Home > Methodology, The Body > When Attractive Isn’t Beautiful

When Attractive Isn’t Beautiful

I was thinking about beauty research recently, and was struck by the thought that there seems to be a reduced range of attractiveness ratings in the stimulus sets used in contemporary studies of female body attractiveness. As a tentative check for what might be selective memory on my part, I did a quick and dirty search of the recent peer reviewed literature.

My peer reviewed search criteria were casual:

  • use a multi-field search of PsycINFO with the search terms “whr” and “attractiveness”;
  • articles had to directly test some component of female body attractiveness;
  • I had to be able to access a full-text version of the article; and
  • in cases of multiple articles using what appears to be the same stimulus set, include only one article.

Attractiveness Ranges in Peer Reviewed Publications

Approximate Range

Average Attractiveness

Source DOI






10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.007 Range extracted from male data


10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2007.09.002 Range converted from a 1-7 scale




10.1016/j.paid.2006.12.003 Range converted from a 0-9 scale


10.1111/j.1467-9450.2006.00526.x Range converted from a 1-9 scale

Multiple reported

10.1080/13548500500155982 Range converted from a 1-8 scale


Ranges are on a 1-10 scale. The conclusion to be drawn from this limited sampling is concerning: even the most attractive stimulus images in these studies seem to be relatively average. For comparison, I gathered attractiveness ratings from a small, opportunity sample of images from two online photo rating sources.

Attractiveness Ranges in On-Line Photo Rating Sites

Approximate Range

Average Attractiveness

Source URL





Limited to viewable full bodies on the “Newest Members” page with at least 100 ratings




Limited to first 10 viewable bodies when the “Show Me” pull-down menu is set to “Women Only” aged 18-25 with at least 100 ratings


There appears to be a substantial difference, which, at the least demonstrates that average attractiveness ratings do not have to be in the average range of the scale. I have graphed the individual data points (average attractiveness ratings for each image) from the photo rating sites in the scatter plot below. The thick blue line indicates the average rating for the most attractive stimulus image in the peer reviewed studies I list in the table above. Clearly, high average attractiveness ratings are possible but are not typically being given to stimuli in the research literature.

For comparison, here’s a typical scatter plot from the research literature:

J RILLING, T KAUFMAN, E SMITH, R PATEL, C WORTHMAN (2009). Abdominal depth and waist circumference as influential determinants of human female attractiveness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30 (1), 21-31 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.007


Characteristically, the stimulus sets used in the research on female body attractiveness are nicely distributed around the mean, but attractiveness ratings from either end of the distribution are typically lacking. Off the top of my head, there are several potential problematic consequences:

  1. This sort of restricted range can have a significant effect on correlations. There is a nice java applet at a site housed by Rice University that lets one tinker with restricting the range of several data sets while recalculating regressions/correlations. Using the “Assumptions Met” data set and limiting the range of the data in the applet in order to more-or-less approximate the typically limited range found in beauty research we find a change from r = .60 to r = .38.
  2. Attractiveness may have nonlinear relationships with other variables. Restricted ranges may conceal these relationships and their strength.
  3. If edge or bow effects (a tendency for accuracy/discrimination to be higher at the extremes of the stimulus range) are present in evaluations of attractiveness, limited stimulus ranges will again conceal/alter relationship strengths. As far as I know, this possibility has not been explored in attractiveness research.


There are several possible explanations for the apparent restricted attractiveness range that we find in contemporary beauty research. A non-comprehensive list includes:

Medium Characteristics

  • Raters may have expectations of glamorous or artistic presentation for the very beautiful
  • Raters may have expectations of digitally altered figures or of figures in poses that enhance attractiveness

Stimulus Characteristics

  • Most/least beautiful stimuli may be absent from the stimulus sets
  • Certain clothing may conceal beauty relevant characteristics
  • Innocuous postures may communicate nonverbal information that flattens attractiveness ratings

Rater Characteristics

  • Raters in scientific studies may use more rigorous checks on their ratings of stimulus imagery than do raters at online photo rating sites
  • Raters in scientific studies may use different criteria when checking their ratings of stimulus imagery than do raters at online photo rating sites

In summary, there appears to be a restricted range in the attractiveness ratings of stimuli in contemporary research on female body attractiveness. If this is correct, there is a significant chance that some aspects of our understanding of attractiveness might be compromised.

Wayne Hooke
ResearchBlogging.orgSwami, V., Neto, F., Tovée, M., & Furnham, A. (2007). Preferences for Female Body Weight and Shape in Three European Countries European Psychologist, 12 (3), 220-228 DOI: 10.1027/1016-9040.12.3.220

RILLING, J., KAUFMAN, T., SMITH, E., PATEL, R., & WORTHMAN, C. (2009). Abdominal depth and waist circumference as influential determinants of human female attractiveness☆ Evolution and Human Behavior, 30 (1), 21-31 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.007

Sorokowski, P., & Pawlowski, B. (2008). Adaptive preferences for leg length in a potential partner Evolution and Human Behavior, 29 (2), 86-91 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2007.09.002

SWAMI, V., MILLER, R., FURNHAM, A., PENKE, L., & TOVEE, M. (2008). The influence of men’s sexual strategies on perceptions of women’s bodily attractiveness, health and fertility Personality and Individual Differences, 44 (1), 98-107 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.07.017

Singh, D., & Randall, P. (2007). Beauty is in the eye of the plastic surgeon: Waist–hip ratio (WHR) and women’s attractiveness Personality and Individual Differences, 43 (2), 329-340 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2006.12.003

SWAMI, V., & TOVÉE, M. (2007). Perceptions of female body weight and shape among indigenous and urban Europeans Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 48 (1), 43-50 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.2006.00526.x

Furnham, A., & Reeves, E. (2006). The relative influence of facial neoteny and waist-to-hip ratio on judgements of female attractiveness and fecundity Psychology, Health & Medicine, 11 (2), 129-141 DOI: 10.1080/13548500500155982

Categories: Methodology, The Body
  1. August 11, 2009 at 6:59 am

    Are the raters on “hot or not” sites anonymous? If not, that might have something to do with it. Or they might be more motivated to rate more attractive individuals.

  2. whooke
    August 11, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Hi Dave,

    Those rating sites are anonymous – in that there’s no log-in and no information available about who rated whom what. My guess is that most raters probably aren’t worried about being found-out. I’m not sure what’s going on with the typical rater’s motivation: likely everything from sour grapes to looking for a date… (some do have that “Do You Want To Meet” button).

    While the data comparison was front-and-center in the blog posting, my central concern can be presented with a different emphasis: average beauty ratings (say in the 3-7 range) may involve compromises that conceal the importance of key features. E.g., “Her hips are a little boyish but she looks fit – so I’ll give her a 7.” I suspect that sort of compromise does not happen with the highest ratings. This [hypothetical] lack of compromise could contain important information about attractiveness that is currently being missed.

    Best Wishes,


  3. Andrei
    August 16, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Some possible reasons for comparatively high ratings on hot-or-not sites:

    – candidates self-select for above-average attractiveness: high-scorers are more likely to join and to keep their photos up for viewing
    – photos posted tend to be the most flattering available to candidates
    – raters are more likely to be in the mood to rate highly and, in their enthusiasm, to give little thought to a serious evaluation of poor candidates (ie. many raters may be horny!)
    – raters give sympathetically high scores to help poor candidates (poor candidates are also easily identified as being poor, as their running average score is given)
    – raters calibrate their average from what they perceive to be the average score at the site
    – raters are not given a thorough-going guide to ‘scoring fairly’ nor earnest injunction to do so (rating ‘fairly’, for instance, might entail ensuring that one’s average rating is 5 and that no-one is given an ‘unrealistic’ perfect 10)

    • whooke
      August 16, 2009 at 1:37 pm

      Great points! In my view, some of the ratings at the “hot-or-not” type sites are too high – and you give some good reasons for this. It is clear that there are big problems with the reliability and validity of these ratings.

      The primary point that I wanted to emphasize is that our current knowledge about attractiveness may not tell us much about what is beautiful.


      • Andrei
        August 16, 2009 at 2:48 pm

        Would looking at the standard deviation of scores be more enlightening (defining beauty as positive deviation from the mean attractiveness)? Low deviation from the mean might indicate that finding differences in attractiveness is being made difficult. This would avoid having to assume that a dating site 10 is more beautiful than a psych lit 7, ie. that the difference in raw scores actually says something.

        I guess that this approach would be hindered by the dating sites’ scores being so high (in fact, dating sites’ mean score ‘should’ be even higher than those you have calculated).

  4. Nadia
    August 23, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    I think I’ve already mentioned I generally don’t worry too much about distribution and discussed Thornhill-Grammer pretty extensively on that point. But, I wanted to mention two other counter-arguments. I don’t believe that the distribution much limits the conclusions drawn from the papers, so naturally I do not concur that distribution makes it such that “our current knowledge about attractiveness may not tell us much about what is beautiful.”

    Consider Vanity Fair’s annual poll this year: Angelina Jolie was voted most attractive and Gisele Bundchen was second.


    As noted in other places, Jolie would score quite high on sex typicality, which has been found to be a crucially important factor in female facial attractiveness (e.g. Rhodes 2006, Annual Review of Psychology).

    The study from which you extract a plot found that long legs, shallow abdominal depth, and narrow waist circumference are found attractive. It also found acromial height in video-view and broad shoulders in front-view are attractive. Hmmm…#2 fits that profile very well.

    Also, consider this paper from Germany on facial attractiveness.


    “The questionnaire in the model agency showed that 88% of n=16 faces that had been selected for the ‘beauty’ category (out of 64 faces presented) had been generated using the morphing software, which means that 14 out of 16 faces chosen by the employees of the model agency did not exist in reality…To sum up, our study shows clearly that the most attractive faces do not exist in reality, they are morphs, i.e. computer-created compound images you would never find in everyday live. These virtual faces showed characteristics that are unreachable for average human beings.

    Despite this fact, people living in modern post-industrial societies are exposed to these kinds of artificially created and manipulated, ‘perfect’ faces every day, e.g. via TV advertising or fashion magazines. The result may be that we all may become victims of our self-created, completely unrealistic ideal of beauty.”

    Something that supports that contention, for the first time the same country won Miss Universe back to back. It has a big plastic surgery industry.


    Although many of the faces deemed attractive did not actually exist in reality, many of the key traits that defined them are found in studies of normally distributed populations.

    e.g. suntanned skin, less fat, full lips in women, prominent chin and high cheek bones in men.

    Fink, B., Grammer, K., & Thornhill, R. (2001). Human (Homo sapiens)
    facial attractiveness in relation to skin texture and colour. Journal of
    Comparative Psychology, 115, 92–99

    Coetzee, 2009 HEBS conference

    numerous studies have shown full lips are attractive in women, e.g. Perrett et. al 1994, the ‘high composite’ has fuller lips.

    Cuningham et. al 1990 What do women want? Facialmetric Assessment of Multiple Motives in Perception of Male Physical Attractiveness

    Two papers you did not mention that meets your standards: Smith, Cornelissen, and Tovee 2007.


    Thornhill and Grammar 1999

  5. September 27, 2009 at 9:12 am

    It seems that most woman find facial features that signal dominance im man more attractive then other factors.

    • whooke
      September 27, 2009 at 5:42 pm

      Much recent research is finding that masculine features tend to be attractive in males – but you have to extrapolate from that to conclude that dominance is attractive. I don’t have the reference handy, but, a study that found masculinized faces attractive also found that women very explicitly did not prefer more dominant-looking men.

      • September 27, 2009 at 11:57 pm

        I’m not sure about that, but I believe that you can’t separate masculinity from dominance, and that that which is considered beauty is in reality a feminine trait. Yes, for long-term relationships women prefer man with faces signaling benevolence, but for mating it seems exactly the opposite.

      • whooke
        October 1, 2009 at 12:27 pm

        Here’s a recent study that compared the influence of dominance and prestige in males’ attractiveness. Generally, prestige was attractive. Dominance was not. The study found some exceptions, but, disconfirmed the general notion that women find dominating men attractive.


        Jeffrey Snyder, Lee Kirkpatrick, and H. Barrett, “The dominance dilemma: Do women really prefer dominant mates? [References].,” Personal Relationships 15, no. 4 (2008): 425-444.

      • October 2, 2009 at 2:00 am

        I guess what is attractive depends on geography and its structure. Woman in environments unsuitable for agriculture have no use for high intelligence in their mates. This is a qualitiy more sought after in trader societies.

  1. August 7, 2009 at 4:32 am

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