June 7, 2010

Modern women better looking due to delayed motherhood and few kids?

Everyone who has looked through portraits or pictures of people from earlier times notices how mediocre the women look compared to now. That's also true for hunter-gatherers -- it's rare to find a group whose women knock your socks off. Moreover, the progress seems to be very recent, like within the past 100 or 200 years at the furthest. Before then, it doesn't seem to matter if you look at women in 1800 or 1300; all are not very exciting to behold.

The first guess is that it has to do with better health, meaning better nutrition or access to medicine or prevention of infectious diseases. But none of those work because hunter-gatherers have great nutrition -- better than our nearly de facto vegan diet of the past 20 to 30 years. Plus they live in low-density groups so that most crowd diseases are unknown, though they still may suffer from those spread by winged insects or snails in their water source. And it's really not even a close call -- hunter-gatherer women are nothing close to your typical middle-class American woman in looks. If it were a matter of nutrition, effective medicine, and prevention of infection, then American women of the 1950s should be the ones who look the best, yet that doesn't seem true when flipping through old photo albums.

There could have also been natural selection for better looks, although that usually implicates a greater pathogen burden, as good looks signal good genes, and these are more important where just making it through childhood without being overwhelmed by bugs is crucial. Our pathogen burden has only lightened over the past 100 to 200 years, so that can't be why today's women in America look better than those of earlier times.

A simpler explanation is that women now put off marriage and having children much later than historically, and they have far fewer of them even when they begin. The idea is that women's good looks are designed to help her attract a mostly lifelong mate -- once that's done and she's started raising a family, who needs to preserve good looks if that's at all costly? Better to pull those resources out of maintaining good looks and invest them where they'll be of greater use for mothering. Her children's fitness will not depend on how cute she looks, and assuming her appearance doesn't go to hell too much too soon, the husband won't desert her either. So once motherhood begins, looks slowly (and then quickly) fade.

The number of children she has also matters: the more she has, the stronger the demand for mothering-related expertise rather than looking good. Also, the more she has, the more secure she feels that her husband isn't going to ditch her if her looks begin to fade.

Therefore, if women start to delay marriage and child-bearing, and if they have fewer kids once they start, their bodies are getting the signal that it's rough going in the mating market for some reason. After all, this late and so few kids, possibly none at all? Shoot, guess we can't turn off her looks just yet. We'll have to keep up whatever looks she has for awhile, rather than re-invest those resources to making her more nurturing and maternal. (Another characteristic of modern women is that they don't seem very motherly or wife-like even by age 30.)

So if we could compare 17 year-olds from England today vs. 500 years ago, we might not notice too much of a difference, since looks only start to fade once the body expects motherhood to begin. Yet we don't have many pictures of teenagers from that long ago, and more recent ones usually show them in some body-covering work uniform in some dim factory. Still, relying on paintings of adolescent and young-adult girls (Botticelli, Fragonard, and Bouguereau spring to mind), they seemed to look about as lovely as they do today.

However, most of our intuition about what women look like in various time periods is based more on women who are around 25 or older. For most of human history, they'd nearly all be mothers -- and even if they weren't, their bodies would reflect such a past, and would start withdrawing resources from good looks if they sensed it was too late, that she'd had her chance and blew it. After the demographic transition, a good deal of these women may not even be married, let alone be mothers, and even then they wouldn't have had many children. These signals all tell her body to keep up whatever looks she had before, at least for awhile longer in the hopes of finally snagging a husband and pumping out babies.

This idea would not only explain why women from roughly the same population have gotten much better looking after the demographic transition -- not simply "over time," since there seems little improvement before the transition -- but also why modern women look orders of magnitude better than hunter-gatherer women, despite the latter having equal or better nutrition and freedom from crowd diseases. And it would also explain why, fixing the place and time, higher-class women tend to look better than lower-class women. I remember little difference in middle or high school -- there were tons of cute girls who weren't from upper-middle backgrounds. Putting that aside, though, somehow when you see them in their 30s, their looks have decayed much more than have the looks of the upper-middle girls, compared to where each group started out as teenagers. Higher-status women are purer exemplars of the demographic transition, so their bodies are more likely to think that they've got to keep up the looks and not get all maternal, nurturing, and wife-like just yet.

The same idea applies to men, although they don't age as awfully as women do, so the effect is harder to notice. Why don't men age as quickly? Recall that a woman's Darwinian fitness doesn't depend much on her looks once she starts raising a family -- her kids don't respond to her based on how pretty she is, and provided she doesn't look like a scarecrow right away, the husband isn't going to ditch her. Those resources are re-invested into mothering traits. But the father's Darwinian success can still be boosted by impregnating lots of other females, either in a polygamously sanctioned way or just on the sly, and no young babe is going to sleep with a much older guy if he looks decrepit. Fathers don't father nearly as much as mothers mother, so the need to re-invest resources from looks into fathering traits isn't that strong to begin with. This also explains why men tend to have higher energy levels, higher sex drives, and are just overall more fun and exciting to be around as they age, relative to aging women. After all, if they weren't, they wouldn't be able to stay in the mating market and keep picking up younger girls.


  1. Two things: women try to look good when they're in the market for a husband. They stop trying to look good when they've found a husband and they're sure he is not going to leave them.

    When women marry young and are unlikely to get divorced because of social stigma, their looks deteriorate early. When they marry late and are likely to get divorced or even to still look for better options, they keep their looks.

  2. Much of how women's looks decline with age is due to weight gain. Hunter-gatherer women remained slimmer than women from the agricultural or even industrial age because they had to move around a lot. They also had fewer kids.

    The development of agriculture was a giant step down in quality of life. I always wondered how humanity was "tricked" into giving up the hunter-gatherer life for agriculture. Razib, from Gene Expression, came up with what I consider to be the most plausible explanation ever about 6 months ago.

    I moved to SoCal in the 80's from where I grew up. I noticed the teen-age girls looked the same in both places. But the women over 25 looked FAR BETTER in SoCal than they did where I grew up. It seems that people over 30 are "old" where I grew up, whereas people in places like SoCal or the Bay Area look much better.

  3. "ugh they don't age as awfully as women do"

    I suggest you poll women regarding this. At least we don't lose our head hair, grow back hair, and get huge guts.

    As for the improvement in our looks, you've overlooked one obvious change: The increased number of women in the workforce. This creates pressure to keep our appearance up, both for professional reasons and peer pressure from coworkers.

    50 years ago, once a woman started having kids she was probably limited to the company of children, her husband, her family, and other mothers. Nowadays most women move in very mixed company, meet new people frequently, and work with men and women of a variety of relationship statuses and ages. Vanity comes into play. One's husband knows what we look like at 6 a.m. and isn't so easy to fool with makeup and clothes, but not so for our professional contacts. We also have more resources and more of an excuse/need to spend money on grooming.

    Of course, this theory requires acceptance of the fact that women have great control over their appearances via makeup, grooming, and cosmetic enhancement procedures. If you prefer to think beauty is natural and only for the young, you will disagree.

  4. I think much of maintaining attractiveness is simply keeping the fat off. I think most people, especially women, would remain attractive through out middle-age if they simply stayed in shape through out life. Getting fat, more than anything else, is what destroys physical attractiveness for most people.

  5. I suggest you poll women regarding this. At least we don't lose our head hair

    Women do something else with respect to hair :(

    As I mentioned at Siggy's, my reasoned estimate is that 75% of women in the 18-50 age range are completely hairless, with most of the rest having only landing strips.


  6. We're not talking about not wearing enough make-up or styling hair the right way, etc. And it's not just weight gain -- the uglier women from earlier times don't necessarily look fat.

    There's a general decline in looks, especially visible in the skin condition and the geometry of the facial features. It's going on at the microscopic level, not something she could improve with beauty products or exercise.

    Those earlier women just don't look as feminine and girly as they do today.

  7. I believe there are two trends that factor in here.

    Heterozygosity is closely associated with near universal standards of beauty. This may help explain why isolated HG groups do not have what is considered attractive women. Anyone that has seen the anthropological footage of tribes in New Guinea can relate to this. So while these women are fit and relatively healthy, they are not what most would find beautiful.

    Women from agricultural societies that have meshed, conquered and traded on a continental scale, such as Persian women, are found to be among the most beautiful in the world.

    Also I perceive a general trend towards neotenous gene selection among modern cultures. For instance, the most popular body type in strip clubs is not the fertile Marlyn Monroe voluptuousness, but the pubescent (with trimmed or bald pubic hair)young Lindsay Lohan body type.

    No doubt the voluptuous body is still desirable, because fertility will always be desirable. But especially since the advent of cesarean sections, which enabled small hipped women to give birth safely, I think the petite body type has been gaining a foothold. Men like women who are small and can be 'spun' and climb around into different tantric yoga positions during coitus.

    And while the big breasted, big hipped body type is a measure of fertility, YOUTH is also a measure of fertility. So a healthy looking, but small boned young woman can trigger the hormone cascade in a different, but similar way.

  8. One other thing, women of pre-industrial times tended to have wider face breadth, which gives them a more masculine look. Less pointy faced and more square jawed.

    Personally, I like that look on a woman. Face breadth indicates less dental crowding and healthier nutrition. A good example of this would be Olivia Munn: http://images.askmen.com/galleries/model/olivia-munn/pictures/olivia-munn-picture-1.jpg (also a perfect example of heterozygosity).

  9. "There's a general decline in looks, especially visible in the skin condition and the geometry of the facial features. It's going on at the microscopic level, not something she could improve with beauty products or exercise."

    I'd be interested in seeing some examples. Are you talking about paintings, old photographs? We didn't have many good-quality images until recently. I'd question whether it was the painting/photograph, rather than the actual subject, that makes the difference.

    People did used to age faster, though, that's a fact. This is ironic given that people were much less likely to be fat until recently. Perhaps being heavier helps keep up one's facial appearance.

    Another factor is teeth. Losing a molar or two sinks in the cheeks and makes a person look a lot older. That's a lot less likely to happen today, or if it does, people can easily replace them with prosthetic teeth.

  10. "People did used to age faster, though, that's a fact. This is ironic given that people were much less likely to be fat until recently. Perhaps being heavier helps keep up one's facial appearance."

    Being heavier makes one look uglier, so who cares whether they lose their face or not.

    Hard work, no moisturisers or skin care products, and constant sun exposure probably ruined a woman's face pretty quick after she reached adulthood.

    - Breeze

  11. "As I mentioned at Siggy's, my reasoned estimate is that 75% of women in the 18-50 age range are completely hairless, with most of the rest having only landing strips."

    Peter, SHUT UP. You're married and you're an unbearable dork so the personal grooming habits of the general female population do not affect you. You are having sex with somewhere between 0 and 1 women and those are the only women you need concern yourself with. IF you were capable of banging other women, you could add those to the list and either SELECT them based on your fetish or influence THEM to grow a bush. If you had any semblance of a personality and weren't a complete dork you would direct your efforts where they make a difference instead of towards neverending monotonous, ineffectual whining on the internet. Do you think that inflicting the misery of your existence on others somehow makes up for your failure at life? Since it's clear your real issue is with porn and not real women, the solution is even simpler: porn CATERING TO YOUR FETISH exists in such quantities that you will never be able to exhaust the supply in your lifetime. Stop worrying about the fact that most porn doesn't cater to your fetish.

  12. I'll need to see some pictures before any of this has any validity.

  13. If it were a matter of nutrition, effective medicine, and prevention of infection, then American women of the 1950s should be the ones who look the best

    I have to disagree with the statement that the 1950s were a sort of health and nutrition utopia.

    Even if the diet of the 1950s was ideal (which I doubt) the prevalence of smoking and ubiquitous air pollution in the urbanized areas would have had a negative effect on their appearances.

  14. One thing to take into account is that in many cultures, parents pimp their children into arranged marraiges for their own financial gain, regardless of the child's wishes or desires. In modern societies, women choose their own husbands. As a result, the best looking men and the most beautiful women gravitate to each other, resulting in more children with better genes.


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