Developed Western societies tend to associate female attractiveness with low waist-to-hip ratios and weight--physical traits suggesting healthiness--but there's no such pattern for male attractiveness, according to a meta-analysis published last month in APA's Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 131, No. 5).
In fact, people rate a high ratio of chest muscularity to body fat as attractive in men--a characteristic that does not predict healthiness, notes lead researcher Jason Weeden, PhD, a psychologist and University of Pennsylvania research associate. He adds that if the healthiest male bodies were most attractive, thin men low in fat and muscle would be deemed most attractive.
Moreover, averaging across studies, the researchers found that perceived female facial attractiveness tends to relate to women's health, while male facial attractiveness does not relate to health.
To uncover these patterns, Weeden and co-researcher John Sabini, PhD, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, collected a set of 163 contemporary studies that linked attractiveness and health in developed Western societies by using the key words "attractiveness" and "physical attractiveness." The researchers also searched all issues of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior for relevant studies published after 1990.
They found that only low waist-to-hip ratios and a low range of normal weight are related to both the health and perceived attractiveness of women, says Weeden. The researchers did not define healthiness in the meta-analysis; they instead used the studies' variety of healthiness measures, including longevity and incidence of major illnesses.
The findings run counter to previous claims that suggest facial symmetry and femininity or masculinity of features predict both health and attractiveness across cultures, says Weeden.
"Some of these results are likely to be seen as a blow to the evolutionary perspective," says Weeden. "But a proper focus on the bottom line of reproductive success might suggest that the emphasis on the role of health in male attractiveness was misguided from the beginning."
Weeden suggests that the samples sizes of some studies that suggested a link between other characteristics and attractiveness or health were too small.
"When researchers talk about effects from single studies, we really need to be careful," he says. "Sometimes a careful review can remind us where the solid research findings are."