Perceived attractiveness driven by link between gender and gender-specific roles

March 12, 2007

Perceived attractiveness is the result of compatibility of biological sex and gendered cues--masculinity and femininity as specified within the society--according to a study by researchers at New York University and Texas A & M University. The findings appear in the most recent issue of the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, conducted by Kerri Johnson at NYU's Department of Psychology and Louis Tassinary at Texas A & M's Department of Architecture, sought to address the following question: Is perceived attractiveness the result of the compatibility of biological sex and gendered cues (i.e., masculinity and femininity as specified within the society)?

"These findings bolster our understanding of how and why the body is perceived attractive," said Johnson. "Body cues bring about the basic social perceptions of sex and gender, and the compatibility of those basic percepts affects perceived attractiveness."

Previous research on western societies has shown how the body's shape (i.e., the waist-to-hip ratio--WHR) relates to judgments of women's attractiveness. Compared to "tubular" figures, "hourglass" figures tended to be judged more favorably in western societies.

In this study, the researchers hypothesized that perceived attractiveness would depend on the compatibility of basic social perceptions that arise from sexually dimorphic (i.e., external differences between males and females) body cues. Specifically, they posited that some body cues will reliably provoke a sex categorization. Once this categorization has been made, other sexually dimorphic cues will be perceived to be either masculine or feminine - and consequently compatible or incompatible given the perceived sex of a target. If correct, when a target is judged to be female, she should be judged attractive when also perceived to be feminine, but not masculine, and vice-versa when a target is judged to be male.

The researchers conducted five studies in which participants viewed a variety of stimuli (computer-generated animations, static line drawings, and dynamic line-drawings) and then provided a range of judgments for each--a sex categorization and ratings of perceived masculinity, femininity, and attractiveness.

Although the sex of each target was specified differently across the five studies (judged by participants, provided by the experimenter, or held constant in the stimuli), Johnson and Tassinary predicted that perceived sex would influence the perception of other sexually dimorphic cues--leading the other gendered cues to be perceived as either masculine or feminine, rather than as an indicator of sex category.

The results across the five studies revealed the predicted interaction between the sex and perceived gender. That is, female targets--whether sex was judged by participants, provided by an experimenter, or held constant--were judged to be more attractive when they were perceived to be feminine than when they were perceived to be masculine, and the opposite was true for male targets.

The researchers suggest that if their model is applied to cultures with different definitions for the social roles of men and women, results will show cross-cultural differences in the particular combinations of body cues deemed attractive.

New York University

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