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Custom and Sexual Attractiveness

( Originally Published 1957 )



A historian of amorous behavior could make a large volume about "fashions in love." In this he might include a lengthy chapter on the way taste changes from age to age and from people to people. The "mode" operates here as elsewhere in human affairs. As with speech, gesture, and social deportment, so "Fashion determines what type of female beauty is at a time preferred, plump or svelte, blonde or brunette, large or petite, red-haired or black-haired."

Ford and Beach have given examples of this variation in the physical features that are most appreciated. They find large differences concerning the parts of the body that are foremost in sexual interest: in one instance the eyes, for example, may be a decisive item; in another, the ears. From such comparisons they conclude that there are few if any standards of attractiveness that are universal in scope. Instead, the focus of interest shifts from culture to culture.

Malinowski, in his detailed study of the sexual behavior of the Melanesians, has discussed at some length the factors in choice. What is it, he queries, that holds the fascinated gaze of men upon one of a group of girls, and why is one individual regarded by nearly everyone as desirable, and another as unattractive? The European visitor, he observes, soon finds that his own taste differs in no essential way from that of the natives. He offers two photographs, one of a beautiful woman, the other of a woman judged plain by native standards, and expresses the opinion that his readers will agree. Among both sexes, he found, were persons with regularity and delicacy of features, well-proportioned bodies, pleasing complexions, and "personal charm." The fundamentals of such attraction center, he thinks, upon normality of physique and the various external marks of vigor and health.

Among these people, as with ourselves, the centers of interest are the head and face, and here, especially, the eyes and mouth, the nose and hair. Further strong interest focuses upon grace of movement, and also upon the quality of the voice. The latter is a potent sexual charm: "The power of a beautiful voice is known and praised far and wide, and many instances of seduction by song are quoted." (26) More distinctive is the preference for small eyes, large ones being regarded as ugly. The mouth is a feature of high importance and must be "very full" to reach the preferred standard. The Trobrianders told Malinowski they did not consider Europeans, with their straight hair, thin lips, and sharp nose, attractive. Other preferences will be seen as departing from our own: attractive teeth must be artificially blackened; the skin should be "full brown color;" the eyebrows are shaved off and the lashes removed. Among more familiar appeals are lips reddened with paint; the chin, ears, and nose must be "neither too large nor too small"; a slender body is attractive to both sexes.

Ford and Beach found that while in some of the societies in their survey slenderness was preferred to a fully rounded body form, in the majority of the cases the reverse was true. The preference among certain primitive peoples for great obesity has been noted by a number of observers. A broad feminine pelvis was regarded as attractive among most of the groups, but a specific dislike for this feature was notable in one. The preferred breast form ranged from the small and upright to the "long and pendulous." Standards of beauty in many instances gave important weight to the hair of head and body; the nose, eyes, and shape of the mouth might also receive particular attention.

Verrier Elwin exhibited, to some of the Baiga people of central India, Malinowski's photographs of attractive and unattractive women as judged by the Melanesians. He found their responses in full agreement. In judging sexual beauty the Baiga are quite analytical, he reports. They tend to react, not to the whole, but to each feature in turn. Interest focuses, above all else, on the breasts; defects of feature, figure, or color are deemed excusable if the breasts are "firm and rounded." A close rival in erotic importance among both sexes is the hair. By contrast with our own values the eyes are of little interest, are "almost ignored." Other preferences favor a straight nose, a broad forehead. The Baiga women are not generally attractive to a western view, but to their own people they are "beautiful and romantic enough." He notes that male attractiveness is here determined, "as we would expect," by strength, vitality, and sexual virility, rather than by physical beauty.

The natives of Polynesian Tikopia have definite ideas about sex attractiveness, with admiration for a broad face and nose, thin lips, a light brown skin, a head flattened in back. (18) These expressed standards did not, however, markedly affect actual choice, according to Raymond Firth, who also observed that the judgment of women's beauty was rivaled by the appreciation of an appealing personality. It is of further interest that certain physical characteristics are associated with social rank and breeding.

The people of the Trobriands found unattractive the neigh-boring Papuans, whose skin is darker than their own, whose lips are thinner, noses longer, and faces narrower. In thus preferring their own local type they illustrate what appears to be a fairly general rule. Westermarck states that, whatever the natural coloring of a people, this color will be regarded as most attractive. (33) If a slanting forehead is typical, a straight forehead will be seen as a blemish. If slenderness is a racial trait, fleshiness will be judged a flaw. If a Northern Indian were asked to define beauty, his answer would include a broad flat face, small eyes above high cheekbones, a low forehead, a broad chin, a hook nose and a tawny skin. From the variation in taste it follows that what is considered a defect in one culture may be a mark of beauty in another. "A little snub-nose may embitter the life of a European girl; but the Australian natives `laugh at the sharp noses of Europeans, and call them in their language "tomahawk noses," much preferring their own style of flat broad noses.' " Artificial means are much in use to emphasize traits in the direction of the type preferred. Darwin noted that relatively beardless races are at pains to remove any hair from the face and body; some peoples with broad noses exaggerate this feature by compressing the member with bandages during infancy. Similar examples are given with regard to the shape of the skull and the color of the skin. We learn that at one time, among the women of Egypt, who tended to have large and dark eyes, not only was this trait admired but the effect was increased by tinting the lids, darkening the lashes, and marking the contours to create apparent enlargement.

The rich materials on human sexual choice collected by Havelock Ellis may here again be drawn upon. Of particular interest are some of his findings on fair coloring as a sexually attractive trait among the peoples of Europe. The admiration for blondness may be traced, he reports, back to ancient Greek and Roman times, and may be understood by the tendency to-ward fairness of the population of Europe, thus illustrating again the rule of preference for the prevailing racial types. Even in Italy there is evidence of this preference: among the painters, poets, and "the aesthetic writers on beauty from the Renaissance onward, the admiration for fair hair is unqualified . . ." In France and England the admiration for fair hair is well established; Ellis points out that in English the word "fair" itself is synonymous with the beautiful. On the whole, while the standard in Europe allows a darker coloring in the more southerly peoples in accord with their greater racial tendency toward the brunette, the very brunette type is "al-ways excluded."

Other data illustrate the changing modes of sexual attractiveness. Among certain peoples the tendency, with advancing civilization, toward removal of the beard is noted. Again, during an early period of Egyptian history the physical ideal of both sexes was a slender body form, while at a later time the standard of beauty changed in the direction of more fully developed figures. A peculiar case concerning feminine contours is seen in an early north European "fashion" which emphasized the child-bearing function by representing advanced pregnancy in portrayals of the female figure, as shown in well-known works of art. (This is clearly seen in some of the illustrations of the fifteenth-century de Limbourg "Books of Hours.") In general, it is easy to find evidence to support the statement by Sumner: "The notion of beauty is not primary . . . That is beautiful which pleases taste. Taste . . . is transmitted through imitation and education. . . . The facts show that the notion of what is beautiful follows fashion and does not lead or create it any more than does the knowledge of what is healthful or useful or convenient. Ethnography . . . furnishes no evidence that human beings possess an innate aesthetic sense or instinct or that the idea of the beautiful is objective and real."

Common to the beauty ideal of all mankind are freedom from physical deformity, from the marks of disease, and from the more advanced effects of aging. Beyond this, there appears to be some degree of overlapping in the judgments of attractiveness from one people to another. Several students have observed that the modern European, who represents, supposedly, a high standard of aesthetic perception, may nonetheless find attractive persons among the women of primitive groups. Ellis cites the judgment of Stratz, the German authority in this field of aesthetics, that the highest standard of feminine beauty is the same throughout the world. Sexual beauty is a real, physical fact, Ellis thinks, however the standard may vary from place to place.

Whether the "overlapping" means that local preferences are but departures from a universal standard, or whether it is a result of the wide variability of choice within a given society, is a question that may not be answerable on the basis of present knowledge.



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