by Ben Moy
The man makes eye contact with a woman across the bar. He assesses her attractiveness in a matter of seconds and is ready to make his move. He offers to buy her a drink, and whispers to her what he thinks is a slick pick-up line. The woman rolls her eyes, and walks away. Several chemicals in the brain drive different behaviors between men and women. The bar is a biochemical war zone, where males and females read social cues differently. Some guys offer to buy drinks in hopes of getting lucky, whereas, women might be at the bar looking for Mr. Right. Men go to bars to hit on girls, and females might show more flesh or make exaggerated body movements. A number of studies claimed to have unraveled the mystery behind what goes on in the brain and have come up with an answer to this everlasting question: what is the science behind sex appeal?
The Discovery Channel features a set of clips explaining the Science of Sex Appeal – Human Behavior. Dr. Lisa Debrine from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has done research on the characteristics that make up a feminine and masculine face. She works the foremost face research lab in the world. Dr. Debrine breaks down the human face by its component parts, such as the eyes, nose, mouth, and the skin.
Choice of mates— it turns out—is more subconscious than a conscious decision. Biochemical odors, face shape, and voice pitch are all factors that correspond with attraction more than anyone ever thought. The set of clips from the Discovery Channel documentary explains the science behind what men and women find attractive. Many participants contributed to the various studies, rating other people on their attractiveness—based on voice pitch as well as face shape.
Many researchers have said that attraction is something genetically programmed in our brains, but Dr. Cara DiYanni, a psychology professor at Rider University seems to believe that there is more to it than biology. “We are biologically predisposed to find certain aspects of humans to be attractive, and others are most definitely learned,” she said. “For example, men find women with an hour-glass figure to be attractive. This is partially biological in origin because wider hips signify fertility and the ability to give birth. However, many cultures have exaggerated this biological preference and have developed an ideal, which involves women struggling to reduce their waist size in order to emphasize their hips and that hour-glass shape.
Dr. DiYanni also believes that men and women find different characteristics in the opposite sex to be attractive. “Biologically, men also tend to be drawn to women with longer hair, larger breasts and healthy weights because again, these are indicators of fertility,” she said. “In terms of societal contributions today, a man that can provide is often one that has money, and this becomes something that women are attracted to, although this was not always the case in our evolutionary history.”
Dr. Gordon Gallup, a professor at the State University of New York in Albany, says that women with higher estrogen levels have higher voices, which makes them more desirable to men. “When females are mid-cycle, when they are the most fertile and most likely to conceive, their voices are rated as being significantly more attractive,” he said.
Oprah Winfrey was so fascinated by this topic that she dedicated an entire show talking about sex appeal. Dr. Laura Berman came to the show and talked about The Laws of Attraction. Karl Grammer and Elizabeth Oberzaucher are two researchers leading the analysis on the human scent’s influence on sexual attraction. They’ve found that when women are ovulating, they produce copulins –a scent that attracts men. According to the researchers, when a man smells the scent of copulins, his testosterone levels rise. “Bars and nightclubs across the world are the battlefield for this invisible biochemical war,” Oprah said. This surprising finding suggests that physical attraction can also depend on the time and age.
Voice pitch is another factor that people unknowingly use to judge attractiveness. It is a factor that differs, however, for men and women. For example, men find higher pitched feminine voices to be more attractive than women with lower voices. On the other hand, women find a deeper more masculine voice to have greater sex appeal.
Another factor of sex appeal is determined by face shape. Many researchers have expressed the difficulty in distinguishing a beautiful face from an average one, but the researchers seem to be getting closer towards an answer. Dr. DeBrine has found that women’s faces get more attractive to men when they are ovulating. “We’re not entirely clear why there’s this difference, but we think that the women might look healthier, have a bit of a healthier glow when they are ovulating.”
There are distinct differences that separate male and female faces. Female faces have a slightly smaller jaw, whereas the male’s jaw is more squared. Another part of the face that is different between men and women are the brows. Female brows are thinner compared to thicker brows on the faces of men. These characteristics define what is considered masculine and what is considered feminine.
R.J. Barkelew, a student from Rider University believes that the studies are neglecting certain aspects of mating. “What I find more attractive in women—you know—the eyes, the body obviously, the hair and other things not of physical form: personality,” Barkelew said. “And how they act in certain situations: are they funny, are they caring, are they quirky in some way, shape or form? Do they match your persona in any way, and can you just see yourself being with a girl of your equal standards?”
Dr. Debrine is able to exaggerate certain features in photos by using new technology. For example, she can make a picture of a female’s face more feminine by creating a thinner jaw, and she can also make a face more masculine by creating a more squared jaw. A test was done where subjects were asked to look at altered faces. The findings showed that 81% of the men preferred the more feminine face, and a majority of women preferred the more masculine face. The determining factor that creates the differences between the male and female faces is sex hormones. This explains why the faces of boys and girls are very similar— in shape— before they reach puberty. The faces start to contrast when kids become adults, and it is caused by testosterone for men, and estrogen for females.
A very masculine face for a man suggests that he has high testosterone, and a woman’s face that is very feminine suggests that she has higher female hormones like estrogen. All of these are signs of a healthy reproductive system.
When looking at different body shapes, an astonishing part of the body that draws the most attention is the hips. According to some findings— when distinguishing whether or not a body is a woman’s or a man’s— the hip area is the most obvious section to tell if the person is male or female.
An article feature in Time Magazine titled, “Biology: Your Brain In Love,” discusses what goes on in the brain when someone is in love. According to the article, there are three related chemicals in the brain that causes feelings of euphoria. Dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin all play a role when it comes to a brain in love. Obsessive thinking about someone might be due to decreased brain activity of a type of serotonin, and an increase in romantic passion might be related to amplified levels of dopamine or norepinephrine in the brain.
Ever wonder why men get rejected a lot more than women do? The answer is because women are pickier. Dr. Debrine thinks this is because sex could be much more costly for women. Men can have sex and walk away, whereas, women could face nine months of pregnancy, and years of child care. Women want good genes and money. This does not mean that women are gold diggers, but it biologically makes sense for them to want healthy offspring and have a man to be able to provide for their kids.
Cars surprisingly are another factor in which women judge men by. Researchers in Austria have shown that women can actually change their perception of a man based on the car he drives. The researchers said, women preferred cars that showed dominance, and power. The difference between men and women is that men prioritize by physical attractiveness, but women prioritize by status. If a man has status, it could make a difference in sex appeal.
Jennyfer Castro, also a student at Rider University, believes that the car a man drives correlates with his character more than his status. “A car defines how a guy is—for instance—my boyfriend now drives a Subaru Station Wagon, and Station Wagons are mostly for older people, and he’s only 25,” Castro said. “He should be driving a mustang, or maybe a sports car. He’s very responsible, and station wagon means responsibility; parents probably drive station wagons.”
Castro also agrees that status is a factor for sex appeal. “If a guy has status that means he can take a girl out a lot, and that’s what girls like,” she said. “Girls like adventure, and they like to be taken out. Once in a while, girls like to receive some flowers. A guy with money can make it a little more fun. Girls who fall in love with a guy who doesn’t have money; the relationship—or marriage— never works out because then; both of them have different goals in their lives. So it all depends, unless both people are poor and still want to work things out, but for a majority, it really doesn’t work out.”
“It goes back again to evolution,” Dr. Debrine said. “When we were having babies who were very dependent on us, we couldn’t hunt and take care of ourselves, so we were looking for the man who had the most social status— who was the best hunter—who was going to bring home the biggest chunk of meat for our babies. It’s the same thing today.”
Symmetry is another aspect that people look at when they define beauty. The left side of a human face should be the same proportion to the right side of the face. However, genetic abnormalities, poor nutrition, and infections can change facial designs of people even before birth.
The last factor that determines sex appeal is skin. By simply looking at patches of skin, someone can usually tell how attractive a person is. Skin patches that are considered healthy and attractive were those that were blemish free, and the ones with a smooth healthy look to them.
Of course none of us are perfect, considering we are all human and different from one another. It is difficult to even think to possess all the characteristics of attractiveness and in those lucky enough to have good genes, perfection is still hard to come by. If everyone cannot be rated a 10 on the sex appeal scale then how does the mating pool work? It seems to be a mystery when we decide to pair up, and whom we decide to pair up with. Typically in a real-life mating pool, people rated high in sex appeal get more offers, while people rated lower in sex appeal get fewer offers. If everyone gave up who could not snatch a 10, then our species would have died out a long time ago. Fortunately, people still continue to look for a partner until they find someone with the same level of attractiveness. Without these social cues of attractiveness and fertility, it would be difficult for us to differentiate which genes are best fit to pass on to offspring. For this reason, sex appeal is universally programmed in our brains as an indicator of health, so that the human species can live on.