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 exactly the images above were though, 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 oestrogen 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 oestrogen 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.

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)