Can You Really Quantify Attraction? We Investigate the "Stats"

Photo: Stocksy/Marco Govel

Back in college, when I was just a lowly intern at an online magazine in New York City, I was assigned to write a story called "10 Weird Things That Turn Men On." The story listed qualities like wearing red, smelling like pumpkin pie, and having full hips as scientifically proven to attract male partners to female partners.

When my editor first instructed me to put together a roundup of peer-reviewed studies demonstrating an evolutionary basis for the attractiveness of different physical traits, I thought I would be holed up in my school library, digging through academic papers for weeks. But I was wrong. There were dozens of these studies, and they were shockingly easy to find—a sign that the science of attraction is evidently at the top of even the world's smartest minds.

For example, I found a 2007 University of California, Santa Barbara study revealing that thicker hips and thighs might be considered more attractive because the fat in these areas contains omega-3 fatty acids, which could pass from a pregnant woman to her fetus and nourish its brain. (Translation: Big hips, good breeding material.) Three years later, scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, found that after a series of tests, men consistently rated women with long, thin arms the most beautiful.

Around the same time that my story was published, other magazines started reporting on the same topic. AskMen.com found a study from the University of Louisville in Kentucky showing that men find women with mouths that take up 50% of the width of their face to be the most attractive, as full pouts have been linked to "long-term health and reproductive potential."

The same story reported that men in Western culture are most drawn to women with a waist-to-hip ratio of precisely 0.7, an indicator of healthy weight and ability to support childbirth. A Redbook.com piece referenced a 2008 survey from The Scandinavian Journal of Psychology demonstrating that men rate brunettes higher on the attractiveness scale than lighter-haired women. "Gentlemen don't, it turns out, prefer blondes," the article said.

Objectively, I understand why stories like this do so well on the internet: Motivated by ego and self-loathing, we're all curious to know what physical features are considered the most beautiful so we can see if we measure up. What's less clear to me is why some of the most highly educated psychologists at some of the world's most esteemed institutions would dedicate such energy to a topic as seemingly frivolous as physical beauty.

It makes one wonder: What is the motivation for these studies? Are they conducted in a biased or problematic way? And ultimately, is "quantifying attraction" even scientifically useful or just another reason for us all to feel insecure? To find out, I consulted a psychologist, a couples therapist, and a wellness expert to get their impressions of these studies and ultimately to provide an objective answer to the question: Are people with certain physical features quantifiably more "attractive?"