Despite the vast numbers of sonnets and songs penned in an effort to attract the attention of a beloved, scientists believe that courtship between humans happens predominantly on a nonverbal level.
Physical appearance is, of course, one of the very first things we notice about one another. A male bird's beautiful, brightly colored plumage intrigues prospective mates. The same is true of humans. I recently tried to persuade a good friend that charm and charisma were the things that men eventually and ultimately responded to in a woman. "The first thing we notice," he replied, without missing a beat, "is how she looks. If we don't think she's attractive, we never even get to the charm and charisma."
A study done in 1990 showed that women favored men with large eyes, prominent cheekbones, a large chin, and a big smile. The researchers who did the study said that these features indicated "sexual maturity and dominance." These characteristics are indicative of high levels of testosterone, which shapes the larger size and sharper contours of the male face. (Estrogen, on the other hand, is responsible for the round softness of women's faces and the extra fat in their cheeks and lips.) On some primal level, women found these very "masculine" facial characteristics attractive. Women were most attracted to men who seemed sociable, approachable, and of high social status. They also gave high marks to expensive or elegant clothing; apparently, it's not just birds who like beautiful plumage.
Men, on the other hand, look for features that signify good health: regular features, a good complexion, and a good body. (It will perhaps interest you to learn that -- as you dreaded in junior high school -- while large breast size does influence sexual attractiveness, it does not carry a lot of weight in mate selection.)
Another interesting observation: People choose mates with physical characteristics similar to their own (hence couples really do took alike, as dogs resemble their owners).
Are we all just fundamental narcissists? I think it's more likely that after a lifetime of looking at ourselves in the mirror, our features and coloring seem "right" to us somehow. Maybe we choose the genetic material closest to our own, in an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" paradigm.
Don't Limit Your Options!
A few months ago, I ran into a friend of mine, out for a walk with a male companion. The first thing that struck me about my friend's date was that he wasn't very handsome or well dressed. But the next things I noticed about him were his lively and intelligent eyes and the laugh lines around them. In the brief chat the three of us had on that street corner, he impressed me with how charming he was and how attentive he was to my friend. I walked away very pleased that she had found someone so appropriate.
My friend is not a shallow person, but she clearly felt uncomfortable with the social pressure of dating someone who didn't look the way she thought her escort should. She undoubtedly knew, without my saying a word, what I had thought when I first laid eyes on him, and I wish that we were close enough for me to tell her what I thought next. I felt very sad for her when I heard they had broken up, and even sadder when she showed up at a dinner party we were both attending with a stunningly handsome man who treated her as if she were a not-very-intelligent child of 5.
I'm no soothsayer, but I feel sure that my friend had a much better chance of happiness and laughter with the man she was with when I ran into her that day, even if she had to stoop a little to kiss him. And yet, women like her throw away great relationships all the time (or nip them in the bud before they even begin) because the man is "inappropriate" in some way -- too short, not handsome enough, not well dressed enough, not intellectual or wealthy enough, the wrong race or religion, too young or too old.
The social pressure isn't limited to women; in fact, it may be worse for men. (There is a play right now on Broadway by Neil LaBute, painfully titled Fat Pig, about a man who, because of social pressure, is incapable of dating an overweight woman with whom he has a terrific connection. Needless to say, it ends badly, as all the classic tragedies do.)
If there's one thing I know as a doctor, it's that you can't control other people's behavior. But if you take one piece of advice from this book, I hope it's this: Throw away all your old preconceived notions about what Prince Charming is going to look like, how old he will be, what he will wear, or what he's going to talk about at parties; it will make you much more likely to find him.
A Token of My Affection
Psychologist Linda Mealey, PhD, of the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota demonstrates how many of the mating behaviors of animals echo our own behavior, particularly in the use of carefully chosen objects to entice the female.
For example, the bowerbirds of Australia collect brightly colored objects that they display for the female's consideration in a cleared area called a court. Some select only blue decorations; others collect the plumage of a rare bird of paradise. These gifts offer a female the chance to assess how good the male is at accruing resources and how well he will provide.
In many cases, the quality of these gifts -- which are not really so different from the diamond solitaire that traditionally accompanies a marriage proposal -- can weigh heavily in a female bowerbird's decision about whether or not to mate with a given mate. We don't have to look too far to find parallels in human society as well. Indeed, many women are likely to favor the man with the resources to buy her that house in the country or the status car and jewelry she's always longed for.
Ask any woman what's most important in a prospective mate and 9 times out of 10 she'll say "a sense of humor." It's my theory that this is another, more modern way of sniffing out his ability to accrue resources. A sense of humor takes intelligence and indicates charm: Surely these are far more useful skills in earning a good living in today's world than big pectoral muscles or a square jaw!
Copyright © 2005 Marianne J. Legato, MD, FACP and Laura Tucker