Which face is more attractive? If you chose the face on the left, you share the tastes of most heterosexual men. It is a composite face, or “morph”, made from the faces of eight women with unusually small feet. The face on the right is a morph of eight women with unusually large feet.
It’s quite a difference, isn’t it? Women with smaller feet have prettier faces, at least according to the men who took part in this study. So do women with longer thigh bones and narrower hips, as well as women who are taller overall. And the contest isn’t even a close one. “These are the most strikingly different morphs I’ve ever seen,” says Jeremy Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist at the University at Albany, New York.
Atkinson and his colleague Michelle Rowe measured hand length, foot length, thigh length and hip width on 60 white female college students, then adjusted each measurement to account for individual differences in overall height. For each of 16 body-part measurements, they selected the eight women with the shortest lengths and the eight with the longest, and constructed morphs of their faces. These morphs were then rated for attractiveness by 77 heterosexual male students.
The men were three-and-a-half times as likely to pick the short-footed morph as more attractive, and almost 10 times as likely to say it was more feminine, Atkinson and Rowe found.
Similarly, they were more than 11 times as likely to pick the narrow-hipped morph as more attractive, and eight times as likely to choose the long-thighed morph, the researchers reported at a meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society in Eugene, Oregon, last month.
Atkinson thinks men find these features attractive because they serve as markers of a healthy childhood. Biologists know that stress and poor nutrition during foetal development and puberty can affect sex hormone levels and cause earlier puberty.
This can leave such women relatively short and stout, while those with a more benign childhood continue growing for longer, and attain a slenderer, more stereotypically feminine face and body, which most men find more attractive.
Atkinson’s explanation makes sense, says David Perrett, a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews, UK, who studies facial attractiveness. Since faces and bodies are shaped by the same hormones, he says, you should be able to predict the attractiveness of one body part by looking at another.
The researchers also morphed 67 men and asked 82 heterosexual women to rate the attractiveness and masculinity of morphs of eight male faces, selected, as before, by the same 16 body part measurements. The results were less clear-cut than they had been for women: the female viewers chose morphs of men with long torsos as being more attractive, but they also thought men with small wrists were more attractive.
Women may lack a consistent preference because powerful, masculine men can be a mixed blessing, evolutionarily speaking, says Atkinson. “If they go for a big alpha male, they’ll get good genes,” he says. “But they may be left to raise the child themselves.”
Indeed, the women who took part in the study were twice as likely to rate the large-wristed morph as more open to sex without love, and by the same margin opted for the small-wristed morph as a better candidate for a long-term relationship.