Men, take note: A healthy glow is more attractive to women than a strong, masculine face, a new study says.
Women in a recent experiment preferred men with yellower and redder skin tones, both of which can signal good health, a crucial factor in choosing a mate, scientists say.
For instance, people of any race who eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables tend to have yellower hues, and people who are physically fit have more oxygenated—and thus, redder—blood and skin.
By contrast, pallid skin with lesions is generally considered unattractive, perhaps because such traits betray a weak immune system, said study co-author Ian Penton-Voak, an experimental psychologist at the University of Bristol in the U.K. (Explore a human-body interactive.)
Unexpectedly, the women in the study showed no preference for men with traditionally masculine features, such as a prominent jaw and high muscle mass, the researchers say.
"What we found is—to our surprise—when you measure masculinity, it doesn't bear any relation to attractiveness at all," Penton-Voak said.
The discovery flies in the face of previous research that suggested women are drawn to men with masculine traits, which have been associated with longer-term qualities including disease resistance and healthier offspring.
Instead of looking for a manly man, Penton-Voak noted, a woman may be focusing more on an immediate question: Is this potential mate healthy or sick?
Manly Men Take a Hit
Penton-Voak and colleagues took 20 photos of Caucasian men in northern England with an average age of 27 and made mathematical measures of their facial colors and masculinity.
Twenty-one Caucasian women with an average age of 19 were then asked to judge the attractiveness of each man's picture. The women rated the men with yellow and red skin tones as most desirable.
In the second part of the study, the team took the original photos, digitally morphed them into more masculine or feminine faces, and asked the subjects to select which version they found more attractive.
Again the women were not more interested in the men with masculinized faces.
Though the subjects in the study—published October 27 in the journal PLoS ONE—were Caucasian, it's likely that such preferences are "cross-culturally stable," Penton-Voak noted.
Other experiments have shown, for example, that Zulu women in South Africa like South African men with yellow and red skin tones.
More Than Just a Pretty Face
Still, the new study doesn't rule out the chance that cultural differences influence which physical traits women find attractive, said Laura Dane, an evolutionary psychologist at Douglas College in British Columbia, Canada.
And overall, Dane emphasized, the paper is missing a key point: "Physical attractiveness is not the only thing that women use to choose" a partner.
For instance, in selecting a mate, women will often trade looks for resources or personality.
Dane described a 1990 study in the Journal of Psychology in which women were asked to choose between what many would consider an attractive man in a Burger King uniform and an unattractive man in a suit.
Most women chose the man in a suit, presumably because he would be a better provider. However, in a separate part of the study, most women also said they would prefer an attractive man in a suit, she pointed out.
When the study authors performed a similar experiment with men, the subjects most often chose the more attractive woman, regardless of the outfit, Dane added.
Such predictability is why studying "men's preferences [in women is] very boring," study co-author Penton-Voak said. Men consistently want women who show signs of youth and femininity, which in turn indicate high fertility.
So what purpose do masculine features serve? They could be a signal of more than just health and virility, such as social clout or power, Douglas College's Dane said.
Such a theory fits into Penton-Voak and colleagues' next topic of study: whether masculine traits exist mostly for the benefit of other men.
"Maybe masculinity is not there for women to find attractive," Penton-Voak said, but "to stake a claim in a dominance hierarchy."