What actually makes a man's face handsome, or a woman's face pretty

I assume this is a question, not a debate. For whatever reason I’m having trouble figuring this out.

Supposedly there are several factors.

Sexual dimorphism - a man’s face that is shaped by male sex hormones like testosterone and a female face shaped by female sex hormones like estrogen is more attractive.

Symmetry - the more symmetrical, the more attractive

Average - Attractive faces are closer to the average of all faces than less attractive ones. If you take 100 photos and average them out, the averaged out photo is more attractive.

Is there more to it than this? Also, why are these things attractive?

I once read that a symmetrical face is a sign that your body formed properly in the womb, so that is a sign of good health.

But I guess I’m asking

  1. Why are some faces more attractive than others
  2. Why are those traits considered attractive? I assume because they signify health and fertility, but how do they signify health and fertility?

What role do white teeth and clear skin play in all this?

facial features are considered attractive when they signify other, beneficial traits like good health (clear skin, white teeth, etc.), wealth (fair skin, long hair, good grooming), or social status (some jewelry, cosmetics, grooming).

I agree. Facial attractiveness is a proxy for health, wealth and status. In east Asian nations women wear face masks that prevent tanning when they go outside because pale skin is attractive. Pale skin is attractive because poor farmers spend all day outdoors while wealthier people stay indoors all day. In the west it is the opposite, being too pale is a sign of having ‘no life’ and spending all day indoors on the computer while a tan is a sign you are going out and doing activities.

But there is also gender, faces are a proxy for gender. Masculine faces are more attractive on men and feminine faces are more attractive on women.

Culture and average facial structure for that culture’s genetics has a lot to do with it. Beauty/handsomeness isn’t perceived the same across cultures. Also many cultures once exposed to western values and media adopt those of the west over their own (dying their hair blond, etc.).

The exact reasons for a certain feature being attractive if it looks a certain way are necessarily somewhat speculative, aren’t they?

We can I think safely assume that we are mostly looking for someone who will make good babies and remain fit to take care of those babies, and that those criteria are mainly what determine our judgments of appearance.

Some people don’t literally plan to make any babies; I don’t know to what extent that might change their perceptions.

This 1994 study found evidence of a symmetry effect, but not an averaging effect: https://labs.psych.ucsb.edu/roney/james/other%20pdf%20readings/reserve%20readings/Grammface.pdf

More relevant for the OP was the last paragraph, emphasis added.

[INDENT][INDENT]…there is comparative evidence that human beauty judgments are tied importantly to assessing parasite effects. Gangestad and Buss (in press) showed that the importance that people across societies place on good looks in choice of a long-term mate correlates positively with the prevalence of parasites in the environment. The correlation is seen for both men and women.[/INDENT][/INDENT] The abstract is of some interest: [INDENT][INDENT][INDENT] We hypothesized from the parasite theory of sexual selection that men (Homo sapiens) would prefer averageness and symmetry in women’s faces, that women would prefer averageness and symmetry in men’s faces, and that women would prefer largeness (not averageness) of the secondary sexual traits of men’s faces. We generated computer images of men’s and women’s faces and of composites of the faces of each sex, and then had men and women rate opposite-sex faces for 4 variables (attractive, dominant, sexy, and healthy). Symmetry, averageness, and the sizes of facial features were measured on the computerized faces. The hypotheses were supported, with the exception of the hypothesized effects of averageness of female and male faces on attractiveness ratings. This is the first study to show that facial symmetry has a positive influence on facial attractiveness ratings. [/INDENT][/INDENT][/INDENT]

Interesting. A good looking face implies you are resistant to parasites, and are more likely to be healthy enough to be a good provider and protector (you can’t provide for or protect children if you are sick with parasites). At least in historical times.

Glancing at that article (I haven’t had time to read it all yet) they imply that selecting for mates resistant to parasites is the prominent theory of sexual selection. Very interesting, I never would’ve guessed parasites were that important. I would’ve assumed character traits that made you successful at gaining status/power, or youth (if a woman), or compatibility would be more important.

That article also implies that high testosterone levels are like a form of peacock plumage, a way of saying to the world ‘I’m so healthy and well put together, I can afford the weakened immune system that comes from high testosterone’.

I need to read the entire article later today.

Women’s faces are found to be more attractive when most fertile.

And when most fertile women find more “masculine” faces more attractive.

Not able to find it now but I do also remember something about women finding the “macho” face more attractive for the one night stand and the “less masculine” one more attractive for the life partner.


Symmetry is as others point out, an indication of health - good genes, resistance to parasites and diseases (i.e. genes for a strong immune system). Obviously, in men, emphasis of sexual secondary characteristics - strong jaw, etc. and lack of obesity would indicate healthy hormone balance. Similarly for women - what shows the secondary female characteristics indicate good hormone balances - ie. minimal problems of facial hair… (Although some problems are more obvious on the rest of the body for both sexes…)

However, never underestimate the value of social conditioning; women shave their underarms, legs, and nowadays it seems, elsewhere. However, this is not “natural”. Similarly a big deal is made of nose jobs (now that it is within the reach of a lot of people). This is artificially altering appearance to be more “average”.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s all very subjective.

Another way of saying it is that it is very individual. I can only speak for myself here, and for the sex I am attracted to, which is men. I find myself more interested, and more likely to fantasize about, men who have faces that clearly show (positive) character traits and intelligence, even at the expense of things like symmetry or averageness or whatever else contributes to general or conventional handsomeness. Expressive eyes are worth a hundred well-formed noses, for example. I’m talking here about first reactions to people I don’t know, which I assume is the general topic.

I have a question from that abstract: what are “secondary sexual traits of men’s faces?” The only ones I can think of have to do with either facial hair or head hair (full head, receding, or bald). Are there others?

Madison Avenue has a lot to do with this. They’ve been telling us what is attractive for a long time, so it’s not surprising that we are indoctrinated at an early age.

No cite sorry, but I recall hearing that given a choice between androgynous, averagely masculine, and highly masculine faces, women tend to prefer the averagely masculine face.

Men, given the same choice with feminine faces, prefer highly feminine faces.

Winging it without a link:

I believe they’re thinking of traits such as relative width and prominence of the jawline, prominence of the brow, and relative width of the forehead. Basically traits that can make some men’s faces look “robust” rather than “gracile”, to put it in anthropological terms.

Sometimes, the most beautiful faces are almost perfect, but have small flaws. Mannequins are flawless. But it’s the slight bulge at the tip of Shania Twain’s nose that makes her a great beauty. As for what flaws are beautiful vice ugly, I haven’t a clue.

I thought the definitive answer to this question was “the eye of the beholder”.

If that were the case, why are more eyes beheld to the likes of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and various Ryans and Chrisses?

Similarly, why is it largely uncontroversial when Hollywood casts Margot Robbie as “hot girlfriend” and Amy Schumer as “funny struggling single gal”?

Taken as a whole, there are certain standards of beauty that are predicable enough to market off of.

My WAG is that people are instinctively attracted to evolutionarily superior traits such as strength, height or athleticism. Symmetry indicates “good heath” whereas a deformity would indicate potential weakness.

Large breasts would be indicative of an ability to lactate (important for survival before the invention of baby formula). Wide hips would indicate an ability to safely carry a baby to term.

Humans are social animals, so maybe we’re also evolutionarily programmed to reject anything that looks too different from the norm. That might be the cause of a lot of racism and xenophobia. People just naturally rejecting anything that looks different as a potential threat or competitor.

Expressive faces are also more attractive because they well…express interest where a sourpuss or jerk face doesn’t.

The face of a Saint for example is full of light … most Saints don’t drink or have sex or go out and party. So they have a softer look of someone you would trust. A light surrounds innocent people to add to the attractivness.