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Physical attraction

Do men and women consider the same things "attractive"?


by Janet L. Jacobsen

Women reading the personals for the first time often ask "What exactly do men mean by attractive?" And they ask it in a tone of distress, as though this is an important test question and they think they may have the wrong answer.

(Men are equally distressed by a different term in the personals: financially secure. But that’s a separate article.)

Certainly Western culture puts a lot of emphasis on physical attractiveness. So we’ve tried, in several singles classes, to get some sort of understanding on what exactly we were talking about.

In one class, we couldn’t get agreement on what differences, if any, there are between sexual attraction, physical attraction, and chemistry. When I asked whether sexual attraction and physical attraction were the same thing, 74% of men and 79% of women said they were not. But we couldn’t agree on what they were.

It became clear that one difficulty in trying to talk about physical attractiveness was the lack of an objective standard to discuss; we couldn’t very well point at each other and do assessments, after all.


So for a recent class, I went through a number of men’s and women’s magazines and selected photos of five men and five women. They were mostly models, but not all young, and not overly glamourous or high-fashion. I stayed away from pictures where the setting or circumstances might make a difference (so these were mostly head and shoulders shots), and no celebrities.

We tacked the pictures up around the room and had the participants at the singles discussion class rate each picture for the person’s attractiveness from 1 to 10, with 10 as the top. In rating the attractiveness of same-sex photos, the class was instructed to rate them as they would describe them to someone else.

Then we averaged the ratings and discussed them.

Frankly, I had expected that there would be large differences in how men and women rated the various pictures (the "physical" being so much more important to men than to women, theoretically). But except in one case, I was wrong.


Instead the big differences were within the sexes: no photo got less than a four point spread among the men, and no photo got less than a five point spread among the women, with an average point spread of 5.5 for the men and 7.1 for the women! In other words, the sexes were more likely to disagree among themselves than they were with each other, women more so than men.

Of the photos of women, the women in the class rated three of them as more attractive than the men rated them (based on the average scores) (and these were all models, remember); and obviously the men found two more attractive than the women did. And of the photos of the men, women rated two higher, men rated two higher, and on one the averages were the same.

The highest average attractiveness score was 8.1 for the men and 8.6 for the women - both of the same photo, of a man. The lowest average was 4.2 for the women, and 4.4 for the men - both photos of men. And the man the men rated as 4.4, the women also gave an average rating of 4.4.

Beyond that, the differences between the averages of men’s and women’s ratings ranged only from .3 to .6 - just about an average half point difference. In other words (on the average) the people in these photos were rated as about equally attractive by men and women.

Except in the one case - a man’s picture. The men rated him a 5.9. The women rated him only 4.2. That’s almost a two point difference in our perceptions! And what made it particularly interesting was that the photo was of a male body builder doing the standard arm curl to show his muscles. (Big muscles, but not overly developed or defined, like competitive body builders can be.) So men would describe that look as attractive, while women, in general, would not. (No woman rated him over a 7, in fact.)


Does all this have anything to do with real life? In a previous singles class I had asked the participants to rate the attractiveness of the last person they dated. For men, the range was 5 to 9, with 42% describing their date as a 7 and 66% covered in the 7-8 range. For the women, the range was 2 to 10, with 33% describing their date as a 5, and another 30% in the 7-8 range.

So just as women’s perceptions of attractiveness in the photos covered a wider range, the women also seem to be willing to date a wider range of attractiveness than men are. At one time I would have thought that this was because men simply didn’t date women they didn’t find attractive (and I’m sure that’s a factor), but in looking over the photo ratings, it also seems that men are simply less likely to describe someone as unattractive (less than a 5).

Also, in our discussion at the photo rating class, the men pointed out that how "approachable" the person looked was part of their rating, even in looking at the pictures. Did this appear to be a person you could go up to and start a conversation? If not, their "attractiveness" fell. So you can enhance your attractiveness to men considerably, ladies, just by looking friendly!

This was all far from completely scientific, of course. But it did help us clarify that while beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, the average single man and the average single woman evaluate what they behold in about the same way.

copyright 1994