May 10th, 2016
It’s not quite clear why human males continue to have facial hair. There are other ways to keep warm, and we’ve lost our hair over most of the rest of our bodies (or they’re at best residual). But facial hair serves another important purpose—determining male attractiveness to females.
Women found heavy stubble to be the most attractive, while heavy beards, light stubble and no beard were all equally less attractive.
But even types of facial hair trigger different types of reaction among women, who consciously or unconsciously make decisions on mate selection, parenting ability, health, and masculinity based on how thick a beard is. However, these exact decisions often have contradicted each other in studies on attractiveness. Barnaby Dixson and Robert Brooks from the University of New South Wales published a study in Evolution and Human Behavior that quantitated women’s and men’s impression of facial hair, and attempted to make sense of previous, confusing results.
Women found heavy stubble to be the most attractive, while heavy beards, light stubble and no beard were all equally less attractive. Men, however, found full beards and heavy beards as most attractive. Light stubble was rated least attractive by both genders. For parenting ability and healthiness, both men and women rated full beards as the best choice. Masculinity assessments increased with facial hair (the more hair, the more masculine the viewer thought of the weaver). And while masculinity ratings of heavy beard-wearers were particularly high among women in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycles, overall attractiveness did not depend on the woman’s fertility. “An intermediate level of beardedness of most attractive, while full-bearded men may be perceived as better fathers who could protect and invest in offspring,” the authors wrote.
Dixson and Brooks presented photographs of 10 smiling men, in various stages of beard growth to 177 heterosexual men and 351 women, 80 percent of whom were of European descent.
The study indicates the evolutionary role played by facial hair in selecting mates, and suggests that decisions based on these characteristics is ongoing. The researchers also noted significant differences in how men and women interpret facial hair. “Facial hair correlates not only with maturity and masculinity, but also with dominance and aggression,” Dixson and Brooks wrote. “Men, judging other men, might be sensitive to the overall level of masculine threat and aggression signaled through full beards. Women, by contrast, may balance…a competitive masculine partner against the costs of mating with a too-masculine partner.”
Fertility also wasn’t related to attractiveness ratings of beards, which showed the separation of preferences from reproductive status; this is unusual because most sexual traits that are based on hormones are closely tied to reproductive status. The researchers state that more work is needed to understand the relationships between female fertility status and impressions of sexual characteristics.
Dixson, B., & Brooks, R. (2013). The role of facial hair in women’s perceptions of men’s attractiveness, health, masculinity and parenting abilities Evolution and Human Behavior, 34 (3), 236-241 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2013.02.003
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