfulness and emerging adulthood.

Because youthfulness is more closely linked to fertility than virility, neotenous features tend to contribute more to the physical attractiveness of females than males. However, both genders are rated more positively when they possess the following cute features: larger than average eyes, smaller than average nose, and smooth, clear skin. Females also are seen as more attractive if they have a small chin and no dark facial hair on their lips or jaw. Other babyish features, such as a round head, bulging cheeks, truncated torso, and short stature, are not attractive in adults and are generally superseded by sexually mature qualities.

Sexual Maturity

Sexually mature face qualities are features and qualities that develop during puberty that contribute to judgments of beauty, handsomeness, and sexiness. Such features reflect sexual dimorphism, or the physical differences between the sexes, and may implicitly convey fertility or virility, and the capacity to assume adult roles, some of which tend to be sex-typed.

Female faces lengthen and widen during puberty, but change less overall than do male faces. Young adult female faces are seen as more attractive if they retain neonate features in the center of the face while showing some mature features on the periphery. Adult female faces are more attractive if they possess the sexually mature features of prominent cheekbones and relatively narrow cheeks.

In males, the surge of testosterone and other hormones during puberty causes the bones, skin, and hair to change to a more rugged and angular form. An adult male face is seen as more attractive with a larger chin and jaw, thicker eyebrows, and visible evidence of beard stubble. The facial features that enhance male attractiveness tend to highlight the difference between males and females, but sexual dimorphism is not the essence of attractiveness. Males generally have thicker brow ridges, causing the appearance of smaller eyes, larger noses, and coarser skin with more acne than females, but such qualities do not enhance male attractiveness. Similarly, a thick beard exaggerates the size of the chin and jaw and is evidence of virilization. But a full beard can make a male look a bit too strong and aggressive for many Western females.

In addition, postpubescent faces are more attractive if the features are bilaterally symmetrical and the overall shape of the face is of average proportions, rather than extremely long or wide. Both symmetry and average proportions indicate stable physical development and resistance to germs and other factors that interfere with smooth growth.


Measurement of the characteristics that contribute to attractiveness is based on a variety of research methods. The most straightforward approach is direct physical measurement of people or photographs. The size of specific features, such as eye height and nose length, or deviations from the midline, is measured using recognized anatomical landmarks. To control for variations, the feature measurements are standardized either by using photos taken to be exactly the same size or by calculating the ratio between the size of a feature and the size of the head. The next step is to obtain ratings of the physical attractiveness and other perceived qualities of the target people. Several dozen people must be used in a study to allow independent variation of the features. For example, if the only people with large noses happen to also have large chins, it is impossible to estimate the impact of either noses or chins. For the same reason, it is essential that the sample have some stunningly attractive people, and their opposites, to ensure that the full range of both appearances and attractiveness perceptions are covered.

A second way to evaluate the defining characteristics of physical attractiveness is to create different appearances, either on paper or in a computer. Such appearances can be created by the researcher through drawing, by cutting and pasting together features from different people to create a composite, or by creating composites by merging whole images from different people in a computer. An outcome of the latter approach is that a face created by merging a sample of same-sex faces generally receives a higher physical attractiveness rating than most of the faces that were merged to create it. The computer merging process smoothes out facial imperfections and asymmetries and takes the average of faces that are too long and those that are too short to produce one that is closer to being just right. The merging of faces that are initially rated as highly attractive produces a face that is particularly attractive because each face contributes similar exceptional features, and the averaging process tends to exclude imperfections.

A third way to evaluate defining characteristics is to allow people to choose the feature that they like, either through a menu of features or by moving a slider that allows selection of a preferred face that is intermediate between extreme faces. Comparable results are obtained through the different methods, which are applied to both faces and bodies.

Sexually Mature Body Qualities

Sexually mature body qualities also develop during puberty and are even more conspicuous than changes in the face. A female’s pubic bones grow during puberty to accommodate pregnancy. The waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is computed based on the measurement of the waist to that of the hips, as in the last two numbers of the 1950s ideal female figure of 36-24-36 inches. Probably because it conveys fertility, a .7 WHR is seen as physically attractive in many cultures. Female breasts also develop as a result of increased hormones during puberty. Noticeable female breasts are seen as attractive. But there is quite a bit of individual and cultural variation in the preference for large female breasts.

Although puberty transforms the female body to prepare it for childbearing, it transforms the male body to increase its effectiveness in competition with other species during hunting, as well as with other males to achieve dominance and status to attract females. Males are seen as more attractive if they have a WHR of 1.0 (hips are not wider than the waist), if they are taller rather than shorter, and if their shoulders are broader rather than narrower. Males who are exceptionally tall or muscular are preferred to males who are short or average in physical development, but extreme height or extreme muscularity is not attractive to most females. Females prefer a somewhat more mature and masculine appearance when they are midpoint in the menstrual cycle, and ovulating, than at other times.

Puberty causes a change in the individual’s physical structure, which produces changes in the individual’s movement, and voice. Men with deeper voices sound more mature and attractive than males with higher voices. Puberty also increases the production of pheromones, which are chemicals responsible for the individual’s smell. It is not clear whether natural or artificial pheromones can attract a person from a distance. But females can detect males who are symmetrical and better looking, as well as males whose immune system is more compatible with their own, from the pheromones that unseen males leave behind on their t-shirts.

Expressive Qualities

Expressive qualities are characteristics that convey the individual’s prosocial attitudes and positive emotions, which contribute to judgments of niceness, friendliness, and engagement. Although neonate and sexually mature qualities are primarily attributable to genes and physical development during childhood and puberty, and are largely fixed (unless there is intervention by a cosmetic surgeon), expressive features are more variable.

Individuals who display large smiles are seen as more attractive than individuals who display small smiles or no smiles at all. The shape of the jaw, and the skill of the orthodontist, determines whether the person can display a full-beam smile that is visible across a crowded room. Although all people are seen as friendlier and more attractive when they are smiling, the effect is stronger when the perceiver is depressed, and in the Western cultures that value expressiveness than in Eastern cultures that limit the facial display of emotion.

A more subtle expressive signal is pupil dilation, or the opening of the colored iris in the front of the eye. Pupil dilation indicates physical arousal and conveys engagement and warmth. Pictures of individuals with dilated pupils are seen as more attractive than pictures of the same people with constricted pupils.

The lips also dilate during arousal. Full, red lips increase female attractiveness, perhaps by conveying positive emotion. But the meaning of lips is not settled. Some commentators have suggested that full lips are characteristic of a babyface, others have suggested that lip size is an indicator of sexually mature female hormones, and still others suggested that, when relaxed, full lips mimic the shape of an expressive smile. Although neonate and mature qualities seem mutually exclusive, natural selection could have endowed lips with more than one positive attribute.

Similar complexity is evident in the analysis of eyebrows. People’s eyebrows tend to rise when they are interested, surprised, or submissive. An individual whose eyebrows are naturally set high above their eyes are seen as more attractive than others perhaps because they convey a consistent look of curiosity and agreeableness. This may be why the eyebrows of infants tend to be set relatively high above their eyes on their rounded foreheads. The eyebrow ridge is reshaped during puberty, which causes the eyebrows to be set lower and conveys dominance rather than interest and submissiveness. This reshaping is more pronounced in males than females. Consequently, highly set eyebrows may simultaneously convey interest, youthfulness, and femininity.

Grooming Qualities

Grooming qualities are characteristics that the individual has cultivated in an effort to enhance neonate, sexually mature, and expressive qualities, plus convey their social affiliations, knowledge, and status. Females employ cosmetics to make their skin look smoother, their eyes larger, their cheekbones higher, and their lips more vivid, all of which tends to increase their attractiveness. Similarly, fuller and sleeker hair conveys self-confidence and health simultaneously, particularly if the hair is cut in a currently fashionable style.

Similar to cosmetics, clothing can be used to send a variety of messages. Through the careful choice of apparel, individuals can make themselves look more youthful and innocent or more sexually mature and available. Different garments, jewelry, tattoos, and accessories can make a person look more happy, casual, and friendly, or more smart, wealthy, dominant, and aloof. Any of those looks can enhance physical attractiveness depending on the needs of the perceiver.

Grooming effects are not limited to perceptions of females. Males are rated as more physically attractive when they are well shaven and wearing a suit and tie, rather than a t-shirt, or the uniform of a fast-food restaurant. Like female clothing, male clothing not only symbolizes status and resources, but also membership in a specific social group. The clothing of a Wall Street financier, Texas oilman, and Hollywood actor all convey wealth, but also different lifestyles and geographies, which may differ in their attractiveness to different females.

Body weight is also a grooming quality. Ideal body weight is a cultural ideal, but such ideals are influenced by the local ecology. Heavier body weight is generally seen as more desirable in historical periods, areas of the world, or parts of a city where the supply of food is uncertain. Thinner bodies are seen as more desirable when there are ample food supplies. Of course, individuals and groups in the same time and place differ in their access to food and in their body weight preferences. For example, African Americans prefer larger female bodies compared with European-Americans.

Senescence Qualities

Senescence qualities are characteristics that convey aging and contribute to judgments of wise maturity. Just as puberty produces maturational changes that enhance sexual attractiveness, later stages of development bring with it age-related changes, some of which may enhance nonromantic forms of physical attractiveness.

In male pattern baldness, hair on the top of the scalp changes to the short, translucent form that is evident on the front of the forehead, whereas the hair around and behind the ears retains its thicker, darker form. Baldness increases the perception of age and reduces the perception of romantic attractiveness, but that loss brings with it some benefits. Baldness may serve as an appeasement gesture, which tends to reduce competitive aggressiveness by other males, which is replaced by tolerance or respect. Males with a bald scalp are seen as more social, mature, wise, and approachable than the same males with a full head of hair.

Males who are bald and appear to be middle age may be more physically attractive to females who are middle age than males who are 20 years old. Of course, that depends on whether the evaluation is made in terms of attractiveness for a one-night fling or a longer relationship. The converse is not the case; middle-age males tend to prefer females who are quite a few years younger than themselves for any type of relationship.

Other senescence qualities may also convey a form of physical attractiveness. Gray hair may make a person look distinctive, and lines in the face can convey character. Such qualities may not be as charming as neonate features or alluring as the full bloom of sexual maturity, but the dignity of graceful aging has its own physical attractiveness.

Familiar Qualities

Familiar qualities are aspects of appearance that are seen frequently. If an individual is repeatedly exposed to a stranger’s face, especially under pleasant circumstances, that face will begin to seem more physically attractive than if the same face is newly encountered. Similarly, individuals generally rate their friends, with whom they are familiar, as more physically attractive than the friends are rated by other people. In the same way, if an individual’s favorite uncle has a prominent nose, then the individual may see that feature as more attractive than do other people. Familiarity also may explain why people see members of their own race as more physically attractive than members of other races.

Social Influence

Social influence refers to the impact of the actions and opinions of other people on what is seen as physically attractive. If an individual observes a peer choose one member of the opposite sex for a date over another, the individual will rate the chosen person as more physically attractive than otherwise would be the case. Guppies and other species show a similar tendency to engage in such mate-choice copying, but there are limits to that tendency. Observers are influenced when the individual who is preferred by a peer is highly or moderately attractive, but not when the preferred individual is objectively unattractive. People’s judgments of attractiveness also are influenced by the comments made by peers about photographs of members of the opposite sex, although the rating shift is less than 10 percent. Females are influenced more than males in both contexts perhaps because a male’s social standing contributes to his attractiveness. Such results, combined with research suggesting similarity in the determinants of physical attractiveness across cultures, indicate that physical attractiveness is not simply an arbitrary social construction, but also varies a bit depending on the individual, society, and historical period and other social determinants.