Saturday, March 15, 2014

Standards of physical beauty over time (mailbag)

A reader asks:


"Dear Ed: 

Do you think that standards of physical beauty change over time, or remain constant? And how do these affect sexual attraction?"


(I think that this question results from this post, though I can't be certain.)

We need to begin with the disclaimer that there are outliers who prefer "unconventional" standards of physical attractiveness. Nevertheless, among those physical attributes that are "conventionally attractive", certain factors remain constant both across time (and across cultures, for that matter).

For example, there has never been an era in which the most sought after romantic partners were elderly, or grossly overweight. Much of what we find attractive is hardwired by evolution (a large topic that we won't get to in this post).

That having been said, there are some changes over time. I'm not going to conduct a focus group on this issue, but I will volunteer myself as an example. 

I'm a heterosexual male who was born in the late 1960s, came of age in the late 1980s, and is now in middle age. So I've been aware of women qua women since 1981 or 1982, more or less.

When I look at pictures of women from the era just preceding my conscious life--the 1960s, I find many of them to be attractive. Consider Nancy Sinatra, a once popular though now mostly forgotten singer from the 1960s. Sinatra was born in 1940, making her more than a full generation older than me. She could easily have been my mother.

(Note: Watch the 1988 movie Full Metal Jacket. The opening scene of the film features one of Sinatra's signature songs, "These Boots Are Made for Walking".)

Nevertheless, if I were to step into a time machine, emerge in 1960- or 1970-something and meet the young lady below, the tittering young things of Generation Y would be far, far from my mind. 


Nancy Sinatra, circa 1968


I feel this way about a lot of the starlets from the 1960s. But once I go back to the World War II era (roughly corresponding to my grandparents' time) my perception abruptly changes.

The photo below is of Betty Grable, the subject of so many posters during the war years. (There is a famous WWII photo of Grable (see below) in a swimsuit, with her back to the camera.) 

The photo immediately below was taken in 1951, at which time Grable was still in her early thirties. But there is something about the large pearl earrings, period hairstyle, and period garb that I associate with my grandmother (a member of the same generation). Therefore, this photo of a woman ten years my junior has insurmountable associations of grandmotherhood for me--which for most men, is not exactly an aphrodisiac.

I get more or less the same feelings when I look at old pictures of most of the starlets of the 1940s and 1950s. (Veronica Lake is a notable exception who proves the rule.)





I think, therefore, that while there are elements of conventional beauty that remain constant over time, there are also some that change.


What about physical conditioning? I was recently going through some of the photos that my grandfather took while at sea during the war years. The photo below is from 1943; and it shows a group of men who are all in their early twenties. (For those who are interested, my grandfather is the one seated, legs crossed, in the center.)






What you'll notice about all of these young men is that not a single one is fat--and nor do any of them have the rippling muscles that can only be acquired through dedicated weight training and (usually) a specific diet. 

Today we have tremendous variations in people's level of physical fitness: There is an obesity epidemic on one hand; and on the other hand, there is a much smaller group of people who use exercise and precision dieting to transform themselves into Greek gods. 

Physiques during the middle of the 20th century were far more standardized. Obesity (especially among people under 40) was very rare; hardbodies were even rarer. 

Those who fret over the "body image pressures" of the 21st century woman (again, see this post) are fond of noting that back in the 1940s and 1950s, "even the starlets had curves". And they have a point--so far as that goes. Below is that famous pin-up shot of Betty Grable. She was an attractive woman, to be sure--but she lacked the lean, sinewy physique that is now fairly common among twentysomethings. 




Modern diet and exercise technology, in short, has upped the ante--especially for women.

Male standards of physical attractiveness have changed over time, as well. It's fair to acknowledge that men in the past were far less subject to worries about their appearance. In bygone eras, almost all women placed a premium on financial security when selecting a mate. A man who was a "good catch" was a reliable man who was a "good provider". Everything else was icing on the cake--nice to have, but not mandatory for most men.

With the mass entry of women into the professional workplace, the economic aspects of male attractiveness have been diminished. This doesn't mean that women don't want a man who makes six figures; they certainly do. However, now that high income is just a base requirement in some social circles. As one psychology professor recently put it:


"As women gain more financial power in society, men are expected to bring more to the table…In addition to being financially successful, they need to be well-groomed, in good shape, emotionally skilled in relationships and the emphasis on looking good is just part of the bigger package -- the stakes have been raised."


To be sure, this shift has not been absolute: Tall, physically attractive men have always had an advantage in the mating market; and there are still women who marry for money. (As the data of dating websites reveal, women still consider the earning potential of a prospective spouse far more than a man does.) However, as the earning potential of women themselves has increased, many women can now be pickier about non-financial factors--including the physical attributes of a potential mate.

To answer the reader's question, then: The biologically hardwired aspects of sexual attraction are more or less what they have always been. The most sought after partners are youthful and well proportioned. 

But while the evaluation criteria have not changed (and likely never will), the standards by which those criteria are measured are far more stringent than they once were. The bar, in short, has been raised for everyone.