Does Physical Attraction Matter?

A few weeks ago my editor here at 4 Marks asked me to "write about the role physical attraction plays in choosing a spouse." At first it seemed like a fun break from writing more serious articles. Then it hit me — my readers seem to be deeply religious people who would expect me to say that looks don't matter. They would expect me to say things like "it's what's inside that counts". But, I can't do that. The truth is, men prefer pretty women.

Humans are drawn to beauty. We seek beauty in nature, art and pretty much everything else; that is just how God made us. Many of the saints have said that man's desire for beauty is a reflection of our higher nature that seeks God, as the creation is a reflection of its creator. To get back down to earth though, no man has ever gazed at a woman across a crowded room and exclaimed, "Wow, she has a great personality!"

Researchers have found that babies respond more positively to attractive people (Langlois et al., 1987). Babies haven't been enculturated to learn what our popular culture considers attractive, but they still respond to beauty. Folk takes show us that long before television and magazines began to shape our social consciousness, beautiful women were associated with goodness and other positive attributes, while the villains were ugly old witches. Even the Bible tells the story of Esther, the beautiful Hebrew woman who was so desired by the King of Persia, that she was able to save her people solely on the merits of her physical attractiveness.

A recent study found that physical beauty is the highest priority for men in choosing a mate (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Peter Todd, of Indiana University, Lars Penke, of Humboldt University, Berlin, Barbara Fasolo, of the London School of Economics, and Alison Lenton, of the University of Edinburgh – 2007). Before you women reply with the typical "Lifetime Television" response condemning men as being shallow, consider this: the same study found that women placed physical attraction second only to how much money a man has. The pursuit of money would hardly seem to be a nobler goal than the pursuit of beauty!

That study sheds light on the whole "trophy wife" phenomenon. A woman who is pretty enough to have any man she wants seeks the richest guy she can find, and a man who is rich enough to have any woman he wants seeks the prettiest woman he can find. Donald Trump leaves Ivana for Marla (and so on and so on) and Anna Nicole Smith married a rich old geezer. They all seem to be rather shallow people. They all got what they wanted. Both sexes are equally superficial…or driven by basal/preservation instinct.

Beautiful women have more romantic options and opportunities. However, in my opinion, only about 5% of the population falls into the truly beautiful category. In some geographical regions this percentage may be higher; Italy has a surplus of beautiful women, as does Cuba and the American south – but, these regions also have the best food and, as obesity is not considered attractive by most men, it all balances out in the end. So, 95% of the population is not beautiful, but about 90% of folks get married. Most women are average in appearance and most women find mates; how is that?

My mother is a psychologist and she notices a lot of things about people that I usually miss. Not long ago, she commented, "Have you noticed how almost all of the couples on the E-Harmony commercials look alike? They look as though they could be related." This led her to conclude that many people are attracted to mates who look similar to themselves. This might explain why, even though I am most attracted to dark haired, olive skinned women, I usually end up with tall, pale, willowy blondes. I'm 6'4", with fair hair and complexion. I certainly don't seek these women out, but maybe they seek me out.

Here is a useful tip for average looking women: if you see a guy to whom you are attracted, go up to him and say hello. Men are not usually as socially adept as women. However, we are always expected to make the first move. Very few of us are comfortable approaching a woman and starting a conversation. Heck, most of us can barely talk with each other with any level of comfort! Just go up to the guy and start talking and flirting and doing what comes naturally to women. Don't stand there, waiting for him to make the first move. Even if you are not the most attractive woman in the room, you will be in his eyes.

I would also suggest that most people of both genders have a less than realistic opinion of their own looks. Most above average looking guys think that beautiful women are out of their league. They will choose a more average looking woman for fear of rejection or because they doubt they are attractive enough to cause a beautiful woman to fall in love with them and remain faithful.

Then, there is desperation. Many people get together motivated mainly by a desire not to be alone. A friend of mine recently married one of the most unpleasant women I've ever met mainly because he wanted to get married before he turned 40.

In the immortal words of Mickey Gilley, from "The Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time":

I don't mean to criticize the girls at all / 'cause I'm no Robert Redford, even overhauled / But we all picture in our minds a girl that looks just right / Ain't it funny, ain't it strange / The way a man's opinion changes / When he starts to face that lonely night.

Another point needs to be examined. A recent study by Martin Fieder and Susanne Huber, of the University of Vienna found that men are most desirous of women younger than themselves, while women prefer older men. That makes sense considering that younger women tend to be more attractive (as proven dramatically at any high school reunion) and older men have had more time to make money. Historically, this has been the trend that humanity has followed, regardless of culture. It was only in the 1950s, when advertisers began to market products to specific generations and the teenager became a pop-culture phenomenon, that the natural desire of age difference in a romantic relationship began to fade – older men marrying younger women began to be seen as old fashioned, backward and less than ideal. I'm not going to say that age disparity is preferable. However, anyone can see that divorce rates skyrocketed from that point on.

I'm reminded of Ray and Rosa Hicks. Ray was a famous storyteller from the mountains of North Carolina, and a good friend of mine. Ray was 27 and Rosa was 14 when they married. They remained deeply in love throughout their marriage, raised several children, and Rosa was at Ray's side when he died at the age of 81. Their lives were very tough and Ray was a hard man to live with, but they stuck it out and their marriage survived – they remained attracted to each other and even jealous of one another to the end. You can read about Ray and Rosa in a book entitled The Last Chivaree. Now days, such relationships are not accepted. A man of 27 who was in love with a 14 year old girl would be branded a pedophile and arrested. Maybe things have changed for the better, but I would be hard pressed to find any evidence of it in our society.

One last aspect of this whole physical attraction thing, that I feel should be addressed, is society's concept of beauty. Over the past few decades the women who have been held up as the ideal of beauty in our culture are pencil thin, flat chested waifs. Frankly, I think the only people who think the ideal woman should look like a boy are the homosexuals who dominate the fashion and entertainment industries. Androgyny is not a quality to which one should aspire. This is unhealthy and just plain wrong. Arguably, the two most beautiful women America has ever produced were Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. Those gorgeous creatures would be considered fat by today's standards and not even allowed in the entertainment industry. Here is a newsflash for the promoters of pop-culture: Men like breasts, and hips and curves! Anyone who thinks Angelina Jolie is more attractive in her current anorexic state than she was 10 years ago is sick. Paris Hilton is disgusting. Anyone who promotes such misguided images of beauty should be tarred, feathered and pushed off the left coast!

In the long run, of course, it is what's inside that counts. But beauty matters, big time!

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  • Guest

    Love talking about beautiful women. There is something very comforting in the whole notion of beauty as expressed in the womanly form. But I think it can be said that there are two beauties, and I don't mean Marilyn and Ava. Men want to see both beauties, the physical expression of love that womanly beauty represents, and the beauty of truth in a woman's eye, and self-appreciation, and in her character. He looks for physical beauty to reassure himself that he himself is lovable, and he looks for the beauty of truth to tell him that his love and devotion will be accepted. I also think that your family life gives you a context in which to value and understand beauty. This world wants you to look for beauty for beauty's sake, by which you miss the mark every time, in my opinion, if that is your sole criteria. The inner beauty informs the outer, and makes it tolerable, and even overcomes it, I would say, when choosing a mate. That is what men really seek, although not necessarily what they find. Patience is a virtue.

  • Guest

    Sure attractiveness counts. I agree with the author when he said ,"…no man has ever gazed across a crowded room and exclaimed, 'Wow, she has a great personality!'

    That having been said, I met the lady who was to become my wife when I was 17 and she was 16. Sure, I thought she was beautiful. Physical beauty is what you see first. You can't help but be swayed by it. But, outward beauty is only skin deep and my future wife's beauty, I was soon to find out, was way deeper than her skin. That is the hook that got me and made me want to be with her. Now, 19 years later, she still is beautiful physically to me. And I still enjoy, to some degree, when I know that a man feels my wife is attractive, but that is my and my counterparts superficiality coming through. Of course, my wife will argue that she doesn't feel as beautiful as she once did. She may not have the smoothness on her face and body that first attracted me, but each of the changes around her eyes are other parts of her body are still beautiful to me. These changes signify the changes and experiences that have made our lives together so much richer. The inner beauty that was there at the beginning, I had to experience before I knew it was there. It has continued to grow over the years and is different from the physical beauty that captured me as it captures all of us at some point. That inner beauty is what I am in awe of more and more as each day passes.

    That inner beauty that did not take me long to become aware of continues to grow as the form of outer beauty that the media seems to tout declines. The media, in a large part, is so biased about what physical beauty is. Older women have a wealth of beauty that is overlooked because we as men can be superficial. As I've gotten older, I've realized how 40 and 50 year old women are just as beautiful physically to me as 20-year-olds used to be.


    Sure, attractiveness counts; but there is so much more.

  • Guest


    Thanks for an article that presents the unvarnished truth of the importance of physical attraction.  We are rational animals and when it comes to procreation – the normal drive behind the attraction – we have to honestly acknowledge the power of the animal in us.  The later discerning of the deeper person is when our rational nature informs us to make judgements about a long term social relationship with our potential mate.  So many of the problems with sex in our society (and in our Church) are the result of our failure to come to grips with the truth of what motivates our behavior. 

  • Guest

    "…just walk up there and start talking and flirting and whatever it is you girls do…"   That would have to be ranked up there as about No. 1 on the list of "Advice I never expected to see on a Catholic website."  

    I do agree men typically don't have the social skills that women do, but "flirting?"  What happened to start and have an interesting conversation that looks for mutual interests and interesting opinions?  Where in the world but sex does flirting lead?! 

  • Guest

    Excuse me!  But it leads to marriage.  The idea that a flirtation — the showing of romantic interest in a man by a women is only about getting into bed, is so demeaning. Ask the married women you know if they ever flirted with their husbands.

    And BTW, flirtation after marriage — as long as it with the husband ! –is good too.  And hopefully then it does lead to sex. LOL.

  • Guest

    Anyone wants to take a gues as to whether Jesus was attractive?

    I found the answer in an article here:  Jesus Christ was Physically Attractive

  • Guest

    It's a generalization of course to say that men prefer pretty women.  And not wholly accurate.Are men often drawn to pretty women?  Yes.  But just as often, men are drawn to the flashy, the gaudy, the obvious, often times the ugly but somehow animalistically atractive.  But why do we care?  Shouldn't women care about how they feel about themselves, and realize that men's attention often wanes?  Human beings are often drawn to the interesting, how do we define 'beauty?'  This is already a tedious article when the author is saying no man notices a woman's personality across the room.  Really?  Speak for yourself.  I know lots of beautiful women that men can't even see their personality, as they move on to less flashy women.

    Beautiful people, not just women, are often associated with vanity, selfishness, and everything not good – fairly or not.

    I am still looking for the connection to a Catholic thought – not one yet…

    Catholic Exchange, why did you publish this?  It's an assault on our intelligence.  It's boorish beyond belief.  It gives no insight.  Yuck.  I believe most people are beautiful, they need love and confidence.  Mother Teresa is beautiful – she shines within.  People are drawn to her.  This is a depressing article, because the author writes like an 8th grade boy.  Not all men are like that.  The examples given are shallow and sad. 

    A better question would be – if we are made to the image and likeness of God, why and how are we so different?  How do we make a commitment to a person less than perfect, but actually a lot like us? 

    Flirting with a stranger is wrong, and dangerous.

    The other posters' comments are no better.  Do you realize you are actually talking about the sin of concuspience (forgive spelling for the moment) and not just innocent attraction?  Only in our society, where we have severed so many bonds, do we begin to trade in people for the purposes of satisfying our fleshly desires. 

    It's depressing to come to a Catholic site, looking for some real insight, and basically get a bunch of men thinking this is a men's adult site, where they can once again possess beauty by talking about it.

  • Guest

    Any man, at whatever year in our society and world, who abuses the trust of a young girl who cannot fully make her own decisions, IS a pedophile and pervert.  Catholic Exchange, seriously, do you have any sense at all?


  • Guest

    I'm sorry, I cannot agree with deirdrew's negativism. It may not have been the most profound article on the subject, but it does represent a wholesome, fun discussion of a fun and intriguing topic, and one in which the author seemed to indicate the reader's ability to disagree.

    I took the discussion in the spirit of other mature articles on the topic I have read over the years, and in the spirit of Bishop Sheen, who once described God's intention of creating the complementarity of the sexes (whoops, did I say a bad word?) as, "the woman introduces the man to the pleasure of loving, and the man introduces the woman to the love of pleasure." But to say that, you would have to think that love and pleasure can go together, and that God is not ashamed of that.

    Look, I think you have to look into everything God made for His purpose and intentions, for what it says about Him, and what it says about us, and enjoy it for what it is (on His terms, of course). Everything is not corrupt, in fact, human love and attraction is a wholesome thing, and part of a holy thing. When the world gets itself into a fix over some sin, as we have over sex, it is important to revisit the elements of it to rediscover this wholesome understanding and a refreshed approach, as has John Paul II in providing his studies and meditations on the Theology of the Body. I reject the notion that we can never feel comfortable talking about it. What God has done in creating our bodies is every bit as profound as what He has done in creating our souls and spirits, and can speak truths just as eloquently as the law of the Spirit. That shows the completeness of God as a Creator, and the simplicity of God, and His view of Man as a unity. But you don't have to talk profoundly about it to get it. That's part of the beauty of it. You can talk simply about it, and even humorously about it, and enjoy the truth of it. In the end, the comfort that the beauty of creation brings us only foretells the comfort and infinite joy His Own Beauty will give us for all eternity.

  • Guest

    As a Catholic woman married for 15 years to a husband who is very loving and supports me no matter what changes I go through being pregnant etc….I have to say that women are a bit sensitive being talked about physically period. We have all been either made fun of publically, privately whatever, and/or lusted after/hit on by strangers, family, whoever. Our body parts have been fair game for many men to discuss, good or bad…and I just want to say…it hurts and gets very OLD. I do understand sexuality needs to be discussed respectfully.

    It's just, for women, reading this, we automatically think…right…I have never looked like Marilyn (well maybe this part, but not this part) and never will…I don't measure up…BECAUSE WE have been so beat up. But God made me and loves me the way I am. Women try to see ourselves from God's perspective, but it is a challenge in our society. Too fat, to skinny, too this, too that.

    And if you sacrifice yourself for the children God has given you using NFP ~ not getting "fixed" ~ and you don't just bounce back like some women, society can be very cruel. They don't understand sacrifice at all. 

    Anyway, please just take into consideration women's feelings of being "discussed" when you have your discussions of beauty. Be kind, always.

  • Guest

    I don't think this article did a very good job of treating the topic.

  • nyc2tx

    I am glad I came across this article as I am doing some research on the topic. Let me first say that I am a Christian and a woman. I believe the author of this article was being completely honest. People speak what is in there heart contrary to what you may think (as the Bible tells us this). There are also comments made that represent how others feel. As a woman I understand the pressures that are placed on us, however, there comes a point when woman who either fit or don’t fit the “beauty” stereotype need to realize that what’s in your heart will determine whether or not you are BEAUTIFUL. I have seen too many times where the ugliness of a person’s character will distract from any physical attractiveness they may have. And in the reverse, someone who may not fit the stereotyped beauty can be so beautiful in spirit that they are indeed very beautiful. I think even men will agree with this. And I totally agree with the author when he says that no one (not even a woman)when looking for a partner says to themselves, “I think that guy over there is rather displeasing to the eye, let me go over and get to know him”. Because woman tend to place less emphasis on beauty if she gets to know that “physically undesirable guy” and he is turns out to be someone with similar interest, a gentlemen, etc it is very possible that she could end up marrying him. However, there is something I really want to address. There was a comment made on this discussion above, more than likely a woman, from the tone. The comments was “Beautiful people, not just women, are often associated with vanity, selfishness, and everything not good – fairly or not”. This thought could not be any truer! As I addressed this above, when the outward appearance doesn’t match the inside. However, this association with beauty and things like vanity and selfishness sometimes is used as an excuse for people, especially woman, to mistreat woman they feel threatened by because of there physical attractiveness. AND THAT IS A SIN! God has purposely made us all to look the way we look because we all serve a distant purpose after our first purpose which is to serve him. Therefore when you see a PHYSICALLY ATTRACTIVE person know this that God choose that particular look for them and knew before hand that people would find them pleasing to the eye. So by having that thought in ones head that because someone is attractive they must be selfish or not a “good” person you are JUDGING them in the same manner that you yourself don’t want to be judged. Because, “the same measure you use to measure someone is the same measure that will be used on you”. THE HOLY BIBLE And if nothing else how disrespectful to your Creator.

  • michaeljc777

    Catholic Exchange, come on, please stop insulting us with this trash. This could have been writen by a 6 year old. Judson, bother, find a commentary that breaks down JPII’s Love and Responsibility and read 5 or 6 hundred times, add an extra rosary a day for humility and for your eyes to be opened. I hear you bro. Physical attractiveness matters. But your article goes overboard. How many of these so calle beautiful people in Hollywood have the marriages that you would want. Yes, looks are important, very important but you would have to be a fool to base your selection of a spouse on her looks alone. You are not a catholic scholar in the least. You sound very confused. Pick up a catechism and read about your fallen human nature. Read the bible, the psalms, Sirach about what it says about women and what qualities to look for. You have stong beleifs, and you are a scholar alright, a scholar of your own pride. You give retreats to singles. How scary is that? I don’t know how old you are Judson, you may only be 20 or 21. I don’t judge you. I know about lust and how blind it can make you. I would guess you beleive you can serve the world and God and have it all? The spirit lusts against the flesh and the flesh lusts against the spirit. What you do not mention is what everyone should do, pray, pray yes pray that God enlighten your mind and aks him to pick your spouse. Ask Our Lady to find a spouse for you. Our fallen human nature will often if not always betray us. All that glitters is not gold. And women, do not flirt like a flusy. Be cute, and interesting, fun (if that’s what he means by flirt -ok fine flirt) Also, please stop insulting us by telling us that men like this and all men like that. Speak about yourself, your views are very very twisted and seem to fit better on Bill Mayer, or Howard Stern not a Catholic Website. You should be ashamed of yourself for this trashy one step down from a porn or maxim magazine article. You have a responsibility Mr. Catholic Scholar. Learn your trade or go join Howard Stern, but stop corrupting other men and women. Ladies, the last thing you want is someone who just loves you because he is lustful for your breasts, hips and curves. There is always someone with bigger breasts, hips and curves. Your treasure is where your heart is and if your heart is caught up with the desires of the flesh, you remain in darkness.

  • Jlee

    I was actually looking for an article that would console those of us who are definitely not pretty–if you google what would Jesus say, and get this instead………………..hmmmm maybe true but doesn’t ease my pain any.

  • Dred Scott

    i’m a psychology doctorate student and i stubled across this while preparing for a presentation on “privilege and physical attractiveness”  I find it hard to believe that u would use such language! A man of God would not criticize homosexuals (they too are children of God), nor offer violence (“push them off the left coast) as a resolution. Leave the judgements and destinies up to God. Thanks brother.

  • Dred Scott

    i’m a psychology doctorate student and i stubled across this while preparing for a presentation on “privilege and physical attractiveness”  I find it hard to believe that u would use such language! A man of God would not criticize homosexuals (they too are children of God), nor offer violence (“push them off the left coast) as a resolution. Leave the judgements and destinies up to God. Thanks brother.

  • Mae Ann

    This article is not based upon Christianity but rather the things of this world.  I would have expected better from a Catholic author.  You don’t look to surveys for spiritual direction.

  • Mydaed

    You sound like a 14 year old nerd typing away at his computer with a room full of comic books and Cheetos. Grow up. 

  • TheGuest

    Paris Hilton has a bad reputation, but calling her disgusting because she is flat-chested with an athletic figure is UNACCEPTABLE. There are different body types and you don’t have the right to criticize women who don’t have all the “curves” you are obsessed with.

  • c s

    Had to write a response to the article, and to the general tone of the comments left.  As a never-married, middle-aged Catholic heterosexual male I have to say the author of the article is spot-on.  So what if what he speaks is ‘of this world’?  We are spiritual beings in a very, very physical world.  The comments left are of a nature that bespeaks thin-skinned, whiny, and probably otherwise idealistic persons who are dangerously naive.  This kind of gets my blood going, but not really.  To the one’s taking issue of the author of the article – you really are a loser calling yourself Christian if your last resort for an argument is a holier-than-thou stance on someone’s honest observation of Reality.  I personally have had more than my fair share of tragedy, broken dreams, disillusions, reality-shattering notions of Love throughout my life.  And yet, I reckon with, not against, reality.  Funny thing about being honestly human – hope remains.  People are weak, Love is strong.  Is it no wonder that God is Love?…
    No go wipe your nose, and deal.

  • Kevin Codd

    Right on. It never ceases to amaze me how otherwise intelligent Catholics who recognize the existence of objective Truth think that beauty is subjective or irrelevant or the lowest possible good. Is not the Blessed Virgin Mary described as beautiful in every apparition?

    This politically correct “everyone is beautiful” nonsense is akin to claiming that “everyone is brilliant”. Sorry, but no they’re not. God made some of us smart, some of us not. Some of us have a great sense of humor, others don’t. Some are beautiful, some are not. This is just how it is for we humans in our fallen state.

  • Bloomwhereyouareplanted

    From a flat-chested waif: thank you for the insult. May I draw your attention to the fact that we are living in a culture that screams breasts? Blouses and shirts are so tight as to be vulgar. Women cannot purchase lingerie unless it “adds a size” or “lifts.” Did you miss all of this?
    How do you think us “flat-chested waifs” feel about this? Do you think we enjoy being cast as inadequate because we were born with a certain body shape? How long do you think we will have to endure hiding the fact that we have “less” than is “normal.” Do you think we should have augmentation surgery? And how would you feel if fashion mandated that your sexual organs were thrown into plain view of the public eye and enhanced as the single most attractive feature on a man?
    Wake up.

  • Being in Heaven also does wonders for one’s appearance. Those who had ugly deformations on Earth shine in Heaven more beautiful than the prettiest mortals.

  • kss

    A worldly article that has no business on a catholic website.

  • silenz

    Where are you blooming? I like waifs 🙂