July 14, 2010

Among those whose looks we marvel at, are there more males or females?

Although the average female is more visually awe-inspiring than the average male, what does the picture look like at the extremes? In all sorts of traits males show greater variation, i.e. they're spread out along a broader spectrum, rather than being more closely bunched around the average value. Some examples are height, IQ, and number of offspring -- things related to surviving and reproducing. Certainly looks are relevant to mating success, so why shouldn't we see greater male variation in looks too?

Think of people whose looks are so disgusting you have to turn away -- I'm sure there are more men than women here. But what about at the other extreme, those whose looks arrest our attention even when our mind had just been somewhere else a moment ago? I have very little intuition for what counts as "good looks" in males, but here is some suggestive although impressionistic evidence that males outnumber females in the upper range too.

- Most sculpture that focuses on the perfection of the human form shows males. That's true of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and other Mediterranean cultures. Also true during the Renaissance and even the Baroque periods (although girls get a fairer shake in the latter). This isn't some bias against showing females in such an artistic context, since they abound in paintings. Nor is it due to a distinction between sculpture vs. painting, as though the softness of paint better suited female forms, while the hardness of sculpture better suited male forms -- look at all of those obese Venus figurines from thousands of years ago. It looks more like a difference between what's more fantastic or imaginary (painting and caricatured figurines) vs. what's more realistic (the other types of sculpture mentioned). In conveying a sense of wonder at the human form, the closer we get to realistic copies of human bodies, the more the male form dominates.

- There are all sorts of figures from Classical mythology who belong to the category of "male youth whose beauty causes the world to stop whatever it's doing." Adonis, Hylas, Hyacinth, Ganymede, Narcissus, Paris, and so on. There are females like this, too, but they don't seem to number as many. Also, many of these males figures' looks are so powerful that they even attract the male gods, whereas the females' looks don't attract scores of other female mortals or goddesses. That seems to have continued through at least the Elizabethan period, considering how much Shakespeare dwells on the "Fair Youth" in his sonnets, and how Marlowe details at length how striking Leander's own looks are, while mostly talking about the adornments that Hero wears rather than her body.

- Doesn't it seem like there are more males who provoke girls to say "He looks like a god" than there are females who provoke guys to say "She looks like a goddess"? Sure, guys are more likely to say that some girl is "hot," "cute," "sexy," etc., but I'm talking about where they're left speechless and in utter awe. For example, I'd bet that girls are more willing to say "He looks like a god" about male underwear models than men are to say "She looks like a goddess" about their female counterparts. If you asked men who their biggest crushes were as teenagers, would they describe them as marvelous goddesses? I mean girls like Phoebe Cates, Kelly Kapowski, Lacey Chabert, Miley Cyrus, etc. Definitely Audrey Hepburn and Paulina Porizkova, but not sure about the other usual suspects. I think girls would be much more likely to ascribe marvelous godlike qualities to their crushes -- Harry Belafonte, Leonard Whiting, Johnny Depp, Michael Hutchence, Zac Efron (who resembles Whiting), and so on.

Again, just impressions, but they are suggestive. Aside from greater male variation, which would put more men than women at both extremes even if the averages were pretty similar, I think the appearance of a "dreamy guy" conveys something both of the beautiful and the sublime. The males I listed above all have some elements of feminine beauty -- a babyface, luxurious flowing hair (usually "unshorn curls" among the Ancients, and with Michael Hutchence), mostly hairless bodies, bouncy resplendent skin, etc. Yet they also have masculine brows, cheekbones, and jawlines, little body fat and decent musculature, shoulders noticeably broader than the waist or hips, and so on. These signal to us that the guy would do well in hunting and combat, and that strikes a sublime note among the viewers.

"Dreamy girls," on the other hand, usually show only beautiful qualities like a smallish rounded face, not sublime ones as well. Height and long legs are OK -- again look at Audrey and Paulina -- but much more masculine than that, and they look off-putting. For whatever reason, we -- both male and female spectators -- marvel more at androgynous males than androgynous females.


  1. Although the average female is more visually awe-inspiring than the average male

    To us men, because we're programmed to wanna pounce on pretty females.

    But an intelligent non-human aesthete would likely find the human male form more impressive: larger, chiseled, bearded. In contrast, the female woudl be soft, plucked, and smallish.

    This is somewhat analogous to lions: as humans, we're indifferent to teh lioness' form, but we admire the male lion.

  2. In regards to more men than women being assigned "godlike" attributes in art, could one see this as evidence of Burke's old dichotomy between the beautiful and the sublime? As I recall, Burke argues that the male figure embodies the sublime, while the female form signifies beauty.

  3. I will add that there is a myth surrounding women's attraction to ultra-muscular men, namely, it is exaggerated. Teen heart throb guys tend to be skinny, and adult throbs (e.g. Pitt, Depp) are either then or toned/slightly muscular, a reoccurring theme is little body fat, whether semi-muscular or not. Girls are usually not attracted to bodies way outside the norm aka Batista's of the WWE, Lesnar's (UFC Champ), etc.

  4. I'm a woman, and honestly I've never heard a woman friend actually say, "He's looks like a god."

    I have heard them say a few times, "He's built like a god."

    There's a difference.

    Usually, a lustful exclamation is what we women emit at the sight of an extraordinarily attractive man.

    See, I think the thing is that we women differ a great deal about what we find attractive physically in a man. I think men are much easier to please in what they consider attractive in a woman. I think we women are much more varied, even capricious, in what appeals to us.

    Perhaps there were a high number of gay male artists, sculptors especially.

    Or perhaps the perfect male form was, as you suggest, a bit rarer than the perfect female form and was thus more likely to inspire the artist.

    Thing is, all my art major friends say that the female form is more interesting from an artist's standpoint, that the "lines of the male form are boring." Go figure.

  5. I think it's also possible that with the more masculinized "gym bunny" aesthetic (narrower hips, more muscular arms, visible six-pack abs, wider jaws) for women within the past few decades, mass media tends to admire women without as many feminine looks as in the past. Therefore we get supermodels like Gisele Bundchen.


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