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)

Love Stinks: Why More Korean Women Wear Deodorant Than Men

성유리-sultry-sung-yuriIn today’s Korea Times. I’ll chime in here with links and extra information that I couldn’t provide in the 800 words allowed there (source, left: fotoya):

“Men can sweat up to 50% more than women,” or so says deodorant maker Rexona. Yet not only do very few Koreans ever wear deodorant, advertisements for it that have started appearing in recent years have almost exclusively been aimed at women.

Far from being counterintuitive however, a study published last Monday in the journal Flavor and Fragrance demonstrates that women have very good reasons to pay more attention to how they smell.

Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia asked male and female volunteers to rate the strength of 32 underarm sweat samples collected from both genders, and then 32 more that had been disguised by different fragrances typically used to control or mask underarm odor. While both men and women rated the unadulterated samples as equally strong, 19 fragrances successfully disguised the smell for men, while women were deceived by just two.

Investigating further using only female volunteers’, again the unadulterated samples were rated equally strong, but whereas six fragrances succeeded in disguising the men’s smells, as many as 16 worked on the women’s.

Yes, I also thought that it was strange to test only female volunteers in the second series of tests, and I’m confused about the composition of the sweat samples in the first series too: were they just random samples from men or women, were they mixed together into some form of asexual smell, or what? Unfortunately, the above is the best I could make out from 4 even more confusing and widely divergent reports on the study here, here, here, and here, and with what I’m being paid then my sense of journalistic integrity doesn’t quite extend to paying for access to the study itself I’m afraid!

In other words, while women’s noses are more sensitive than men’s, their own odors are more easily disguised, leading women to wear more deodorant or perfume than men.

Naturally there’s much more to it than men’s worse sense of smell, as I’d wager that — at the moment at least — in most cultures it is much more culturally acceptable for women than men to spend a great deal of time and money investing in how they smell, and express an interest in “smelly things” in general, although this study does at least point to a possible biological basis for that. One commentator on one of those other reports argues that the proportion of male to female chefs suggests otherwise, but others argue that that is more due to discrimination than anything else.

As an aside, in the mating game, this may not always be good strategy: other research has shown that the scent of a woman’s sweat is particularly attractive to men at the most fertile time of her monthly cycle.

composite faces of the 10 women with highest and lowest levels of oestrogen(Composite images of women taken with the most (L) and least (R) amounts of estrogen when ovulating. Source: New Scientist)

I’ve lost the link behind that sorry, but with the proviso that what counts as “common sense” and “natural” in gender studies and behavioral science is very much dependent on its era (scroll down a little here for a classic demonstration of that), with so much else about women being the most attractive at the most fertile parts of their cycles then I don’t think that readers will be needing much convincing.

But there is much more than this behind the gender bias in the marketing of deodorant in Korea.

In their low deodorant uptake, Koreans are the exception rather than the rule. While it is true that the first aerosol deodorant was launched as recently as 1965, the first roll-on applicator tested in 1952, and Mum, the first ever commercial product for preventing body odor, only invented in 1888, every major civilization as far back as the ancient Egyptians has left a record of its efforts at disguising underarm body odor. So what makes Koreans so different?

Diet, weight, fitness and climate certainly all play a role in how much one sweats, how smelly it is, and one’s ability to smell others. While explanations involving ethnicity are fraught with danger, it is true that Northeast Asians have fewer of the apocrine sweat glands most associated with odor than average. Famous human behavioralist Desmond Morris (The Naked Woman, 2007) has argued that this makes them less susceptible to body odor. But while Northeast Asians on the whole may smell less than other groups, that does not mean that many individuals – particularly men – can relax about their personal hygiene.

That many do is probably at least partially due to a host of cultural and economic factors: for instance, during much of Korea’s recent history deodorant would have been considered a luxury that few needed and even fewer could afford; a notion that still lingers in the gifting of such basic items as spam and cooking oil for national holidays. Another is Korean men’s mandatory military service, a defining experience forcing youngsters to get used to going without many everyday basics.

nivea-deodorant-korea-데오드란트With a nod to all the commentators on my earlier big post on deodorant use and its marketing in Korea (source, right)…

On the other hand, given women’s physiological advantages and their dominance of the “smelly industries” worldwide, the very word “perfume” has feminine overtones to many Western male ears. It is reasonable to assume that “deodorant” has similar connotations for most Korean men. Yet looking at the popularity of kkotminam or “flower men” in Korea, challenging traditional notions of masculinity and spending more time and money on their appearance, deodorant manufacturers should be keen to tap into a whole new market.

Unfortunately the timing is bad: while “look at this strange side of the recession!”-type stories are in vogue at the moment, with everything from skirt lengths, alcohol and tobacco consumption, number of breast enlargement surgeries, lipstick sales, and even vasectomies variously being described as going up or down with the economy, experience from the financial crisis of 1997-98 suggests that sales of men’s cosmetics are about to drop. After four years of 10-20% growth from 1992, sales dropped 28.6% the next year, and ad spending by 37%.

Those last figures come from p. 125 of “The Trend of Creating Atypical Male Images in Heterosexist Korean Society” by Lim In-Sook, Korea Journal, Vol. 4 No. 4 Winter 2008,  pp. 115-146, available online here. They put paid to any side-notions I had that flower men ideals for men partially came from the need to stand out in the suddenly very competitive job market after the Asian Financial Crisis (which just goes to show that women’s changing tastes probably had more to do with it!), but given their relative popularity now then that may not be what happens to sales of men’s cosmetics during this latest recession though.

When (if) things pick up though, forget about those Korean deodorant advertisements for women that emphasize mother figures and friendships. Expect those for men to associate the right deodorant with sexual success.

Another recent study from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science has demonstrated that how a deodorant makes a man feel is much more important than any changes to his scent. Lest that sound like exaggeration, researchers found that women looking at men through one-way mirrors rated those wearing certain deodorants more attractive than others, due simply to the confident swagger the act of wearing the deodorant had given them!

An annoying, tantalizing way to end an article? That must mean I’m learning the tools of the trade then! For that above study see here, and I discuss it in more detail in that earlier post of mine.