Sex and the Red-Blooded Woman

Remember these?

I first came across them back in 2008, the first time I really tried to understand Korean women’s penchant for skin-whitening. While it turns out that I originally misinterpreted what the images above were, from a 2005 study of the relationship between female attractiveness and hormones, one of its conclusions remains the same: the redder a women’s cheeks, the sexier.

In brief, the images are 2 composites made from 2 separate groups of 10 women each from the study (out of 59), all taken on the days they were ovulating, i.e. when they were most likely to get pregnant. On the left is that of the 10 women with the highest estrogen levels on that day in their menstrual cycles, and on the right of the 10 women with the lowest.

It sounds mean to the latter, but I’m sure there’d be little argument as to which women are the more attractive.

While I’ve touched in passing on the role of hormones in human sexual attractiveness many times before however, most notably the fact that women with (arguably) universally-attractive hourglass figures have much more estrogen than those with other body shapes, making them up to 3 times more likely to get pregnant, I don’t mean to imply that one’s preferences in the opposite sex are nothing but a reflection of their hormone levels.

Source: Pixabay @Pexels.

For example, all things being equal, then men with high testosterone are better mates for women, as that is a good indicator of physical health. But while a great many women might find men with “masculine” jaws like Harrison Ford irresistible however, that is not the same as saying that they would automatically choose to have children with them over more “feminine” men, as those same high hormone levels tend (and I stress, only tend) to make them poorer fathers relative to their more average rivals.

But ideally, women would get pregnant by the hunks, and trick other men who were better fathers into raising them, thinking they were their own. And one way in which men try to prevent this is by spending much more time with their female partners when they are ovulating, thereby ensuring that they don’t get a chance to have flings with those dashing Harrison Ford types just when they’re most tempted to. (Women in heterosexual relationships, take note of the extra attention right about the same time you feel like a night out with the girls!)

On the women’s side, one way to ensure that he doesn’t have flings when you’re having your period, thereby potentially having children with other women who will take some of his time and resources away from your own, is to trick him into thinking that you’re actually ovulating instead. And how best to do that?

Well, remember those red cheeks in the opening image?

I confess, I haven’t actually had many conversations with women about why they wear blusher, and invariably they’ve just said they do so out of habit, and/or that it makes them look prettier. And indeed it might, in the sense that if one associates red and pink with femininity (for whatever cultural and/or biological reasons), then wearing it would certainly make one appear more feminine. But in a new study by Ian Stephen and colleagues at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, one more very good reason to wear it has been revealed. In short, as Jina Pincott at Love, Sex, Attraction…and Science explains, they:

…recruited volunteers of various races and asked them to digitally adjust the color tone on more than 50 faces [of both sexes] to make them look as healthy and attractive as possible. Volunteers consistently added more red coloring to the cheeks — whether the face was Caucasian, Asian, or Black. The redder the face, the more suggestive it is of oxygen-rich blood reaching the skin. The more oxygen-rich blood, the more suggestive it is of the person’s general health and youth. An old person, a sick person, a person with hypertension or bad circulation…will not get rosy-cheeked.

And crucially, the researchers also found that volunteers preferred women over men with rosy cheeks. Why?

One reason may be the sex hormones, which show up more obviously in flushed female faces. But it may also be due to the fact that men already have ruddier faces than women do — they have higher levels of hemoglobin and arterial oxygen content in their blood. As a result, the male blush is not as obvious a cue of good health and high sex hormones.

Corroborated by this study that I discussed back in May, which showed that people tend to judge the same androgynous face on left as female because it is much lighter than that on the right:

In my view then, and regardless of my opinions on its origins, skin-whitening is an enduring but fundamentally anti-instinctive cultural practice. Or is it?

Despite all the above, please bear in mind that interpretations and explanations of otherwise objective studies of human attractiveness can in practice be very culturally determined…not least my own. For example, as an impressionable 19 year-old I became a huge fan of evolutionary psychology after reading this article in Time magazine in 1995, and in turn the sociobiological explanations of human attractiveness that are its bread and butter. But just 4 years later, I was suitably chagrined by a second article in the same magazine that exposed the fact that, for one, evolutionary psychologists’ depictions of the work division in hunter-gatherer societies was remarkably like that of 1950s suburban nuclear families. More recently, Bad Science provides a scathing critique in much the same vein, including of some of the specific points I’ve mentioned in this post, and while I share many commenters’ concerns that author Ben Goldacre doesn’t seem to appreciate the differences between media reports on evolutionary psychology and the discipline itself, he does make some valid points.

So please feel free to question anything here yourself also! And I have a request: while writing this post, I realized that I’ve never actually asked any Korean men themselves if they prefer women with light skin, let alone why. With apologies for my lack of field research then, can anyone that has please let me know? I have a sneaking suspicion that it might pressure to do so might primarily come from other women rather than men, just like I recently read somewhere is the case with losing weight, so I’d be very interested in finding out.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

19 thoughts on “Sex and the Red-Blooded Woman

  1. Korea is different all around. Whereas you can find many American men AND women who prefer a dark-skinned beauty/hunk, you won’t find any Koreans who feel that way. Simply put, dark skin = poor/farmer.

    I’ve had slightly darker skin males in class who have declared that they’re “not from the Philippines” before telling that class they’re name. I’ve also had both men and women who openly compliment a lighter skinned woman’s face in front of an entire classroom.

    Ultimately, Koreans in general prefer lighter skin, but not for the same reasons cited in the post. They prefer it because it suggest affluence and wealth.


      1. Thanks for the comments guys, and for the links Charles (although the “Korea, Japan and China” one isn’t working sorry), but – and I seriously mean no offense – I think you’ve both misinterpreted the gist of the post, which is merely that the latest study confirms my suspicions that skin-whitening is rather anti-instinctive.

        Although of course you are both still welcome to talk about the reasons why Koreans prefer light skins, I didn’t mention them myself because I’ve already talked a great deal about them in other posts, and thought most readers would be bored if I rehashed them for the nth time here. So I confined reference to those (and links) to the single sentance “In my view then, and regardless of my opinions on its origins, skin-whitening is an enduring but fundamentally anti-instinctive cultural practice.” Sorry for not being clearer.

        I’ve definitely never claimed Korean exceptionalism though, and can’t really see where I do so here, although again apologies if I give that impression.

        But Expat, thanks for the anecdote about the “Hi, I’m not from the Philippines”…LOL, and the info about how attitudes are changing. I guess men too are concerned about light skins, and not just on women.

        Finally though, let me clarity one more possible point of confusion: the last study (with the black and white faces) is not saying that all women prefer men with darker faces per se, and certainly not so dark as to look Southeast Asian or African. Rather, the apparent darkness in the face on the right is because it is redder.


        1. James,

          I think a close look at the nesting will reveal I was responding directly to the Expat’s comment and not directly to your post?

          Since I’m only .66 on links, it’s possible I did responding wrong as well? ;-)


          1. Sorry: was up until 1:30am writing the damn thing and all. And completely forgot that I needed to buy more coffee this morning too…zzz…has been sheer hell without it…!


    1. “Whereas you can find many American men AND women who prefer a dark-skinned beauty/hunk”

      Is that true? Dark-skinned men like Wesley Snipes have become sex symbols but not dark-skinned women. I don’t think the lack of dark-skinned female sex symbols can be blamed soley on racism in the entertainment industry. Some Black and Hispanic men themselves exhibit a preference for lighter skinned women.

      More than just skin color, there are other features like nose size and shape and the structure of the lower face that may make women with significant West African ancestry less appealing as sex symbols in the US. Both Beyonce Knowles and Halle Berry appear to have had their smallish noses narrowed even more through surgery. Halle Berry’s facial structure is much like her White mother’s, and Beyonce bears a strong resemblance to her very light-skinned African-American mother with fine facial features.

      For Hispanic women, body shape is more of an issue. Mexican and Central American women with mostly indigenous ancestry have striking faces with large eyes and fine facial features, but they tend to be short and heavy around the middle. The leggy Latin American fembots who rule international beauty pageants appear to be of mostly European ancestry.


  2. The Korean wrote something up on this awhile back:

    He claimed that Lee Hyori and her slightly-darker-than-normal skin started to change popular opinion on skin tone. It might have at first (at least in theory), but she came on the scene a decade ago. We have yet to see other darker skinned Korean actresses and men, by and large, still prefer their partners to have light skin. On the surface, she could be seen as a catalyst, but it was only a superficial acceptance that is not in practice at all.

    Furthermore, dark-skinned men still get the shaft. That has not changed in the least.


  3. Wow, I’m from the Philippines, and although I’m quite offended, I can totally relate about the “Hi, I’m not from the Philippines” anecdote. LOL… I think “skin-whitening” is about (or even more) prevalent here in the Philippines… and yes, for the same reason cited by Expat. Fair skin is commonly attributed to affluence, and thus beauty. (LOL, even Filipino men subscribe to this ideal).

    Having “dark” skin would more or less indicate that you came from a far-flung province, which is a common stigma in Manila-centric Philippines. You can tell from the sheer number of skin-whitening products and advertisements just how deeply ingrained this practice is.

    Anyway, I’ve just noticed, why is it that the common standard for beauty always the polar opposite of the most common physical features in a certain society? For instance, in East Asian countries like Japan & Korea, people having large eyes are considered beautiful, whereas it’s more common for them to have small eyes. The same principle seems to be at work in Filipinos’ preoccupation with having fair skin…


    1. LOL! I’ve often wondered that myself…you can add black (American) women’s obsession with straight hair to the list! (I use a chemical straightner myself but mostly because the texture of my hair leaves me no other alternatives than semi-monthly hair braiding or dreadlocks…I can’t speak as to why other black women do it.)

      I think though, most non-white people groups are trying to minimize whatever it is that makes them distinct (which really is a shame). Everyone wants to be closer to an imagined global ideal.

      As for white people (at least in America) the obsession is blonde hair and blue eyes…again, completely unnatural attributes for 90% of the population…yet, this is at least one case where the ideal is far outside of the “global middle”.


  4. Hmm, this is really interesting. I think that a lot of the reasons why we are attracted to someone does have to do with our evolutionary instincts, although a good deal of it is certainly comes from our own culture’s concept of beauty. It makes sense that certain things are universally considered beautiful (e.g., symmetrical faces), so I don’t see why rosy faces couldn’t be either because of their indication of health, youth, or arousal.

    It would be useful in this case for someone to redo the rosy-cheeks studies, but take different nationalities into account, not just race. Although, Korean women do wear blush, no? If they didn’t, face-whitening would seem very anti-instinctive. Hmm. I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed. I also don’t think that having pink cheeks necessarily makes you look darker either, so the two shouldn’t be seen as opposites. Korean women could still desire a lighter skin color, but also wear blush. Just like Western women who prefer darker skin still wear it.

    As for Korean men, all the ones I’ve met fear the sun themselves, but at least one of them has thought I was too pale. I am naturally really pale, and after traveling in SE Asia, I joked to a guy that I was tan so maybe he wouldn’t like me anymore. He replied, “Well, you were really light before. Too light. Maybe now you will look healthy.” Haha. I was surprised because I had also assumed they held the same beauty ideals as women, but I guess that is rarely the case. So I suppose that if Korean men did not find whitened skin attractive, it would be an anti-instinctive practice. Right?

    Have you read Sperm Wars? I’m pretty sure a lot of it has been proven to be untrue, but there are some interesting ideas in there regarding evolution and our desires.


  5. I preferred the one on the left but my Korean bf by far preferred the one on the right because of the lighter skin! He was a little offended when he found his opinion is apparently considered wrong haha. It works for me though because I’m super pale. :)

    Asia is one of the only places I’ve ever been where I can wear a swimsuit and not be told “Eeeeeew get a tan!” And, yes, people have said that to my face. Is it really that different from Korea? Korean moms harp on their daughters for going out in the sun and my parents whine that my pale legs are “disgusting”.

    I’ve been browsing around your blog for a while. Even when I don’t agree with you, you present some interesting points. Keep it up!


  6. Funny I should stumble across this today. I just finished a series with 1brownish k woman, a villainess, in a k movie. At any rate, I siscovered that the things I like about myself line up with k aesthetics; small face, large eyes and a smallish, though better if a bit narrower. Evolutionary concerns xeem to make sense. The ability go survive in this centuryis less about physical prowessand more about earning potential. Therefore, the desire to be with a prosperous looking partner ads up. Same truth for my ethnic group. Light skin is associated with favor and hence opportunity. Straight hair is associated with the dominant race (not w slaves or descendants of slaves). Even now, we aframers struugle to accept the wide range of skin colors and hair types. I’m lightening as I type. I spent $42.00 on a serum, about 3 oz. and I will uselighteners fot life. My body is a caramel color, so I only need to lighten my face. And I avoid sun like a vampire! Even so, I feel generally good about being brown and don’t want yellow or alabaster skin. To me we’re all beautiful in different ways, just likeflowers. (I smile).


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