Chapter 15: Flowers look different through different eyes

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

gè huā rù gè yǎn

The previous chapter explained the importance of physical attractiveness in mate selec­tion.[1] It argued that men were seeking beauty for purely reproductive reasons, as it consti­tutes the strongest and most obvious visual markers of fecundity. Hence, the male brain is pro­gram­med to recognise and pick out the healthiest and most fertile mates, those most like­ly to produce the fittest children. As such, this preference for pretty women is the result of thou­sands of years of evolution and therefore should be considered as innate to all humans. According to this explanation, shapes, faces, smells, and ages of the mates people choose are apparently influenced by patterns set millennia ago, which makes them much more pre­dicta­ble than one would think.[2] Now, this represents quite a contradiction to the truism that beauty is an entirely subjective concept. Thus, the purpose of this chapter is to question the common view that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and to introduce the notion that beauty is not as arbitrary as it seems. It also explores whether there might be some objective criteria with which beauty can be measured, or least made explicit. Stated differently, the next few pages will attempt to elucidate why we find some physical charac­teristics graceful and others ugly.

When looking at the idea of “physical attractiveness”, one notices that it also includes a strong sexual component, i.e., that it is a lot about oomph and desirability. For Allan and Barbara Pease, beauty and sex appeal are basically the same, with the word beautiful signifying “sexually stimulating”. Beauty has the simple purpose of ensuring that people (possibly of opposite sexes) are attracted to one another so that they can procreate. So if somebody finds a person pretty, it means nothing else than that he wants to have sex with her, of course only from a biological perspective. A man will then consider a woman as attractive if she displays a number of qualities indicating that she will help him to success­fully pass his chromosomes to the next generation. Similarly, a man will be deemed attractive to a woman if his looks suggest that he can provide food and safety for herself and her chil­dren.[3] By the way, this does not only apply to animals but also to other living organisms. In particular, flowers are beautiful because they have to stand out in the meadow. Through their appearance, they communicate information about themselves to insects and animals around them, disclosing their growth stage and what kind of nutrition they can offer.[4]

One would be tempted to think that uniquely beautiful people have more chances to be cho­sen as mates because their extraordinary, or rare, features make them more attractive. Preci­sely not. When sexual creatures are looking for a partner, they actually prefer that mate not to sport any unusual, peculiar or otherwise deviant attributes, for fear that these could be due to mutations – thereby proving that humans are not the only ones to be scared of X-Men or of X-Beings in general. In fact, they are rather drawn to those individuals possessing predominantly com­mon or conventional features.[5] This strategy, called “koinophilia” (a com­bi­nation of the Greek terms koinos, i.e., “the usual” or “common”, and philos, i.e., “fondness” or “love”), allows organisms to ensure that their offspring will inherit a set of exhaustively tried and tested characteristics, and will, therefore, be right more often than it will be wrong. “Averageness” as an indicator of physical of beauty was originally disco­vered by Francis Galton in the 1870s, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, who while trying to generate a prototypical criminal face, came across the idea to overlay photographic images of several faces. He then found out that the composite portrait became increasingly attrac­tive with the addition of each new face, getting closer and closer to the “ideal” image. More than 100 years later, Judith Langlois and her colleagues came to the same conclusion using computer generated face averaging tests: Not only is the average of two human faces rated more favourably than either of the individual faces involved; the more faces (of the same gender and age) are included in the averaging process, the more appealing the resulting average face is perceived.[6] It is also this insight that inspired famed psychologist Robert Sternberg to exquisitely describe attractiveness as “a kind of golden mean of the faces we have seen”.[7]


[1]    See chapter 14 “Fair lady is what gentleman seeks”.

[2]    Brizendine (2006), pp. 59, 63

[3]    See chapter 17 “Finding a good job is nothing compared to finding a good husband”.

[4]    Pease / Pease (2002). pp. 195-196



[7]    Sternberg (1998), p. 107

Chapter 14: Fair lady is what gentleman seeks – Part 4

Women, conversely, rarely bring up physical appearance as paramount in their ideal partner, at least not explicitly. It may be desirable for them, but certainly not very important. That being said, it is worthwhile to remark that female attractiveness does not only matter in the context of sexual selection, but it is also becoming increasingly important as a way to assert oneself in society at large. For instance, it has been established that both men and women con­si­der good-looking people as smarter, friendly and competent, and are more likely to want to get to know them better than it is the case for less attractive people.[1] Likewise, attrac­tive people are automatically and unconsciously ascribed positive traits such as honesty, intelligence, kindness and talent. It might be politically correct to deny that attracti­veness affects our decisions, but, whether we like it or not, there is evidence that the brain is programmed to respond to the physical appearance of others. This can also have positive sides since it is relatively easy to alter (that is, improve) some of the factors influencing our looks.[2]

And this is precisely what millions of women are doing every day when they dress up, fix their hair, go on a diet, take aerobic or yoga classes, and so on. These rituals and habits reflect women’s motivation to do whatever is necessary to appear young, healthy, and fertile in order to attract men. As their reproductive value sharply declines over the years and given that they cannot falsify their age, they have evolved the mastery of all kinds of decep­tive tactics and visual aids to manipulate their appearance. So if an older woman wants to stay in the mating game, she needs to keep herself looking attractive, in particular by re-creating the markers of a younger, childbearing miss. The possibilities to get there are mani­fold, and may involve the use of make-up (for example, mascara to make eyes look wider, lipstick to enlarge the lips, shades of red to imitate blood flow in the cheeks, face powder to even out the skin, etc.), hair care products (namely shampoos and conditioners to achieve lus­trous hair, bleaching or dying to emulate higher oestrogen levels, etc.), plastic surgery (e.g., collagen injections to smooth and plump the skin, face lifting to eliminate lines and wrinkles, breast implants to enlarge their bosoms, liposuctions to recreate a cur­vaceous bust and hips, etc.), or clothing (for instance wearing dark colours or vertical stripes to appear thin­ner, padding to look more full-figured, high heels to fake tallness and lean­ness, etc.).[3],[4]

The reason these strategies often turn out successful is that they work on the preferences engra­ved into male brains. It does not necessarily mean that ladies enjoy taking care of them­­selves in such ways, which, after all, costs a lot of time, money and effort and may inflict a fair deal of physical suffering. In fact, they do not really have any choice but to fight this battle against physical and aesthetic decline. Con­sciously or subconsciously, women understand what the opposite sex is looking for, and are aware that whoever fails to fulfil these qualities of youthfulness and healthfulness loses her competitive edge.[5] Thus, when women claim that they do all these things “to feel better about themselves”, a lot of them actually mean that “they feel better about themselves because men are more attracted to them”, as they instinctively know that it increases the odds of getting what they want.[6]

Related proverbs and citations:


ài jiāng shān gèng ài mĕi rén

Love nation, but love woman more.

Preferring beauty over power.

女房と畳は新しいほうがよい (Japanese)

nyōbō to tatami wa atarashii hō ga yoi

Wives and tatami mats are better when new.


[1]    Kramer / Dunaway (1990), p. 94

[2]    Pease / Pease (2002), p. 197

[3]    Pease / Pease (2009), pp. 92-93

[4]    Townsend (1998), p. 117

[5]    Buss (2003), pp. 110

[6]    Pease / Pease (2009), pp. 95, 229

Chapter 14: Fair lady is what gentleman seeks

yǎo tiǎo shū nǚ, jūn zǐ hào qiú

The following section deals with one of the most fundamental questions in the relationship between males and females, one that regularly causes arguments, frustration, and resentment on both sides – namely the question of why men insist so much on beauty and youth when selecting their girlfriend or wife. This chapter and the following few ones will focus on the des­cription of the characteristics and attributes that human beings expect from prospective mating partners, covering the perspectives of both men and women.[1] The discussion shall also provide justification for people’s behaviour in this regard, which sometimes may be interpreted as unfair, shallow or materialistic – in particular for those that cannot meet the criteria or otherwise feel rejected.

In their natural tendency to seek females who are younger than them and to place greater emphasis on physical beauty,[2] men do not behave any different than their ancestors. Like­wise, if women are more likely to favour older males with higher earning potential and higher status, they are following exactly the same pattern as their foremothers. In terms of sexual urges and drives, nothing has really changed over the last hundreds of thousands of years: Men are still drawn to young, pretty females, while women are still attracted to males with resources, i.e., goods, property, or money. However, this has nothing to do with super­ficiality, sex stereotyping or the skin-deep objectification of women, as many people, espe­cially feminists, often complain. Instead, “the reality is that men’s preferences evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, are hardwired into the brain, and have hardly changed. The fact that men’s preferences are based on physical beauty and youth has been necessary for the successful genetic advancement of the human race. […] To suppress their existence or deny that these preferences are real is like being angry at the weather because it’s raining or being upset that carnivorous animals prefer meat to a vegetarian diet.”[3]

By looking for youth, fertility, and health in a mate, men are doing nothing more than uncons­ciously discerning the signs that a woman could carry his genes forward. Such choi­ces are innate, as evolution has, generation after generation, favoured males who tend to select attractive mates on the one hand, and females who pick out partners with wealth, power and status on the other. Without the heritage received from our forebears who learned, over millions of years, how to propagate their genes, we would be unable to make out the fittest mates, those most likely to produce healthy offspring and those whose resour­ces and com­mit­ment can help our children survive.[4] Biologically speaking, a man consi­ders women as “vehicles that can transfer his genes into the next generation”, while for a woman, men are “sources of a vital substance (sperm) that can turn their eggs into embryos”. Seen from this perspective, the other gender is no more than a sought-after resource to be exploited.[5]


[1]  This proverb is extracted from the Classic of Poetry, also known as the Book of Songs, or the Book of Odes (诗经, shī jīng). Comprising more than 305 works dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC, it constitutes the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry. As one of the Five Classics (see also chapter 10, “A melon forced off its vine is not sweet”), it is said to have been compiled by Confucius himself. In the poem Guan Ju (section Lessons from the States, Odes Of Zhou And The South, 国风 周南 关雎, guó fēng zhōu nán guān jū), the first verses read:

关关雎鸠、在河之洲。(guān guān jū jiū, zài hé zhī zhōu)

窈窕淑女、君子好逑。(yǎo tiǎo shū nǚ, jūn zi hào qiú)

Guan-guan go the ospreys,

On the islet in the river.

The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady,

For our prince a good mate she.


[2]    See chapter 5 “Old cows like tender grass”.

[3]    Pease / Pease (2009), p. 75

[4]    Brizendine (2006), p. 59

[5]    Ridley (1993), p. 174

Chapter 13: Birds of a feather flock together – Part 4

Furthermore, based on the assumption or belief that “opposites attract”, some people appa­rently also seek dissimilarity in personality, as exemplified in the following statements:

We look like total opposites. He’s tall and dignified, and I’m short and hysterical. We are opposites in terms of the way we look and the way we act, but because we get along so well we balance each other out. Or maybe we get along so well because we are opposites.

Moreover, anecdotal and clinical evidence also indicates that, for instance, highly emotional women have the ability to make quite an impact on highly cerebral men, or that aggressive men exert some kind of attraction on conciliative women. Likewise, research found out that couples in complementary relationships, e.g., combining dominant people with submissive partners, reported higher satisfaction than do people who were with partners who resembled themselves.[1]

Various accounts may be employed to argue against the notion that “birds of a feather flock together” and to explain why, on the contrary, opposite personalities could attract one ano­ther very much in the same way as the extremes of a magnet. First of all, differences can be exciting and add spice to a relationship, both in the short and long terms. If the two part­ners are too similar, boredom may set in after a while, as their opinions or responses are too obvious or foreseeable. But if they are dissimilar, the process of discovering another per­son’s culture, views, beliefs or ideas can have galvanising effects on both, raising their inte­rest and passion for one another.[2] Not being familiar with or fully understanding some­body can be seen as a source of thrill or eroticism. The mystique of the unknown thus can con­tri­bute to the creation of sexual tension between the two opposites, resulting, in the best case, into an amorous relationship.

At the same time, interacting with someone who holds different mental positions offers the opportunity to learn something new and valuable, or to sharpen one’s own argumentation skills. At any rate, distinctiveness allows people to experience a wider spectrum of emo­tional or intellectual opportunities. Dating or being with someone who is different from one­self offers a person the chance to find out what he likes and dislikes in a mate. She can then force him to look deeper into himself by challenging his own convictions, thoughts or fee­lings, thus expanding his knowledge and life experience.[3] Furthermore, a woman’s aware­ness or insight that she is liked or loved by a man who disagrees with her on a number of points is particularly gratifying, as it shows her that her partner likes or loves her because of who she is and not simply because of her views. This is likely to make her feel unique and special, rather than just being like everyone else. Another explanation could be the existence of an innate defence mechanism that drives people into the arms of partners who are their complete opposite – like, for example, when a man used to suppress his feelings (as his own way to cope) finds himself attracted to women who dramatise their emotions.

One key aspect in this regard is complementarity. In fact, it is not necessarily the difference per se that enables or intensifies the attraction, but the compatibility between two indivi­duals, be it in terms of personalities, preferences, skills, etc. Accordingly, absolute dissimi­litude is neither necessary nor recommended. On the contrary, complementarity in one parti­cular, significant personality dimension seems to be enough to tip the scales – while simi­larity in general (e.g., in background, interests, intelligence, etc.) remains the main fac­tor for attraction.[4] Partners just need enough distinctness to make it interesting and to balance their own individualities, yet not so much that it would impede the development of their personalities or interfere with their lifestyles.[5]


Related proverbs and citations:


chóng yáng mèi wài

To worship and have blind faith in foreign things.



[1]    Cited in: Pines (2005), p. 58

[2]    Pease / Pease (1999), p. 268

[3]    Yoo (2012)

[4]    Pines (2005), pp. 58-59

[5]    Pease / Pease (1999), p. 268