Culture & Society

Professor’s Research Reveals Clues To Mysteries Of Physical Attractiveness

It seems that body shape and the way people walk hold major cues to their attractiveness to others.
By Phillip Rollfing, Texas A&M College of Architecture May 22, 2007

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“The body’s shape, specifically the waist-to-hip ratio, has been related to gender identification and to perceived attractiveness.”

(Getty Images)

Score one for body language: It seems that body shape and the way people walk hold major cues to their attractiveness to others, according to collaborative research findings published by Texas A&M University professor Louis G. Tassinary and co-author Kerri Johnson of New York University.By

“People have always tried to identify the magical formula for beauty, and we knew body shape was important, but we found movement was also key,” Johnson says.

Titled “Compatibility of Basic Social Perceptions Determines Perceived Attractiveness,” their article was published in the most recent issue of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed publication of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the most highly cited multidisciplinary scientific journals.

“When encountering another human, the first judgment an individual makes concerns the other individual’s gender,” Johnson explains. “The body’s shape, specifically the waist-to-hip ratio, has been related to gender identification and to perceived attractiveness, but part of the way we make such judgments is by determining whether the observed individual is behaving in ways consistent with our culture’s definitions of beauty and of masculinity/femininity. And part of those cultural definitions involves movement.”

“It turns out that decisions about a particular individual’s attractiveness are high level ones which integrate an entire complex of cues, one of which, again, involves how the individual moves.”

The findings reflect the views of over 700 individuals who participated in a series of five studies, three of which involved animated representations of people walking. The attractiveness ratings for perceived women increased by about 50 percent when they walked with hip sway, and attractiveness ratings for perceived men more than doubled when they walked with a swagger in their shoulders.

Tassinary, a College of Architecture professor who holds a law degree and a doctorate in psychology, first became interested in visual cues to human attractiveness when he realized he was unsettled by a popular 1990s take on the subject – that female physical attractiveness depends primarily on the ratio between an individual’s hips and waist. According to this line of thinking, waist-to-hip ratios greater than the “ideal” (approximately .7) portend that a female will be perceived necessarily as less attractive.

This early research used simple line drawings, asking study subjects to rate figures as to attractiveness and was supported by evolutionary arguments – that is, that females with certain waist-to-hip ratios were more fecund than others and were therefore perceived to be more attractive.

In collaboration with former Texas A&M professor Wendy Wood, and current Texas A&M professor Mardelle Shepley, Tassinary and Kristi Hansen, then working on her master’s degree in architecture, demonstrated in the late 90’s that the linkage between the waist-to-hip and perceived attractiveness was likely an artifact due to the commonly used line-drawn stimuli. Tassinary then worked with Mitsitoshi Higa, then a master’s degree student in visualization at the college, to develop more dynamic, animated figures to use in experiments on perceived attractiveness.

These early efforts opened up a fruitful line of inquiry, Tassinary says. “Using our more dynamic figures, it became clear to us that the waist-to-hip ratio is just one cue to perceived attractiveness. Because attractiveness generally is both complex and multidimensional, Kerri and I designed this current line of research to broaden the scope of inquiry.”

Knowing the cognitive mechanisms undergirding the relations between judgments of attractiveness and body cues is essential to understanding human evolution, Tassinary notes. For example, physical manifestations of “femaleness” differ across cultures. Western cultures may favor a smaller waist-to-hip ratio (the “hourglass” figure), while certain non-Western cultures have been found that favor a larger ratio (the “tubular” figure).

Not only has the research proved fruitful and significant, but it is a model for collaboration in the academic realm, Tassinary notes. Johnson was once his student, earning her master’s at Texas A&M while the two worked together on earlier projects, and their collaboration has continued since Johnson received her doctorate from Cornell University.

“The current findings bolster our understanding of how and why the body is perceived attractive,” Johnson notes. “Body cues bring about the basic social perception of sex and gender, and the compatibility of those basic precepts affects perceived attractiveness.”

Tassinary notes that such research also may shed light on continued inquiry into human evolution and may be applicable to the inanimate world as well.

“We appear to effortlessly judge the aesthetics of both landscapes and buildings – it is certainly possible that the same evolved cognitive mechanisms are operative whether we judge a person to be attractive or a landscape to be beautiful.”

Media contact: Phillip Rollfing, Texas A&M College of Architecture.

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