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The Masculinity Paradox

Feminine and clean-shaven faces are considered most attractive.

Many studies have found that more feminine and clean-shaven faces are considered most attractive.

By Barnaby Dixson

Does being “manly” make you a better mate or does it signal undesirable characteristics?

Physical appearance matters a lot. Whether we like it or not, we make quick and lasting judgments of people based upon how they look. While a good sense of humour and kind disposition are important, judgements about the physical attractiveness of faces and bodies occurs within the first 200 milliseconds of meeting. That’s faster than the time it takes to snap your fingers.

Attractiveness goes hand-in-hand with social advantages, and can be a passport to success. Individuals less blessed with good looks can face setbacks such as lower academic grades, wages and less social attention.

Attractiveness also has a biological basis that translates into success in the mating market. In theory, good-looking people may have a better opportunity to choose higher quality mates. But does being tall, dark and handsome send signals of long-term mate quality that are favoured by women, such as parenting skills and faithfulness?

An Evolutionary Context for Men’s Masculinity

The earliest phases of human evolution might provide some clues about the origins of male masculinity. When picturing masculinity in the context of human evolution it is easy to imagine male hunter-gatherers competing furiously with one another in arid environments for large prey.

If this was the case, being taller and more muscular may have afforded men a survival advantage and even contributed to a man’s ability to establish social dominance among his peers. Women’s mating psychology may conceivably have evolved to recognise masculinity when assessing a man’s value as a mate. Masculine men should then be preferred as long-term partners and fathers as they would have been better equipped to compete for scarce resources and provide for families in the harsh environments from which our species evolved.

Yet daily life among hunter-gatherers today does not mirror this scenario. Professor Frank Marlowe of Cambridge University notes that among the Hadza hunter-gathers of Tanzania men do the majority of hunting. However, the daily calories they bring back to camp comprise around 43–50% of the camp’s total caloric intake. On the occasions when large animals are killed, meat is distributed evenly among the camp. So even if a Hadza woman marries a poor hunter, she will benefit as much as a women married to a good hunter. Although Hadza women consider physical attractiveness to be important in a partner, they place more importance on them being a skilled forager and carer of children.

So how do other women around the world judge the attractiveness and parenting skills of physically masculine men? On the one hand, deep voices and muscularity are generally perceived as sexually attractive. On the other hand, characteristically masculine faces and beards are generally not. In fact, many studies have revealed that more feminine and clean-shaven faces are judged as most attractive. Research by Professor David Perrett of the University of St Andrews suggests this is likely because women perceive masculine looking men to be less trustworthy, warm, less interested in long-term relationships and even less investing as fathers.

These stereotypes hold some truth in the real world. More masculine-looking men tend to be physically stronger, aggressive and engage in more short-term relationships. Professor Gillian Rhodes of the University of Western Australia found that women accurately detect the degree of sexual unfaithfulness in men by assessing facial masculinity alone. From an evolutionary perspective, a species such as our own wherein both parents invest so strongly in highly dependent offspring, selecting a masculine mate could therefore be very costly. A more caring and amenable partner, even if less adorned in his masculinity, could be better in the long run for raising a family.

However, if sexual selection during human evolution worked in this way then all men would be equally masculine in their appearance. And if masculinity means that you make a poor long-term mate, then these individuals would presumably have been weeded out of the mating pool a long time ago.

This is clearly not the case as men show marked individual variation in almost any dimension of masculinity, and women are very discerning in their judgments of the attractiveness of a man’s physique. Dr Brian Mautz of the University of Ottawa recently found that men’s attractiveness was determined by a combination of their body shape, height and penis size. Being taller and having a longer penis significantly increased men’s attractiveness to women. But body shape accounted for almost 80% of the variance in men’s overall attractiveness and was greatest for males with v-shaped masculine physiques. If masculinity influences attractiveness judgments so strongly, what advantages could be gained by selecting a masculine partner?

Hunting for “Good Genes” or Protection?

In many animals, males that are brightly coloured and highly ornamented are considered more attractive and “sexier” than their duller counterparts. However, the cost of being more desirable and conspicuous comes at the risk of increased predation and lowered immune function. This is known as the immunocompetence handicap hypothesis, and over the past decade many researchers have suggested that it can be applied to understand masculinity in men.

Men’s masculine physical traits rely for their expression on hormones called androgens. The most well-known androgen, testosterone, is thought to suppress the immune system. It is thought that a man expressing physical characteristics that depend upon androgens could be advertising to potential mates his ability to overcome the “handicapping” effects of testosterone on his immune system. Professor Markus Rantala of the University of Turku found that men with the most attractive faces also had the highest testosterone and the greatest immune response to the hepatitis B vaccine. So choosing a masculine mate could potentially bestow on any offspring the genetic gift of heritable immunocompetence and increase their chance of survival.

However, masculine men are also perceived to be less investing as long-term partners and fathers. Perhaps the biological qualities of masculinity might sometimes trump these negative social traits and increase the attractiveness of masculine men as reproductive partners. Professors Randy Thornhill and Steven Gangestad of the University of New Mexico propose that women may pursue alternative reproductive strategies to secure heritable immunity for their offspring. They suggest that women subconsciously bypass the negative implications of selecting a masculine partner when considering short-term relationships such as one-night stands. Further, these preferences are greatest at the point of the menstrual cycle just prior to ovulation, when the advantages of a brief sexual relationship with a masculine man would be transferred to their offspring.

Women’s preferences for masculinity as a cue of biological quality also vary cross-culturally. Consider when you travel as a tourist to an exotic tropical destination. To combat unfamiliar diseases you may require vaccines, medication and health care coverage. Dr Lisa Debruine of the University of Glasgow suggests that for people who are born and raised in such cultures, dealing with infectious diseases is a part of their daily struggle for survival. This could give rise to stronger preferences for masculinity as a cue of better health and immunity. Debruine surveyed women from 30 diverse cultures and found that women living in countries with poor health care and high levels of infectious diseases indeed gave the highest attractiveness ratings to masculine men.

In addition to diseases, however, many of these countries also face political unrest, poverty and high disparity in wealth. Professor Ian Penton-Voak of the University of Bristol and Dr Isabel Scott of Brunel University argue that these factors contribute more to women’s preferences for masculine men than their access to health care. In a re-analysis of Debruine’s cross-cultural data, women from countries where income inequality was distributed unevenly, such as Argentina and Brazil, stated the strongest preferences for masculine men. Women living in these cultures may benefit more directly from having a masculine partner who is able to provide protection and possibly even outcompete other males for scarce resources.

How Masculinity Influences Men’s Attractiveness

Research on masculinity and men’s attractiveness provides clear and compelling answers, at least when a single piece of the puzzle is considered at a time. However, when all these perspectives are taken together, we are left with a far blurrier picture. In fact, many of the ideas, theories and interpretations are being seriously debated among researchers.

The ever-growing body of research on human attractiveness highlights that masculinity matters a lot to women as they judge men’s sexual attractiveness. However, interpreting the variable nature of women’s preferences to better understand how sexual selection has shaped the evolution of masculinity remains a paradox.

Barnaby Dixson is a postdoctoral researcher in the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at the University of NSW.