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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