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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Universal Attraction and Physical Attributes

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Physical Attributes that are Universally Attractive

Are there any physical attributes that are considered to be universally attractive?


Beauty may be subjective, but it’s not completely subjective. There’s an effective rule-of-thumb for answering the question of what’s considered to be physically attractive — attractiveness is associated with physical and psychological traits that are perceived to be indicators of good physical and hence reproductive health. Without doubt, there’s variation in what specific individuals find personally attractive due to genetic, cultural, historical, psychodynamic and behavioral influences, but experts (5) have noted that people across cultures tend to agree that the following physical qualities make a person physically attractive:

1. In both sexes clear skin and vibrant hair is admired as a sign of youth, vigor and good nutrition.

2. In both sexes having a symmetrical face and body are indicative of good physical and psychological health and the absence of genetic abnormalities (7,8,12,15).

3. Qualities desirable in men include substantial height (3,6), square jaw, wide brow, wide shoulders, strong arms, defined chest and a waist-to-hip ratio of about 1.0. Many of these features indicate that a man is healthy and is a good protector.

4. Qualities desirable in women include full, red lips, large breasts, waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.7 and voluptuous buttocks. Many of these features indicate that a woman is able to produce healthy children (2,13,14).

5. In both sexes (although more for men than women) features that are typically associated with a baby’s face are deemed attractive. In other words, there’s an apparent preference for “cuteness”, which includes large, closely spaced eyes, a small, slightly upturned (or “button”) nose and a soft, rounded chin. These baby-like features signal nurturance and non-dominance—traits that men appear to find very attractive. Women find these traits attractive too, often because nurturance is a positive quality in a mate (4,9); however, women have a more significant preference for facial features which signal maturity, strength and dominance (11).

6. In both sexes an “average” face and body (1,10) are perceived as optimal. Few people like a nose, for instance, that is too large or too small. Average faces and bodies are composites that wash out extreme ends on the continuum of various features, that is, they indicate the absence of potentially maladaptive genes.

7. In both sexes unattractive facial features are often offset by attractive physiques.

8. In both sexes certain physical, but non-anatomical features are especially desirable. In fact, these features can either counteract anatomical flaws or can by themselves be more physically attractive than the kinds of anatomical features mentioned above. Examples include:

- A person’s physical style, such as posture, stature, gait, eye contact and smile. Some people have a smile that is warm or bright enough to accentuate average physical features or even offset particularly unattractive physical features.

- A person’s body image, including level of comfort with his/her own bodies. Nothing can be more physically unattractive than a person who dislikes their appearances whether or not they’re considered generally physically attractive. In fact, a physically unattractive person’s comfort with his/her own looks can sometimes make up for any physical flaws and actually become more physically attractive than a person who’s already above-average looks – and especially a person above-average in looks who doesn’t think that s/he is physically attractive.

- The person’s level of physicality with others: some people are quite physically attracted to those who are more “touchy-feely,” such as people who like to give pats on the back, brushes on the arm, hugs or massages.

- A person’s personal hygiene, grooming and dress. In some cases, exceptional presentation can make average or not-so-attractive faces and bodies look quite physically attractive.

9. In both sexes a person who’s similar to us in physical attractiveness. The reasons for this may include the following:

- We are comfortable and feel safer with people who are similar to us.

- We know ourselves well; if we consider ourselves to be physically healthy, then we’ll consider people of similar physical attractiveness to be healthy as well.

- We don’t like to be around people who are more attractive than us, because we fear they’ll upstage us.


1 Beck, S.B., Ward-Hull, C.I., & McLear, P.M. (1976). Variables related to women’s somatic preferences of the male and female body. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 34, 1200-1210.

2 Buss, D.M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1-49.

3 Buss, D.M., & Schmitt, D.P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: an evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232.

4 Cunningham, M.R. (1986). Measuring the physical in physical attractiveness: Quasi-experiments on the sociobiology of female and facial beauty. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 50, 925-935.

5 Cunningham, M.R., Roberts, A.R., Barbee, A.P., Druen, P.B., & Wu, C.H. (1995). “Their ideas of beauty are, on the whole, the same as ours”: consistency and variability in the cross-cultural perception of female physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 68, 261-279.

6 Ellis, B.J. (1992). The evolution of sexual attraction: evaluative mechanisms in women. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

7 Gangestead, S.W., & Thornhill, R. (1997). Human sexual selection and developmental stability. In J.A. Simpson & D.T. Kenrick (Eds.), Evolutionary social psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

8 Grammer, K., & Thornhill, R. (1994). Human (Homo sapiens) facial attractiveness and sexual selection: the role of symmetry and averageness. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 108, 233-242.

9 Keating, C.F. (1985). Gender and the physiognomy of dominance and attractiveness. Social Psychology Quarterly, 48, 61-70.

10 Langlois, J.H., & Roggman, L.A. (1990). Attractive faces are only average. Psychological Science, 1, 115-121.

11 Sadalla, E.K., Kenrick, D.T., & Vershure, B. (1987). Dominance and heterosexual attraction. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 52, 730-738.

12 Shackelford, T.K., & Larsen, R.J. (1997). Facial asymmetry as an indicator of psychological, emotional, and physiological distress. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 72, 456-466.

13 Symons, D. (1979). The evolution of human sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

14 Symons, D. (1995). Beauty is in the adaptations of the beholder: the evolutionary psychology of human female sexual attractiveness. In P.R. Abramson & S.D. Pinkerton (Eds.), Sexual nature, sexual culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

15 Thornhill, R., & Moeller, A.P. (1997). Developmental stability, disease, and medicine. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 72, 497-548.

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