The Types of Beautiful Skin Colors in Different Cultures

Visual, tactile, and olfactory perceptions of skin play important roles in love attraction. They are among the favorite sensory features that are attractive to lovers. For example, studies have revealed that clear, smooth, and soft skin of a nice color, good-looking lips, long hair, a muscular build, and a great stature are valuable mating qualities (see for review, Karandashev et al., 2016). The types of beautiful skin, however, vary in different cultures.

Why Does Beautiful Skin Matter in Love?

Men and women appreciate the skin of their partners’ bodies, faces, lips, hands, and hair, which are clear and nicely looking, feel soft and smooth, and smell good. While they are kissing, men and women enjoy seeing how lovely the lips look and how smoothly they feel. They enjoy seeing and touching their partner’s good hair (Karandashev et al., 2016).

The researchers revealed that skin tone, hair length, and hair color influence perceptions of women’s physical attractiveness, health, and fertility (Swami et al. 2008).

The cultural value of beautiful skin is higher in a warm climate

Researchers believe that the importance of skin characteristics for the attractiveness of mates depends on the climate—hotter or colder. In a warm climate, people tend to wear light clothes that expose their skin more, compared to a cold climate where people need clothes to keep their bodies warm. A recent study showed that in countries with a warmer climate, such as Portugal and Georgia, women place a higher value on skin characteristics. In contrast to this, in the cold climate of Russia, skin characteristics had low importance for both men and women (Karandashev et al., 2016, 2020).

What Skin Color Is Considered Beautiful in Various Cultures

A global anthropological project in the 1980s studied 51 cultures. Its results showed that preferences for lighter rather than darker skin color were evident in 92% of societies. Surprisingly, across all twelve Black African societies of the sub-Saharan region, people demonstrated similar preferences. It was a preference for lighter skin color.

It is possible that such a perception of lighter skin as more physically attractive could be due to evolutionary origins because African people of that time might not have had much exposure to white people’s images. Surprisingly, the priming and mere exposure effects of black relatives and tribal neighbors did not have much influence on the preferences in those presumably homogeneous societies (Van den Berge & Frost, 1986).

These preferences for light skin color could be explained by the evolution of sexual reproduction. The light skin color could function as an evolutionary neonate cue of infancy and youth. This preference for light skin could also stem from social learning and the widespread White standards of beauty in social media.

A recent study of young people in 26 middle- and emerging-income countries across Africa, Asia, and the Americas (with more than 19 thousand participants) showed that light skin preferences were still prevalent across the world. As a result, people are increasingly turning to skin lighteners (Peltzer et al., 2016).

Cultural Preferences for Skin Tone in America

Results of another study, conducted in the multicultural society of the United States, were more supportive of priming, the mere exposure effect, and social learning. Researchers found that African American, Anglo-American, and Mexican American children of a younger age perceived the others in each ethnic group as similarly attractive. However, the older children from each cultural group perceived people from their own ethnic group as more attractive than people from other ethnic groups (Langlois & Stephan, 1977).

Several other studies investigated skin color preferences in ratings of attractiveness in the USA (e.g., Cunningham et al., 1995; Neal and Wilson, 1989; Udry et al., 1971; Van den Berge & Frost, 1986).

Cultural Preferences for Light Skin Tone

Across several studies, White, Black, Asian Americans preferred women with lighter skin colors. For example, White and Black Americans perceive women with lighter skin colors as more attractive than those with darker skin colors (Neal and Wilson, 1989; Udry et al.,1971).

However, these effects of skin color on perceptions of attractiveness were not very strong. Researchers suggested that this preference for lighter skin color in women could be partially due to its cultural association with a youthful appearance (Cunningham et al., 1995).

Social Media Promotes the Light Beautiful Skin

Recent studies have confirmed that many people still prefer light skin tones over dark skin tones (e.g., Baumann, 2008; Meyers, 2011).

Many people believe that lighter skin tones are more beautiful. This effect might be due to the fact that magazines and advertisements tend to represent Whites more often than Blacks on their pages. Thus, the role of colorism is still pervasive in society, where widespread messages imply that lighter skin tones are symbolic of attractiveness. However, preferences appear to have shifted recently from fair and medium white skin to olive skin tone. Brown and black skin colors are still less popular in their representations.

In the United States, such preferences stem from the country’s history since slavery times, when people’s skin tones created segregated cultures. A person’s lighter skin tone was often associated with being privileged and intelligently Caucasian (European American), in comparison to the darker skin associated with being aggressive and unintelligently African American. For women of both races, lighter skin tones were associated with the ideal of purity and innocence, while dark skin tones were associated with unclean and tainted images (Baumann, 2008).

Beautiful Skin Color Preferences in Intercultural Relationships

Skin color and other racial features play roles in physical attraction between men and women in the context of interracial relationships. Despite widely documented preferences for lighter skin, many people prefer mating partners of the same race. They prefer to select those who appear familiar and similar to them (see another article here).

A former student once asked me,

“Is it preference or prejudice if a white woman prefers a white man over a black man for a dating relationship?”

How do we tell the difference between preference and prejudice in such delicate aspects of interpersonal relationships?

Other Articles of Interest on the Topic

Attractive Body Types in Different Cultures

Face and body qualities are the most important physical features that people look for in a potential partner. In a previous article, I talked about the facial characteristics that men and women in different cultures find attractive in other people. In this post, I’ll talk about the body types of others that people perceive as attractive. Are attractive body types similar or different across cultures?

Men and women often have different expectations of their potential partners in this regard. The standards of body beauty have varied across times and societies—in history as well as between today’s cultures. The main differences in preferences for body type, body fat, and body waist-hip ratio are probably between cultural norms in subsistence-based, traditional, and modern societies (Karandashev et al., 2020; 2022b).

I propose that modernization theory (Inglehart, 1997; Inglehart & Baker, 2000; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005) can explain the cultural evolution of how attractive body types change across societies.

Attractive Body Types in Subsistence-based Societies

Different cultures have different ideas about how body weight and waist-to-hip ratio affect the attractiveness of various body types.

For instance, the standards of beauty in simple subsistence societies, in which gatherers and hunters could produce only for their survival, were in favor of a heavier body. In such societies with a high risk of food shortages, men often prefer women with more fat (e.g., Anderson et al., 1992; Brown and & Konnor, 1987; Sugiyama, 2004).

In particular, a cross-cultural study supported the hypothesis that the preferences for slightly heavier female bodies and larger buttocks might have come from subsistence-based societies, such as some African ones. South African Zulus differ from the United Kingdom’s Caucasians in what female body types they consider attractive. In the context of Zulu culture, the optimal conditions for survival and reproduction and the corresponding social values are different. In the UK, a high body mass is perceived as a sign of low health and low fertility, while in rural South Africa it is a sign of high health and high fertility (Tovée, Swami, Furnham, & Mangalparsad, 2006).

Endomorph Attractive Body Types

The studies in isolated populations of societies with subsistence-based economies showed that the men’s preferences for women with a low waist-to-hip ratio, which were identified in the studies of modern societies, could be culturally specific to so-called Western cultures.

Researchers found that men in those local cultures take both waist-to-hip ratio and body weight into account when judging the attractive body types of women. Considering the waist-to-hip ratio, they still prefer women with higher body fat. They rate female attractiveness by weight, preferring heavier figures (e.g., Sorokowski & Sorokowska, 2012; Sugiyama, 2004; Wetsman & Marlowe, 1999; Yu & Shepard, 1998).

Three other examples of subsistence-based societies came from the studies of

All these tribes belong to hunter-gatherer, forager, or horticultural cultures. In these cultural groups, men take into account both WHR and body weight in their appraisals of female sexual attractiveness. For example, men in the Shiwiar tribe prefer high-WHR figures of women since they appear to weigh more among the high-weight figures. When differences in body weight are minimal, they prefer female WHR that is lower-than-locally-average. Among the Yali people of Papua, there are preferences for low WHR in women (Sorokowski & Sorokowska, 2012).

Thus, the cultural norms adjust the evaluation of sexual attractiveness to the local conditions of living in those subsistence-based societies.

Variation of Attractive Body Types in Modern Societies

Cultural groups in modern multicultural societies may have different preferences for body types. For example, waist-hip ratio (WHR) and body fat are among the important qualities of a female figure’s attractiveness to men. Cultural researchers identified the preference for a low waist-hip ratio as a characteristic of female attractiveness in modern industrialized societies. Therefore, preferences for low WHR can be an artifact of Western media exposure (e.g., Singh, 1993, Swami & Furnham, 2007). 

There are racial and ethnic differences in the preferences for these qualities of the body among people in the United States. Data indicated that Whites and Blacks have similar standards for facial attractiveness but different standards for body appearance (Cunningham et al., 1995).

Whites and Blacks evaluated attractiveness in relatively similar ways. Yet, the Black men rated the Black women as more attractive compared to the White men. A preference for the same race was evident, probably due to imprinting and the mere exposure effect on shaping their prototypical beauties.

African American men (compared to American Caucasian men) prefer a heavier female physique with larger buttocks but not a taller figure as their ideal female body. This preference of African American men for a slightly heavier female body could be a lingering effect of uncertainty among Africans about resource availability—the evolutionary legacy of subsistence-based cultures. In addition, it may reflect a psychological negation of the unhealthy tendency of White women toward anorexic-like thinness.

On the other hand, about 40% of American Caucasian men (compared to 7% Black men) do not like overweight women. One fifth of White men—much more likely than African American men—disliked large buttocks. Both American Caucasian and African American men frequently mentioned the buttocks of women as a source of attraction, but Blacks tended to use the adjectives “large” or “big,” while Whites used the adjectives “small” and “firm.” Many African American men perceive large buttocks as the most attractive feature in a woman’s body appearance, while many American Caucasian men perceive legs as the most attractive part of the body.

Other Articles of Interest on This Topic are

What Are Attractive Faces Across Cultures?

Are attractive faces are similar or different across cultures? Many evolutionary biologists and psychologists believe that certain features of human faces are universally attractive for mating in all societies.

This universality might be due to human biological roots. This is a valid assumption because the appearances of men and women have a significant evolutionary role in the attraction of mates for greater reproductive success (see more elsewhere).

Similarities in Attractive Faces Across Societies

Studies have found many cross-cultural similarities in the perception of attractive facial characteristics. For example, average facial qualities and female “neotenous” facial features are rated as attractive by Americans, Russians, Brazilians, Paraguayan Indians, and Venezuelan Indians when they look at the facial photographs of people from the United States, Brazil, and Paraguayan Indians (Jones & Hill, 1993).

Another study revealed that across many cultural samples, such as African Americans and European Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Taiwanese, cultural conceptions of the beautiful face vary remarkably little. For example, many people in several cultural groups consider the faces of a woman with neonate large and widely spaced eyes with dilated pupils, high eyebrows, long hair, and a fuller hairstyle, a small nose, sexually mature high cheekbones, a small chin, an expressive, large smile, a narrow face with thin cheeks, and a full lower lip more attractive (Cunningham et al., 1995).

Other findings from four ethnic-cultural groups and 13 countries revealed that, despite their different racial appearance, Blacks, Asians, Whites, and Hispanics had somewhat similar beauty standards (Cunningham et al., 1995).

Westernization of Attractive Faces

Such similarities could be explained by the Westernization of facial beauty in the 20th century. Due to the mere exposure effect, the extensive presence of European and European American fashion periodicals, TV shows, and movies promoted such cultural dissemination. Prototypicality effects can also play a role.

Studies have also found that people from many other cultures, including Koreans, Black Nigerians, and Black Senegalese in Africa, African Americans, White Americans, British, and the culturally isolated Tsimane people from the Bolivian rainforest, substantially agree in their ratings of facial attractiveness (e.g., Coetzee, Greeff, Stephen, & Perrett, 2014; Martin, 1964; Silva, Lummaa, Muller, Raymond, & Alvergne, 2012; Zebrowitz, Bronstad, Montpare, 2011; Zebrowitz, Wang, Bronstad, Eisenberg, Undurraga, Reyes-García, & Godoy, 2012).

So, we can see that most people from different cultures agree on what is attractive. However, there are still some differences. They are mostly due to prototypicality effects from repeated exposure to attractive Western faces. 

Differences in Attractive Faces between Blacks and White People

Studies have also demonstrated that people’s preferences for attractive facial traits differ between countries. In particular, the data showed that Blacks and Whites have similar standards for facial attractiveness. However, they hold different standards for attractive body appearance (Cunningham et al., 1995).

As previously stated, both White and Black American men found many of the same female facial features appealing (see above), and it appears that racial facial characteristics such as lip size and nostril breadth had little impact on their assessment of attractiveness. In spite of these commonalities, Black men found Black women more appealing than White men. There was a clear predilection for the same race, which was most likely owing to imprinting and the simple exposure effect, which shaped their archetypal beauty.

How Asians and Hispanics Perceive Attractive Faces

Asians’ perceptions of attractive faces are also influenced by cultural factors. Asians view faces with strong cheekbones, broad chins, wide smiles, and expressive characteristics like high-set eyebrows as less appealing due to the prototypically round Asian face. They did, however, perceive women with lower cheekbones and wider cheeks more favorably (when compared to Whites).

However, familiarity and prototypicality are not the only factors that contribute to appeal. Asians and Hispanics alike frequently preferred the attractiveness of faces from other ethnic groups to those of their own. Across studies, Asians perceived female faces that appeared slightly less sexually mature and less expressive (relative to the facial ideal in America) as more attractive. (Cunningham et al., 1995).

The Mere Exposure Effect of Attractive Faces

In general, mere exposure effects have a big influence on facial attractiveness preferences. A recent study from 2014 found that the attractiveness of Black South African and White Scottish faces was perceived as similarly attractive by Black South Africans and White Scottish people. However, both Black South Africans and White Scots felt that Scottish faces were more appealing than African faces in terms of attractiveness (Coetzee, Greeff, Stephen, & Perrett, 2014).

The mere exposure effect could contribute to these differences because people in both cultural groups were well familiar with the facial types of White Europeans, while White Scottish were less familiar with the facial types of Black Africans.

The data also revealed that when judging the attractiveness of African female faces, Black South Africans rely heavily on color cues, whereas White Scottish rely heavily on shape cues (Coetzee, Greeff, Stephen, & Perrett, 2014).

So, there is evidence that the faces that people recognize as being close to their culturally prototypical ones are perceived as attractive to them. They also have preferences for faces resembling themselves. Because of these cultural predilections, people tend to concur in their opinion of what is attractive in the faces of people of their own race and ethnicity when they perceive the faces of people of different races and ethnicities.

It is important to note in this regards that what is beautiful is culturally good.

Among the Other Topics of Interest in this Regard Are:

Perceptive Qualities of an Attractive Appearance

People across cultures may perceive different qualities of physical appearance as attractive for mating.

Visual and auditory perceptions as well as tactile, kinesthetic, and olfactory senses may have different impacts on physical attraction.

Tactile and Kinesthetic Senses of Love

Many of us believe that we love and are loved the way we see each other. It is true that visual appearance is salient in our interpersonal perception. Auditory perceptions—the way we hear each other—also convey important signals of love. Visual and auditory interpersonal perceptions are the vital senses of love.

Besides visual and auditory perceptions, the pleasant, tangible sensations of the tactile-kinesthetic modality make us attracted to another person. Our touching of another person and our senses of muscles, joints, postures, and movements of our body constitute the tactile-kinesthetic senses of love. All of them have an impact on our attraction and love.

The tactile and kinesthetic senses are very important in love and sex. Body positions, sitting close, cuddling, and kissing are the ingredients of our physical attraction.

The Tactile and Kinesthetic Senses of Love

Our skin, hands, and body are the major organs for such perceptions of another person in our relationships. This modality is felt in what our hands and bodies feel when touching the beloved. A physical touch, a hug, a shoulder squeeze, a handshake, or even a pat on the back are all important expressions of affection to the partner.

Cuddling, like other forms of physical touch, causes the hormone oxytocin to be released, which strengthens our bonds. This way, we perceive their ways of walking, bodily actions, hugging, and kissing.

All people are capable of understanding the tactile language of love. The studies found that people in the United States and Spain can reliably recognize the emotions of sympathy, love, and gratitude by touch, even by merely watching others communicate via touch. This language of love can be similar across cultures, so it may work for love without borders.

Some people, however, especially prefer the physical touch as the language of love, even more than verbal expressions of love (Chapman, 1995).

This perception is also kinesthetic, involving the sensation of moving, physical interaction, body coordination, and the coordination of other activities.

Tactile and Kinesthetic Senses of Love in Sexual Attraction

The role of tactile senses, kinetics, and olfaction is especially evident in sexual attraction.

Studies have found that tactile sensory experiences are particularly important for women’s sexual attraction and sexual arousal (Herz & Cahill 1997; Ellis & Symons 1990; Symons 1979).

For males, on the other hand, both visual and tactile sensations are equally important (Herz & Cahill 1997).

A sexual intercourse involves various tactile and kinesthetic expressions and sensual feelings of romantic attraction, such as holding hands, hugging, touching, kissing, and all kinematics (Marston et al. 1998).

Young men and women use massages, backrubs, caressing, cuddling, stroking, holding hands, hugging, and kissing on the face and lips as their expressions of physical affection (Gulledge et al. 2003).

Many couples use “makeup sex” to reconnect physically with their partners, sending an implicit message that the argument is over and they are ready to move on. 

The Tactile and Kinesthetic Ways to Show Love

There are multiple ways to express love without words. Holding hands seems like a classical picture of loving partners. Across many societies, a couple walking hand-in-hand down the street culturally means they love each other. Cultures, however, differ as to whether they allow display in public or only in private. Holding hands is a kind gesture that expresses physical love for your partner and physical attraction.

Compassionate and supportive love can be expressed by rubbing your partner’s back when he or she is dealing with an upsetting or challenging situation. Touching them is a normal act of empathy and understanding. You, as a loving partner, signal to them that you are there for them. The rubbing of their hand, arm, or another part of the body works the same way. Yet, it is important to make sure they feel comfortable with it.

Touching skin-to-skin often expresses affectionate and sexual love. Intimate love is often expressed by dragging fingertips across the partner’s hands, neck, or back, touching the partner’s hair, or even touching the partner’s bare legs. These are non-verbal gestures to show them you feel physically attracted to them and are in love with them.

Sitting Close to and Cuddling with your Partner

Being in close proximity to your partner and touching your partner’s body are physical expressions of love. Sitting with your hips or feet touching each other is a non-verbal approach to bonding with your partner. We may recall that when we argue or disagree with our partner, we frequently move physically away from each other. So, moving closer and touching your partner is a good way to break the tension after an argument and the best way to reconnect. Sitting side-by-side is a simple way to signal that you love them.

Cuddling is the act of physically wrapping yourself around your partner. These kinesthetic and tactile feelings bring you physically and emotionally closer to each other.

The Kissing Senses of Love

Kissing is among the ultimate expressions of sexual love. Kissing is a typical way to show physical love to your partner. This can be kissing their hand, their cheek, their forehead, their lips, or their neck. A kiss, however, does not imply sexual love.

Kissing is used in various types of relationships. Parents kiss their child, and a child kisses their parents. In many cultures, kissing is an action of greeting and respect.

Kinetic Idioms of Love

Partners often use kinesics as nonverbal idioms in their intimate talks. These can be body movements, postures, gestures, eye movements, eye contact, and other facial expressions (Hopper et al., 1981). For example, by twitching the nose (meaning “You’re special”) or pulling on the right earlobe (meaning “I love you”), they show their love for the partner.

Other Topics of Interest on the Topic for You

We Love the Way We See and Hear Each Other

Many people, both men and women, think that their appearance is the most important factor in finding love. For those who want to be attractive in love, the value of physical beauty seems universal. It is really true.

Physically attractive and good-looking people across many cultures are more likely to be asked out on dates and to behave confidently in romantic situations (Hatfield & Rapson, 2000; Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986; Poulsen et al., 2013; Walster, Aronson, Abrams, & Rottman, 1966, see for review, Karandashev, Evans, et al., 2020).

However, various sensory appealing physical characteristics of a partner can inspire romantic physical attraction and passionate love. Auditory sensory impressions—how they sound—are equally as significant as how they appear visually.

Multisensory Interpersonal Attraction

Interpersonal physical attraction is the attraction of a man or a woman to another person that is based on the other person’s physical traits and appearance, whether it is someone’s body, face, eyes, hair, attire, voice, odor, etc. Our perception of another person is multisensory and engages visual, auditory, tactile-kinesthetic, and olfactory modalities during romantic interaction (Karandashev & Fata, 2014; Karandashev et al., 2016; 2020).

Visual Perception of an Attractive Partner

The visual sensory modality of attraction is based on a partner’s visually appealing physical traits. This includes, but is not limited to, his or her body type, form, and facial features, such as the nose, mouth, forehead, eyes, and the shape of his or her lips. Given the significance of vision for humans, the primary sensory qualities of a partner that influence our falling in love are visual.

Various aspects of the body and face that people find attractive in a partner come through the visual senses. Humans are primarily “optical animals.” Therefore, in interpersonal relationships, people rely heavily on their visual perception of another person (Grammer, Fink, & Neave, 2005).

The Universal Qualities of the Visual Beauty of an Attractive Partner

People in many cultures find low hip-to-waist ratios, facial symmetry, long hair, muscular builds, and clear skin attractive in a romantic partner (e.g., Gangestad & Thornhill, 1997; Patzer, 1985; see for review, Karandashev at al., 2016).

Men are especially visual in their romantic and sexual attraction (e.g., Buss, 1989, 1994; Ellis & Symons, 1990; Feingold, 1990, 1992; Greenlees & McGrew, 1994; Landolt, Lalumiere, & Quinsey, 1995; see for review, Karandashev et al., 2016). They place a high value on body weight, specific body types and shapes, physical fitness, and the length of a female partner’s hair (Nevid, 1984; Hönekopp et al., 2007).

Auditory Perception of an Attractive Partner

Despite the prevalence of visual perception, people learn a great deal about one another through verbal communication. In many interpersonal situations, verbal and nonverbal channels are inextricably linked. The content of communication as well as the auditory perception of a partner’s voice and other sounds are important factors in romantic attraction.

The auditory-sensory mode of attraction is defined as the attraction to a partner that is primarily based on the sense of sound. The tone of the partner’s voice, the pitch with which they speak, the sound of their laugh, and the voice with which they sing are all distinguishing characteristics.

What in the Voice of a Partner Makes It Attractive?

Many effects of an attractive voice determine mating value and romantic attraction. Men and women with attractive voices tend to have their first sexual intercourse at an earlier age. They also have a greater number of sexual partners and affairs. Men with attractive, lower-pitched voices have greater reproductive success (Apicella et al., 2007; Hughes et al., 2004).

What qualities in human voices make them attractive? Studies have found that women perceive male voices as attractive when their vocalizations display general masculinity and maturity. Attractive men’s voices are less monotonous, medium to lower in average fundamental frequency, and medium to higher in variance of the fundamental frequency (Feinberg et al., 2006; Riding et al., 2006; Zuckerman & Miyake, 1993; Zuckerman et al., 1995).

What in the Voice Makes It Sexy?

Women often prefer male voices that are dynamic, feminine, submissive, and esthetically pleasing. The sounds that give such an impression have increased or medium variance in the fundamental frequency and have high or medium pitch variation (Addington, 1968; Raines et al., 1990; Ray et al., 1991).

Men and women use a lower-pitched voice and a noticeable variation in pitch when they speak to an attractive person of the opposite sex. When they simulate a “sexy” voice, their voices become low (Hughes, Farley, & Rhodes, 2010; Tuomi & Fischer, 1979).

Cultural Differences in What People Perceive as Attractive in Partners

People in traditional and modernized countries differ in what they look for in the appearance of prospective mates (Karandashev et al., 2020).

People in traditional societies (e.g., Russia, Georgia, Jamaica) with relatively conservative values, when they look at the physical qualities of a mate, pay attention to such visual qualities as beautiful facial features and body shape, good skin texture, and nice clothes. Men and women in traditional societies love their partners’ abilities to do beautiful singing and dancing.

On the other hand, people in modernized societies (e.g., the USA, France, and Portugal) with relatively liberal values pay less attention to the shapes and static features of their partner’s face and body. They are rather interested in expressive qualities, such as expressive faces, beautiful smiles, meaningful gestures, and other expressive appearances and behaviors. In modern societies, men and women pay more attention to a partner’s expressive eyes and voice as ways to learn about that person’s personality (see also another article for detail).

Other Articles of Interest Associated with the Topic

Women and Men Who Are Physically Attractive in Different Cultures

People tend to love physically attractive women and men in interpersonal relationships. They are more likely to fall in love with those who are beautiful and have a physically attractive appearance. Interpersonal perception in a relationship is multisensory in its physical nature: not only visual but also auditory, tactile-kinesthetic, and olfactory.

Multisensory Perception in a Romantic Relationship

A lover admires a loved one’s physical traits as seen through multiple sensory impressions, including visual, auditory, tactile-kinesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory. Multisensory processes occur in the partner’s interaction and their interpersonal perception. These various sensory impressions are intricately intertwined (see for review, Karandashev et al., 2016, 2020).

Men and women not only look at their partners but also speak, listen, and smile. They stay in close proximity, dance with them, touch them, hug them, and are hugged, cuddling and kissing each other. Such dynamic, expressive behavior often affects attraction more than static facial appearance and body shape.

People’s attention to different modalities of physical appearance and expressive behavior in potential partners varies across cultures. Aside from visual preferences in judging another person, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, and olfactory sensory modalities, as well as expressive behavior, all contribute to mating attraction. These preferences in a partner differ across cultures, particularly between traditional and modern societies (Karandashev et al., 2016; 2020).

Recent Cross-cultural Studies of Sensory Preferences in Different Countries

Studies in societies with varying social, economic, and cultural parameters (2740 participants from 10 cultural regions in six countries) revealed that general differences in sensory preferences in romantic attraction exist between societies of different degrees of modernization (Karandashev et al., 2016; 2020).

The main conclusions of those studies are:

“Biologically determined sensory parameters are more important in less modernized countries—with priorities of survival values, whereas socially determined sensory parameters are more important in more modernized countries—with priorities of self-expression values. This general tendency, however, is not always straight.”

(Karandashev et al., 2020)

How Do Traditional and Modernized Societies Differ?

Inglehart and his colleagues have proposed a modernization theory of society. The theory characterizes societies as having different degrees of modernization based on economic, social, and cultural characteristics (Inglehart, 1997; Inglehart & Baker, 2000; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005).

The theory of modernization presents an important framework to explain the cultural evolution across societies in historical perspective. Conventionally, we can distinguish traditional and modern cultures along the spectrum of modernization. Traditional societies’ cultural norms place a high priority on survival values, whereas modern societies’ cultural norms place a high value on self-expression values (see more, Karandashev, 2023 in press).

Cultural Values and Social Norms of Traditional Societies

In traditional (less modernized) societies, cultural values and social norms respect group cohesion, societal structure, and customary norms. They encourage collectivistic values. These societies are conservative. They discourage emancipation and individualistic self-expression.

Traditional (less modernized) societies are those in which the cultural values of Survival, greater Power distance, lower Individualism, lower Indulgence, and lower Emancipative values prevail.

Cultural Values and Social Norms of Modern Societies

In modern (more modernized) societies, cultural values and social norms are less conservative. They

  • are flexible and fluid, providing relative freedom to follow societal norms;
  • encourage individualistic values;
  • respect emancipation and individualism;
  • are open to diversity in self-expression.

Modern (or more modernized) societies are those in which the cultural values of Self-expression, lower Power Distance, high value of Individualism, Indulgence, and Emancipation prevail.

What Physical Characteristics Are Attractive in Traditional Cultures?

In less modernized countries, the sensory preferences in romantic attraction between partners are focused on the physical qualities of a mate: body shape, facial features, skin texture, and the quality of smell, which are stable biologically and vital for evolution. These sensory qualities have a higher value, indicating that mates are in good health.

For example, in Portugal and Russia, where the indices of Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance are high, people place a higher value on such traits of their romantic partners as body, skin, and smell, compared to the participants in countries where these indices are low, such as the US.

Participants from Jamaica and Russia, whose cultures are characterized by a low value of Egalitarianism and a high cultural value of Hierarchy, pay less attention to the eyes and voices of their mates (Karandashev et al., 2020).

What Physical Characteristics Are Attractive in Modern Cultures?

People in modern individualistic and egalitarian societies, on the other hand, care less about how physically attractive their partners are. For instance, they know how to mask or modify odors by taking showers and applying perfumes. They often know how to manipulate physical characteristics and appearances through deliberate deception.

In more modernized countries, the sensory preferences in the love attraction of partners are focused on such expressive behaviors as facial expressions, expressive behavior, dress, dance, etc. Body movement, dress, hair style, cosmetics, facial expression, and gestures are the qualities that are more adaptable and changeable due to cultural norms (Karandashev et al., 2020).

Participants in modern societies with the lower cultural value of Hierarchy and the higher cultural value of Egalitarianism—such as France and Portugal—pay more attention to the eyes and voice of a partner as the expressive vehicles of their partner’s personality.

In modern societies with a higher value of Egalitarianism and a lower cultural value of Hierarchy, such as France and Portugal, participants pay more attention to a partner’s eyes and voice since they serve as signals expressing their partner’s personality (Karandashev et al., 2020).

Men’s and Women’s Sensory Preferences Across Cultures

Many men’s and women’s preferences for physical characteristics in a partner are very similar, with only minor differences. Among those, such sensory qualities as perception of body shape, senses of smell and lips, facial expressiveness, smiling, and expressive speaking.

Men also rated the importance of their partner’s sensory impressions higher than women. Generally, when gender differences were statistically significant, men valued the importance of their romantic partner’s sensory qualities higher than women did (Karandashev et al., 2020).

This conclusion converges with the earlier findings, which showed that men have higher expectations of the qualities of female physical appeal than women do (see for review, Regan et al., 2000).

Here are other articles of interest on the topic:

What Is Beautiful Is Culturally Good

Many people are familiar with the stereotypical expression “what is beautiful is good” (see, for review, Karandashev, 2022a; also another article on this below). However, this stereotype in many cultures is less powerful and more context-specific than researchers previously thought (see for review, Lemay, et al., 2010; Swami & Furnham, 2008).

Cultural Stereotypes of What an Attractive Appearance Is

These beauty stereotypes differ across cultures in terms of their specific content and the value that people place on it. Attractive appearance can signal not only fertility but also kindness, emotional stability, pleasing disposition, intelligence, and dependable character (Fugère, Madden, & Cousins, 2019; Yela & Sangrador, 2001).

Cultures Differ in the Importance of Attractive Appearance for Mating

Cultures differ in how men and women look at the importance of standards of beauty and physical attractiveness for mating relationships. These stereotypes of interpersonal perception based on physical attractiveness depend on cultural values. “What is beautiful is culturally good“(Anderson, 2019; Anderson, Adams, & Plaut, 2008; Wheeler & Kim, 1997).

The Importance of Beauty Differs in Independent and Interdependent Societies

Beauty and attractive appearance are more important in independent cultures, such as mainstream American society, which places a high value on autonomy and places a premium on personal choice when it comes to dating. In contrast, in interdependent societies, people consider beauty and attractive appearances less important. The cultures of Korea in Southeast Asia and Ghana in Africa have different expectations in this regard.

These cultures place a high value on embeddedness and emphasize ties with social networks. Physical attractiveness is related to diminished value in everyday life due to limited societal affordances (Anderson, Adams, & Plaut, 2008; Wheeler & Kim, 1997).

How Gender Equality Affects the Importance of Beauty and Attractive Appearances

The gender differences in men’s and women’s mating preferences for beauty and attractive appearance in a prospective partner vary depending on the value of gender equality in a society. For example, in the Netherlands, where the value of gender equality is high, the gender differences are smaller. However, in Germany, where cultural norms of gender roles are more conventional and gender equality is lower, these differences are larger.

The cultures of many other societies follow more traditional norms of gender roles and have even less gender equality. Consequently, men and women differ even more in their preferences for beauty in a prospective partner (Buss et al., 1990; De Raad & Doddema-Winsemius, 1992).

What Are the Features of Physical Appearance that Societies Consider Beautiful?

There are also cultural differences in which physical traits people consider appealing in a person for their love relationship. They depend on local conditions of living, relationship mobility, and cultural norms.

Men prefer women with more fat in subsistence-based societies, in which gatherers and hunters produce only for their own survival and therefore can deal with the danger of food shortages (e.g., Anderson et al., 1992; Brown and & Konnor, 1987; Sugiyama, 2004).

Such mating preferences people have in the foraging, hunting, or horticultural communities of

  • the Zulu people in South African (Tovée, Swami, Furnham, & Mangalparsad, 2006),
  • the Hadza, a native group of people in north-central Tanzania of East Africa (Wetsman & Marlowe, 1999),
  • the Yali of Papua – an aboriginal tribal group in the rocky terrain in Papua, Indonesia (Sorokowski & Sorokowska, 2012), and
  • Shiwiar (Achuar), an ethnic tribe of Ecuadorian Amazonia in South America (Sugiyama, 2004).

When people’s ecological and social circumstances change due to exposure to a new social environment, they can adjust their attitudes toward what is beautiful and what is now. The Zulu people of South Africa, who immigrated to the UK, have shown remarkable adaptability (Tovée, Swami, Furnham, & Mangalparsad, 2006).

Other articles of interest on the topic are

Physical Beauty of Men and Women Across Cultures

Physical beauty characterizes attractive facial features, facial expressions, physical qualities of the body, bodily expressions, and grooming. These are the major groups of appearances that people pay attention to while they are communicating with others. Physical beauty is not only aesthetically pleasing. It can also be a signal of other qualities in a mating partner.

Universal Standards of Physical Beauty

The physical beauty of a person’s appearance is an objective reality that artists and scholars have explored for centuries. Among those qualities are symmetry, proportion, balance, and others. Artistic and literary works have depicted many cultural traditions of beauty across times and cultures (e.g., Ahmad, 1994; Feldman & Gordon, eds, 2006; Ishigami & Buckland, 2013; Prettejohn, 2005).

The physical beauty of some qualities of appearance is universal. People of different races, nationalities, ethnicities, and ages consistently perceive some faces as more attractive than others. Cross-cultural studies have revealed that people recognize such attributes as symmetry, facial averageness, sexual dimorphism, and skin homogeneity as universally attractive (see for review, Fink & Neave, 2005; Vashi, 2015).

Do People Perceive Physical Beauty Similarly Across Cultures?

Researchers found substantial cross-cultural consistencies in the perception of facial attractiveness in many studies. Multiple studies found that the cultural ideas of an attractive face vary relatively little across such cultural samples as African Americans and European Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Taiwanese (Cunningham et al., 1995).

It seems like the ideal of a pretty woman’s face is quite similar across cultures. For example, people perceive the faces of women as attractive when they have

“high eyebrows, widely spaced large eyes with dilated pupils, high cheekbones, small nose, a narrow face with thin cheeks, large smile, full lower lip, small chin, and fuller hairstyle.”

(Cunningham et al., 1995, p. 275).

People across many societies mostly agree on who is attractive and who is not. For instance, neonate qualities, raised eyebrows, and a big smile are attractive across many cultures.

Many societies place especially high expectations on female physical beauty. According to evolutionary studies, attractive appearance indicates health, youth, and thus female fertility. Among those qualities of appearance are such cues to health as symmetrical features, a low ratio of hips to waist, clear and smooth skin, the absence of sores, full lips, white teeth, and lustrous hair (e.g., Langlois et al. 2000; Sugiyama, 2005).

Is Physical Beauty the Same All over the World?

Similarities in the qualities of face and body attractiveness across cultures seem surprising because different racial and ethnic typologies of facial and body features are quite distinct. Despite their obvious physical differences, Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, and Whites have similar physical beauty standards. It is difficult to believe, isn’t it? These questions still await deeper and more detailed exploration.

However, other attributes and standards of physical attractiveness vary across cultures and across time. For example, the appearance of sexual maturity and expressive qualities varies to some degree, while hairstyle, weight, and grooming vary highly across cultures, depending on local ecology and fashion (Cunningham et al., 1995; Fallon, 1990; Langlois et al. 2000).

How Does Physical Beauty Look Across Cultures?

The stereotypes of attractiveness differ across societies and times (see for review, e.g., DeMello, M. (2007, 2013).

The prototypes of attractive appearances evolve depending on ecological, social, and cultural contexts. Therefore, men and women look good in a particular society if they fit the relevant cultural prototypes of what types of body, posture, and adornment are beautiful (Osborn, 1996).

What is beautiful is culturally good

Thus, cultural stereotypes of beauty really do make differences. As noted elsewhere, “what is beautiful is culturally good” (Wheeler & Kim, 1997). For example, the ideals of certain patterns of body size vary.

It is worth noting that ideal body sizes differ less between Western and non-Western societies than between socioeconomic groups (Swami, 2015).

The Cultural Ideal of a Thin Body

In recent decades, modernization—often equated with westernization—has affected the cultural evolution of the ideal body size. Cultural shifts in the minds of urban populations of middle and upper socioeconomic status have resulted in the prevalence of the thin ideal (Swami, 2015). Modernization and westernization promote a thin ideal in many countries.

The Cultural Ideal of Skin Beauty

The cultural stereotypes of skin beauty also vary in different parts of the world. For example, in America, many people see tanned skin as beautiful. The images of bronzed celebrities are common.

Different from this cultural stereotype, people in many parts of East Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, perceive white skin and a milky, smooth complexion as beautiful and associate these qualities with youthfulness. A milky and smooth complexion is perceived as attractive.

In India, fair skin and a lighter complexion are considered significant signs of beauty. The association between fair skin and beauty is definite in that culture.

The Cultural Ideal of Facial Beauty

Despite the cross-cultural similarity in the qualities of facial beauty, which I noted above, in some societies, men may perceive women with a large chin, a large nose, and small eyes as attractive, while in others, they may be considered unattractive. For example, people on Mangaia, the island in the South Pacific Ocean, think that attractive Mangaian girls have:

“a smiling face, shiny black hair, small eyes ‘like those of a pigeon,’ with small breasts, large hips and round cheeks; her lips should be neither too everted nor too thin, and she should have skin that is neither black nor white”

(Marshall, 1971, p. 124)

Who Is Attractive and Who Is Not? It Depends…

Beautiful women are physically attractive and have desirable bodies and faces. Do men always want them for mating and dating? Do they always love them? Yes, objectively, they may rate them attractive but select another one that is more beloved to them.

“Genetic factors cause sugar to be highly palatable but that does not prevent individuals from controlling their sugar intake.”

(Cunningham et al., 2002, p. 276).

“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”

We certainly like beautiful people, but we don’t necessarily love them. We love someone, not because he or she is beautiful. We rather see him or her as beautiful because we love him or her. In many cases, it is true that “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”

How we perceive people—attractive or not—depends on our moods (see for review, Cunningham et al., 1995).

Being in an optimistic, neutral, or pessimistic mood, we can see others in positive or negative ways. A passionate lover sees the world brighter, while he or she perceives the loved one more romantically and idealistically than they actually are. The lover looks at the beloved and the relationship through “rosy filters.” The perception of shortcomings and flaws fades.

When we are in love, we are selective; we do not perceive other individuals of opposite sexes as beautiful as our beloved. We do not see other possible mates as attractive because we unintentionally downplay their beauty. They are good-looking but not beautiful.

According to studies, a lover who is in a romantic relationship evaluates highly attractive people of the opposite sex as less attractive. Such a lower rating works as a defensive mechanism that helps the lover guard his or her love for the current partner from other possible rivals (Simpson, Gangestad, & Lerma, 1990).

You can also be interested in the articles:

Genetic secrets of love attraction

Genetic diversity and love attraction

Why do we love good-looking people?

To males and females, how important is a mate’s physical attractiveness?

Sexual Preferences for Physical Attractiveness

To what extent do men and women place different values on different aspects of physical attractiveness when trying to mate?

Evolutionary science gives us important keys for better understanding the mating value of physical attractiveness. However, despite the general universality of evolution, its specific evolutionary principles and mechanisms vary across species and cultures. Many of them refer to sex differences.

Let us consider sexual differences in the value of physical attractiveness in mating.

Why Do Male and Female Animals and Birds Look Different?

Physical appearance helps sexually dimorphic animals and humans select a mate. Many species, including mammals and birds, have their own mate preferences and focus their courtship energy on those favorites (see e.g., Andersson 1994; Fisher, 1998).

When it comes to mating and sexual relations, they are not promiscuous. They are picky and won’t mate with just anyone. They communicate their love and attraction.

“They stroke, kiss, nip, nuzzle, pat, tap, lick, tug, or playfully chase this chosen one. Some sing. Some whinny. Some squeak, croak, or bark. Some dance. Some strut. Some preen. Some chase. Most play”

(Fisher, 2004, p.27).

Males and females differ in appearance and behavior. As I noted elsewhere, in some species, like birds, evolutionary mechanisms tend to beautify males, making their appearance attractive for female mates. They need to be distinctive and attract a potential female for mating. On the other hand, the appearance of females is less appealing among those species. It seems they are on demand anyway (Prum, 2017).

How Women and Men Appreciate their Partners’ Physical Attractiveness: Evolutionary Explanation

People are different in this respect. According to presumed human evolutionary mechanisms, women are more frequently concerned about their appearance and beauty compared to men, who care about this much less (see for review, e.g. Buss, 1994; Feingold, 1990).

These sex differences might be due to human evolutionary roots, which determine the different mating strategies of males and females. Here is an evolutionary interpretation of sex differences in mating. Since women and men have different contributions to the reproduction of offspring, they have different mating strategies and different parental investments (Buss 1989, Trivers, 1972).

Cross-cultural consistencies of these sex differences support such an evolutionary interpretation. Men place a higher value on their female partner’s physical attractiveness in mating relationships. Studies have shown such evidence across many cultural samples worldwide (e.g., Buss, 1989, 1994; Buss et al., 1990; Buss, Shackelford, Kirkpatrick, & Larsen, 2001; Feingold, 1992; Fletcher, Tither, O’Loughlin, Friesen, & Overall, 2004; Langlois et al. 2000; Shackelford, Schmitt, & Buss, 2005; Sugiyama, 2005; Townsend & Wasserman, 1998, see for review, Karandashev, 2022a,).

Here are some cultural examples. In Arab Jordanian society, men prefer young and attractive prospective female mates for long-term relationships. On the other hand, Jordanian women place less value on these characteristics in men when mating (Khallad, 2005).

Another study of Muslims living in the United States found that in their personal advertisements on a matrimonial Web site, women more often described their physical attractiveness compared to men’s self-descriptions. However, these gender differences in preferences for a physically attractive mate are not significant. Nonetheless, men are more interested in their younger and more attractive mates than women are (Badahdah & Tiemann, 2005). 

How Men and Women Value their Partners’ Physical Attractiveness: Cultural Explanation

Cultural interpretation of sex differences in the value they place on physical appearance in mating and dating is also possible. These differences might be due to cultural gender stereotypes. Patriarchal cultures, which have been prevalent in many societies for centuries, encouraged men to rely on their wealth as a mating value. So their appearance was of less mating value. On the other hand, women’s cultural roles left them dependent on men for their survival and wealth. Therefore, they could rely largely on their appearance and ability to reproduce.

History, however, has demonstrated much more diversity in gender roles, which did not necessarily follow these cultural patterns. In some societies and social circles, women might play different roles. For example, in many agrarian societies, women’s abilities to cook and work hard were more important than their beauty (Karandashev, 2017).

The current reality of social life across cultures, however, presents a diversity of gender differences and similarities that may go beyond the simple evolutionary explanation. Many modern men love to beautify themselves, while many modern women do not care about this.

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Why Do We Love Good-Looking People?

The good-looking people are likable. No doubt. They entice us with their physically attractive appearance. We also tend to fall in love with beautiful women and handsome men. They look cool and perfect in everything.

A Stereotype of Beauty

Our initial perception of others and interaction with them substantially rely on their appearance (e.g., Berscheid & Walster, 1974; Li et al., 2013). We hold a pervasive and influential stereotype: “What is beautiful is good” (Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972; Hatfield & Rapson, 2000; Lemay et al., 2010; Lorenzo et al., 2010).

However, studies have shown that this stereotype is less powerful and less general than we are used to thinking (Eagly, Makhijani, et al., 1991). It is also culturally specific (for a review, see Swami & Furnham, 2008). The stereotype is present in many cultures, yet its content varies according to their cultural values (e.g., in individualistic and collectivistic cultures). What is beautiful is culturally good (Wheeler & Kim, 1997).

Mating and Dating Value of Beauty

Physical attractiveness has great mating value. Studies have shown that it significantly predicts dating and romantic relationships (Poulsen, et al., 2013; Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, & Rottman, 1966). Good-looking people are more confident in romantic situations (Hatfield & Rapson, 2000).

A study with a large national sample in Spain (Sangrador & Yela, 2000) showed that the beauty of a potential partner strongly motivates a person to engage in sporadic as well as long-term relationships. Partners with attractive physical appearances prompt not only our sexual attraction but also passion, intimacy, commitment, and idealization. Thus, falling in love occurs due to the idealization of the loved one, which involves many positive and negative emotions and favorable subjective associations.

Is Physical Appearance Important for the Young or for the Old People?

Another study of two samples in the Netherlands and Germany (De Raad & Doddema-Winsemius, 1992) found that young and single people especially value the physical attractiveness and good looks of a prospective partner. Older people are more motivated by a desire for home and children, chastity, and ambition.

Is Physical Appearance Important For Women or For Men?

Many studies have found that men consider the physical attractiveness of their mates to be of greater value than women do (see, for review, e.g., Buss, 1994; Feingold, 1990). It sounds like common sense. Women know this very well and tend to beautify themselves. The women strive to make a good impression on men as well as on other women.

While among humans, women tend to care more about their beautiful appearance compared to men, these sex differences are just opposite in some other species (Prum, 2017). Among birds, for instance, Mother Nature encourages males to beautify themselves more than females do.

Evolutionary psychology tends to contend that these sex differences are cross-culturally universal (e.g., Buss et al., 1990; Buss, 1994; Buss & Barnes, 1986). The findings, however, did not always consistently support this implication.

Multiple findings across many studies (Langlois et al. 2000) have shown no gender differences in the importance of attractiveness. Women favor attractive men, not less than those with resources.

Besides, situations of real interaction with potential mates, such as speed dating, showed that men and women value a partner’s good looks equally highly (Eastwick, Eagly, Finkel, & Johnson, 2011).

Moreover, species and cultures differ in this respect, which can have different effects on mating relations depending on ecological, social, and cultural contexts (Karandashev, 2017). Local ecological conditions may also play their roles (Cunningham & Barbee, 1991).

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