Different Beauty Standards, Same Mechanism

What would classic European paintings look like if painted ladies conform to modern Western beauty standards? Photographer Lauren Wade applied Photoshop to most famous paintings of the female form and presented the difference in preferred body types before and after the 20th century.

Titian, Danae with Eros, 1544


Raphael, Three Graces, 1504-1505

Why did the ideal female body size and skin tone change? It can be explained by expanding on evolutionary psychologists’ findings and by relating to societies’ socio-economic conditions. With the intrinsic desire of reproductive success, we tend to favor mates with higher status so our children will have enough protection and resource. As a result, characteristics that can indicate socio-economic conditions, such as skin tone, body type, and clothing styles influence mate decisions.

According to evolutionary psychologists such as Kanazawa, mate choices is all about reproductive success. We look for partners who can provide life, security, and resources for children in long-term relationships, and traits that can imply fertility and resources are therefore preferred. For example, in a study conducted by the University of Texas, the female spinal curve of 45.5 degrees is found to best balance the weight of unborn babies, so that pregnant women are less likely to suffer injuries. After rating photos of female bodies, men also find this angle to be most attractive. Researchers explain that because of adaptive evolution, men who liked these women had a higher chance to have children and pass on their gene. As a result, it is almost an instinct to find this angle of the female spinal curve more attractive. Another study gives us some insights about why men prefer different breast sizes. Psychologists Swami and Tovée found a negative correlation between men’s access to resources and their preferred breast size. In short, men who need resources like big breasts the most. They interpreted that breast size indicate fat reserves, therefore in ancient times, it indicates a female’s access to food and the potential to raise children. As for male beauty standards, shoulder width and body height are two measurements that are universally valued, which are also known to be related to strength. When our ancestors were surviving in the Savannah, men who were strong and robust were more likely to stay alive, defeat male rivals, and offer protection and food for their families. Women who preferred men with masculine traits were more likely to pass on their genes, and thus the preference for these characteristics is wired in our brains. For example, researchers point out that narrow-shouldered males have older ages of first sex and fewer sexual partners. Moreover, taller men are confirmed to be more attractive by a study with 650 participants. In the long history of human evolution, certain traits have been acting as signals of ability to provide for the family and therefore a good partner. As a result, human nature leads us to believe some characteristics such as masculinity are attractive.

As hunter-gather societies became structured civilizations, strength became less essential for competing over a mate or protecting family; providing security and resource has been requiring good socio-economic status instead. During years of unrest, families with money and power could have better chances to survive; at peaceful years, these families can best offer education and material support to children. Wealthy families could also have more children and still provide enough support. Wired by human nature to pursue reproductive success, we find partners with high status more desirable and physical traits that imply high status intrinsically attractive.

Skin tone, body size, and clothing style could suggest a person’s socio-economic status. Although beauty standards vary throughout time and culture, the preferred character is always most representative of people with high status.

Within Western culture, preference for skin tone and body size have changed throughout the history, and the Industrial Revolution marks a watershed. Before the Industrial Revolution, aristocrats had the privilege of working indoors and having enough food, so pale skin tone and full-figured body are signals of high socio-economic status. Due to the innate desire for reproductive success, people sought for higher status partners in long-term relationships and therefore preferred pale skin and plump bodies. For example, the ideal female body during Renaissance is depicted as “alabaster and pale skin” and “full figure with an ample bosom, rounded abdomen, and wide hips”. Professor Haughton pointed out that during Renaissance era, many clients required painters to adjust their portraits to have a more cultivated upper-class look. Some “fashionable portraits are almost indistinguishable from each other, conforming to a contemporary facial type.” Another example comes from the California Gold Rush. In Martha Hitchcock’s family letters, there is a newspaper article clip from the 1850s named “Appearance Matters”. The article evaluates several popular methods about bleaching skin and removing freckles. The author also suggests the best solution is to protect skin from the sun with some lotion or a hat. From this article we can see that fair skin without blemishes is considered beautiful during the Gold Rush. After the Industrial Revolution, the majority of working class have moved to indoor workplaces and have access to sufficient food. As a result, naturally tan skin and less body fat are more common among upper class instead of lower class. Wealthy people get their natural tan through sunshine vacations, outdoor adventures, and pool by the house. They also eat healthier because organic food, free-range chicken, fresh fruits have become so expensive that lower class families had to often have fattier meat, fast food, and high-calorie meals as substitutes. Moreover, the working class becomes sedentary, and only the rich can afford a gym, exercising time, and personal trainers. Because of different lifestyles, tan skin and slim body have become most representative among the upper class. Driven by the desire for a higher status partner who can provide for the family, we unconsciously feel tan skin and fit body more attractive. That explains why in the 21st century America, a thin but healthy body with sun-kissed tan glow has become the most desirable female body type.

Ideal female body in Renaissance VS modern Europe


To investigate the cultural influence on preferences for skin tone and body size, I conducted a survey to 60 individuals around UC Berkeley campus. They were asked about age, major of study, socio-economic class, and a culture they most identify with. They were also asked to select their preferred body type and skin tone on scales from 1 to 7, with 1 indicating skinny or pale, and 7 indicating full-figured or dark. Although the amount of data is limited and can only represent young adults at Berkeley, the results are interesting and show significant differences. Among 16 countries and 4 cultural groups, Asian cultures strongly prefer pale skin tone at an average index of 2.02, while other cultures prefer slightly tan skin with indexes above 4.5. For body size, all culture groups favor slightly slim body, even though the African group has a higher index than other groups.


Why do such differences exist? What makes these cultures prefer different or similar beauty standards? The answer could be found by expanding on evolutionary psychology.

Looking at different cultures, the most attractive body type in a society tends to be the typical figure of an upper-class person. Theories of evolutionary psychology explain that we have a natural inclination towards high status because we look for partners who can best provide resources and protection for children. As a result, when a certain body type indicates high socio-economic status, people in that culture would intrinsically favor that body type. We can also say that preferences for body fat reflect a society’s socio-economic condition, and percentage of body fat implies an individual’s socio-economic status. For example, global anthropological studies have discovered some interesting correlations between individual’s body size and socio-economic status. In developed societies the correlation is negative, meaning that people who are wealthier tend to be thinner. On the contrary, in developing countries, poorer people usually weight less. In a list of ten countries where being fat is attractive, only one country is free of extreme poverty.  Because of food shortages, those who are well-off are more likely to maintain body fat. Therefore, these cultures believe that body fat implies prosperity, happiness, and sometimes good luck. In Ghana and many parts of Africa, obesity, especially in hips, has been associated with abundance, fertility, and attractiveness. Their middle-upper class, generally have greater body weight and fat. People believe that “developing a protruding belly or putting on weight is a sign that one is living well”. In contrast, most people from Europe, America, and East Asian dislike body fat and believe that “thin is in”. People often exercise or eat sparingly to maintain low body fat, and sometimes use artificial methods such as liposuction to lessen measurements of some body parts. Newsweek reveals that fashion models in America have an average Body Mass Index of 16, which is classified by World Health Organization as “severely thin”. Actually, the average BMI of adult women in America is 26.5.  Statistics have shown that in America, obesity is most obvious among people with “lowest levels of education and the highest poverty rates”. Overall, the body type which implies wealth is most likely to be preferred.

The same logic can explain various preferences for fair or tan skin tone in different cultures. Whether tan or pale, the ideal skin tone is most representative of people with high status. In some cultures, only the rich can avoid outdoor labor and maintain pale skin tone without blemishes, but in other cultures, wealthy people enjoy outdoor recreations and like tan skin. As explained previously, we are driven by an innate desire for higher status, and will consequently pursue a skin tone which implies good socio-economic conditions. For example, a preference for pale skin is deeply embedded in East Asian cultures. As early as 300BC China, an association between wealth and skin color was found. Lower class workers were darkened while working under the sun, and aristocrats enjoyed the privilege of having porcelain skin. Pale skin has therefore been attractive for thousands of years. Skin whitening products have made up to 30 percent of China’s skin care industry, and Chinese women even invented facekini to protect their face from the sunshine at beaches. A survey in Hong Kong suggested that over half women wanted their men paler and two-thirds men prefer paler women. Researchers in Indonesian point out that the popular fair skin is best described as “cosmopolitan whiteness”, which implies that a woman is cultivated and urbane.  In contrast, Westerners prefer a healthy tan. In a study surveying 1000 British women, while 57% said they feel more confident in tan skin, only 6% want to be deeply bronzed. “They want a sun-kissed look – the skin tone favored by the likes of runway star Kate Moss, IT girl Alexa Chung, and supermodel Cara Delevingne”. USA Today reported that over 59 percent college students have used tanning beds, although many are aware of its risk for skin cancer.

Trying too hard to stay pale or get tan

The inclination for high socio-economic status has also shaped fashion trends. Since high status often implies desirable partners, dressing styles of the upper-class are likely to be appreciated and followed by the general public. In short, these styles would become fashionable. For example, since intelligence often results in wealth and status today, geeks have become financially well-off and more desirable when it comes to marriage. Their dressing style therefore has become more favorable and even become a trend called geek chic. Geek’s signature black-rimmed glasses have been worn by many celebrities, such as Lupita Nyong’o at the Golden Globes, LeBron James at news conferences, and Kate Winslet at the 2016 Academy Awards. Plaid suits, velvet vests, and button-downs has also been popular on high-end runways for several seasons. Another example is how wars influence fashion trends. During World War I and II, trench coats were just created and were only available to British military officers. These officers were respectable, financially well-off, masculine, and handsome. Many young ladies saw them as ideal husbands. Consequently, trench coats have remained fashionable throughout the World Wars and in the following decades. The color khaki has become a trend after its extensive use in military uniforms as well, and now khakis is still one of the most popular types of men’s trousers.

Ladies in vintage European paintings may not conform to modern Western beauty standards, but with evolutionary psychology, we can understand why beauty ideals varies throughout time and culture. A mechanism works behind the change: attractive traits indicate high socio-economic status, the ability to provide for a family, and eventually the reproductive potential. In short, characteristics that can indicate wealth are fashionable. This reminds me of the Met Gala, an annual fundraising celebrity event with most stunning costumes under a selected theme. As “the Oscars of the East Coast”, the Met Gala has a significant impact on fashion trends. Last Monday the 2016 Met Gala is held under the theme of technology, recognizing how technology has changed the fashion industry. Now technology is impacting every aspect of our lives, how will it change our perception of beauty and mate selection?  Are we going to prefer the tech-savvy type because they can quickly make use of the gadgets? Will technologies like big data and machine learning bring new insights about our dating pattern?



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