Alice G. Walton for Forbes Magazine:
In a clever new study, beautifully titled “Stepping Out of the Caveman’s Shadow,” the authors investigate the question of whether our mate preferences – what we find sexy in another – are guided solely by the hard-wiring of the brain, or whether there are some cultural differences at play. The argument has intrigued researchers for years, and there’s now some good evidence that what we find attractive in a mate may have a lot do with how gender is constructed in the particular nation in which we’re raised.
Here’s the essence of the dilemma. Given the fact that (evolutionarily, at least), women’s role is to bear children and men’s is to help provide for them, each gender should have a different set of variables that it finds sexy in a mate. As the authors put it, “women should prefer partners with an ability to invest direct resources in offspring (e.g., wealth), whereas men should prefer partners offering cues to reproductive capacity and fertility (e.g., young age).” In other words, men “should” favor factors like youth, fertility, perhaps chastity because they signal that a woman is ready to bear some kids. And women “should” find sexy the attributes that signal a man’s ability to provide for them, like a good job or an expensive watch. This, at least, is the boiled-down version of the argument.
On the other hand, there is some evidence that what people find attractive varies across cultures, although this part has been somewhat less clear. Therefore, the authors set out to determine whether cultural differences could predict what men and women find sexy – that is, does the size of the gender gap in a given country relate to what the sexes find sexy in the other?
To answer the question, the team used a scale called the GGI, which takes into account economic, political, educational, and health-related variables, to rank 10 nations in gender equity/inequity. The four countries highest in gender equity were the U.S., Finland, Philippines, and Germany; falling in the middle were Portugal, Poland, and Italy; and the countries with the greatest gender gaps were Mexico, Republic of Korea, and Turkey. They also looked at data from online surveys that asked participants what qualities they found attractive in a mate, and compared these to the gender equity data to see if there was a correlation.
As you might guess, in countries where the sexes were more “equal,” mate preferences were less based on conventionally “sexy” traits. So, for example, men in the U.S. or Finland were not as likely as men in Korea or Turkey to care about cooking skills or chastity. In the same vein, women in the less gender-gapped countries were less likely to value income or age as appealing characteristics in the opposite sex.
The results, according to the authors, point out “the intriguing possibility that gender differentiation may be bound to erode across a broad range of psychological attributes in societies where women and men are treated equally.”
And the relationship between gender gap and what’s viewed as sexy is not just cross-cultural – variation is also seen within a culture. So the concept of “sexy” can depend on the local values and even the values within one’s family, as previous evidence has found. And, in this nature-nurture debate, these factors make the “nurture” side even more weighty and complex.
To be sure, there are some factors that are innate: Men from any culture may be attracted to wide hips or an hour-glass figure, since these could indicate good childbearing potential. And women may be drawn to a strong jaw, which might signal a nice level of testosterone, for added virility or agility. But the bottom line seems to be that what we find sexy isn’t just hard-wired – it’s learned through our environments, from our cultures down to our families.
But the results are also important in a more immediate may: with plastic surgery, botox, and (goodness) vaginal rejuvenation becoming more and more popular in the more gender-equal nations, maybe these data will make women think twice before going under the knife or needle. Of course the authors also point out that even the most “egalitarian nations are far from true equality,” so a total “erosion of gender differentiation in mating preferences” is not going to happen any time soon. And how homosexuality would come into the discussion is another interesting question.
Still, the study points to the fact that our vision of sexiness is strongly a matter of where and when we live, and the product of the conventions and traditions of the country, the community, and even the families in which we find ourselves. So using your genes as an excuse for ogling some feature in a potential mate may not cut it – but using your culture or even your crazy family may be a better one.
What’s your opinion of where “sexiness” comes from? Do you find certain traits sexy, which others in your culture may not?