It seems that attractiveness is on the minds of (at least some) senior psychology majors at Colby College lately. Our Psychology/Neuroscience seminar has been talking extensively about what makes an individual attractive – is it symmetry, the waist-to-hip ratio, or what genes he/she is carrying? Turns out, the Senior Seminar has answered the question. At least in part. A study done by Richard Russell (Russell, R. (2009) A sex difference in facial pigmentation and its exaggeration by cosmetics. Perception, (38)1211-1219.) has shown that facial contrast is the key ingredient. It was in fact a series of studies he conducted, which found the following results:
- women have more facial contrast than men
- female or male faces with greater facial contrast were rated as more feminine or less masculine than faces with less contrast
- decreasing or increasing the facial contrast in an androgynous face is sufficient to make it appear male or female
- typical application of cosmetics was found to increase the contrast between the eyes, lips, and the rest of the face – making the face appear more feminine and therefore more attractive
So facial contrast is a sexually dimorphic feature, which perceptually guides people in their “attractiveness” decisions. But then I have to wonder, what about tanning and bronzer? These darken the skin, thereby lessening the contrast, and supposedly decreasing attractiveness. How would Russell account for this? Additionally, would people rating the faces from other cultures produce the same results? What about the Danes, who all have blonde hair and blue eyes and look exactly the same – would they think facial contrast is such a big deal?
Despite these POSSIBLE complications, I would like to suggest that Russell has added a very major piece to the “attractiveness” puzzle. Not only that, but he made some real world connections by examining cosmetics and how they are used to highlight a biological preference. Maybe next year’s Psychology/Neuroscience seminar will speak of the following when they discuss attractiveness: symmetry, the waist-to-hip ratio, what genes he/she is carrying, AND… facial contrast.