Are "Manly Men" Really the Universal Ideal?

I'm sure we've all heard people talk about how "manly men" and "feminine women" are just the way things are supposed to be because God or evolution or the space aliens who built the human race in a laboratory declared it to be so. But it turns out that finding "manly men" attractive is a modern phenomenon — and the same goes for "feminine women." So take that, gender essentialists.

This new finding comes to us via a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and contradicts years of scientific assumptions about attraction. Previously, scientists assumed that humans' tendency to rate more masculine men and more feminine women as more attractive had to do with what these traits might signify about possible evolutionary advantages — feminine faces, for example, are linked to higher estrogen levels, which is in turn connected to reproductive health. However, when researchers dug a little deeper, they found that such theories don't actually hold up.

After noticing that most studies in this field have drawn primarily on urban-dwelling participants, the researchers instead decided to try a new approach, using participants from different cultures all over the world. Using computer models, they created composite faces for five different ethnicities, some of which were more masculine or feminine based on the average facial features of each group. When they asked participants to rate the attractiveness of the faces, they were surprised to discover that more masculine men and more feminine women were not clearly preferred. In fact, in some areas, the subjects actually favored more feminine-looking men or masculine-looking women.

"In less developed environments," the study explains, "typical 'Western' perceptions are attenuated or even reversed, suggesting that Western perceptions may be relatively novel."

So what does all that mean? Well, it basically means that our current, Western tendency to favor masculine male faces and feminine female faces might not be the product of evolution, but rather a relatively recent development — though of course that's difficult to say for sure. After all, all cultures change over time, whether they live in modernized urban areas or more traditional rural ones. Still, this all suggests that urban dwellers' clear preferences for masculine men and feminine women has more to do with being urban than it does with some essential, evolutionary underpinning.

And that, of course, is welcome news to my ears, because I am always down to poke holes in gender essentialist theories. After all, ideas about how men and women are supposed to look and which sorts of people we're supposed to find attractive are almost always rooted in the same gender stereotypes people use to justify harmful gender norms. Men are supposed to look "rugged" and be "tough," while women are supposed to look "delicate" and be "accommodating." It's all connected, and it's all bullshit.

Gender shouldn't be about what you're "supposed" to do or be or look like. It definitely shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all category. So let's all just embrace the idea that things like the norms of attraction are fluid — along with everything else.

Image: Giphy