The idea that women prefer their men tall, dark, and handsome has pervaded pop culture since pulp fiction novels introduced it the early 1900s. At the time, “dark” was code for a roguish man. Case in point, the 1941 film Tall, Dark, and Handsome centered on a slick-haired Chicago gangster that ladies and the neighborhood couldn’t help but love. This look helped shape the stars of the time: Clark Gable was called tall, dark, and handsome, and so was Cary Grant.
But whether we’re actually sexually drawn toward that type is a lot more complicated than what the vanilla films of Hollywood’s golden age might suggest, David Puts, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University who studies the evolutionary bases of human sexuality, tells Inverse. When asked whether “tall, dark, and handsome” holds any weight in what the science actually shows, Puts can only say: Kind of.
“My initial answer is yes, but not enough cross-cultural work has been conducted to be very confident about this,” he tells Inverse. Heterosexual women, he says, seem to prefer traits around the male average, “or a bit more masculine” across studies and populations. They prefer tall men, but not too tall, and they prefer a voice pitch that’s lower than the male average, but pitches that are too low are generally rated as less attractive. Nevertheless, there is some truth to the trope.
It’s been hard to study because determining what humans find attractive is a field of science that strays into both biology and sociology and has been held back by its prevalent focus on heterosexual people and Western culture. While society is fortunately trying to acknowledge individual and cross-cultural differences in desire in the conversation surrounding standards of beauty, it can’t be denied that certain human features are consistently judged as attractive across all human societies. Sometimes hot is just hot.
For example, the “handsome” part of the equation — if we take that to mean attractive faces — is a trait that’s uniformly desirable across societies and cultures and seems to partially have a biological basis. In a 2011 paper published in the journal Philosophical Transactions Biology, a team of psychologists argue that sexual selection appears to have shaped the anatomy of an attractive face. In their review of studies on the matter, they found that three traits consistently influenced measurements of facial attractiveness — symmetry, averageness, and “secondary sexual characteristics.”
In this case, “symmetry” refers to the extent that one of half of face mirrors another (like the classically tall, dark, and handsome Twilight star Robert Pattinson), “averageness” is the degree to which a face resembles the general population, and “secondary sexual characteristics” are physical traits that differentiate between males and females that have nothing to do with reproduction. Women with higher circulating estrogen typically have more feminine faces, while men with higher levels of testosterone have more masculine faces. These three factors seem to consistently have roles in shaping what humans find attractive, no matter where those humans come from.
That’s because our faces, bodies, and brains are a product of a long chain of sexual selection, Puts explains. Even early humans had different tastes when it came to the physiological and psychological traits of their mates, and the choice of their mate is reflected in our genetic makeup today.
“Some people would have had stronger preferences for mates who were kind, generous, competent foragers, protective, with good genes that would make healthy children,” says Puts.
“People having these preferences would have tended to leave more surviving offspring. And these offspring would have inherited the genes underlying their parents’ mate preferences.”
It’s hard to say what physical qualities our early hominid ancestors looked for. Behavior, Putt notes, doesn’t leave fossil traces, and human social environments, which influence what traits are desirable, change over time. But it’s entirely possible that we may have similar ideas about attractiveness as the modern humans that migrated out of Africa more than a millennium ago.
“Given cross-cultural similarities among modern humans, we can probably assume that modern humans have preferred similar, but not necessarily identical, physical qualities in mates for the past 100,000 years or so,” says Puts.
“We probably don’t have exactly the same preferences for physical traits that our ancestors 100,000 years ago would have, but they are likely to be close.”
There is, of course, more than tallness and handsomeness that draws one human to another. “Dark” may as well be a placeholder for the myriad other factors that shape what we desire, like hormones, early influences, and the pressures of society.
The data we have on human desire suggests we may never pin down exactly what humans want. Studies ondating apps, for example, show that they has been both a boon to interracial relationships and a demonstrable example of the racism that pervades dating. We humans are a messy, fickle, beautiful, gross bunch — and somehow, there’s still someone out there who wants to have sex with you.
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