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Symmetry Is Sexy: The...

Symmetry Is Sexy: The Science of Sex

I’ve always been fascinated by symmetry in nature. From the radial symmetry of a snowflake or a starfish, to the bilateral symmetry of a crab shell or a human body, nature’s ability for complementation is astounding. But the fact that symmetry is so widespread is no coincidence. Whether it’s a bird or a human, symmetry means good genes, and that means attraction.

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Humans, like most animals, exhibit mirror symmetry, meaning we are roughly the same on both sides. This is something we subconsciously find appealing in our mates. For instance, men are more attracted to women with symmetrical features. In a study at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, females with symmetrical faces were not only more attractive to their male peers than females with asymmetrical faces, they also had a higher number of previous sexual partners and tended to lose their virginity at an earlier age.

The situation is true for a man’s attractiveness to a woman as well. Though women are more apt to look for things like status and dominance, which may be stronger indicators of fitness than symmetry, we still value matching components. Studies have found that women achieve greater sexual satisfaction with partners who are symmetrical, and find symmetrical dancers more attractive than asymmetrical ones. This indicates body, not just facial symmetry, is an important component of attraction.

Symmetry’s role in mate selection is based on the hypothesis that it can give clues to underlying genetic fitness. Asymmetry can show flaws in the genetic code or a predisposition to disease—someone you don’t want your genes commingling with. Because of the ability of symmetry to advertise someone’s health, it is an outward clue to help us select a good mate.

Yet it stands to question whether we find symmetrical faces and bodies more attractive because they’re healthier, or because that’s what we’re used to. Look at the cover of any fashion magazine and it’s easy to conclude that most models’ faces are almost mirror images of each other, with very little skewing. Does our idea of attractiveness have more to do with nature, or the norm?

Evidence shows that symmetry is an attractive trait within and across cultures, indicating it’s important regardless of cultural norms. A study comparing the preferences of people in the United Kingdom with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer society of Tanzania, found that symmetry was more attractive than asymmetry across both cultures. In fact, symmetry was an even bigger cue of attractiveness in the Hadza than in the Brits, suggesting that ecological pressures may be a selective pressure for this society, forcing it to find outward signs of genetic quality. Symmetry is one of these signs. Furthermore, men with higher standing (the good hunters) placed greater value on symmetry in the female face than men of lower standing; that is, men of high quality were more discriminating, and one way in which they discriminated was by facial symmetry.  

Symmetry may be attractive from an evolutionary perspective, but does it really mean healthy? Look no further than Hollywood to see that the people we think of as the “most” attractive, while symmetrical, aren’t necessarily the ones you’d want bearing, raising, or touching your kids (Britney Spears, for example). Does our face give clues to overall health?

Research indicates that in animals and humans, symmetry can be a good indicator of health. Those with outward signs of symmetrical development do tend to be healthy. Only a few studies have looked at the corollary of this; that is, does asymmetry indicate bad health? A study done in 1997 found that people with facial asymmetry are more likely to have psychological, emotional, and physiological distress than those with symmetrical faces. However, it’s tough to parse out whether they have these problems because they’ve been perceived to be unattractive throughout their lives, or whether their psychological distresses are due to genetic causes (most likely a combination of both). Perhaps symmetry tells us something about physical fitness, but gives us fewer cues about a person’s psychological attributes.

Even if symmetry does equal attraction in our minds, it’s one of multiple facial cues we use to judge who’s hot and who’s not. One of things we find most attractive is when someone looks just like us; researchers believe this is because we’ve looked at our parents faces since we were young, and want someone who looks like them. Just as people often look like their dogs, couples also tend to look like each other. (A question I’d like to see answered: do adoptees or people not raised by their biological parents still prefer to date people that look like them?)

And then there are physiologic cues beyond symmetry. One of the best known is a woman’s waist to hip ratio. Numerous studies have found that women with a waist-to-hip ratio of around 0.7 are the most attractive to men. (This ratio means your waist is smaller than your hips.) This so-called “hour-glass figure” may indicate that a woman has deposited fat around her hips and is ready to bear children. Most encouragingly, this ratio holds true for a wide range of weights.

Whether we want their kids or merely want to make out, those people whose bodies look healthy, genetically fit, and able to reproduce are most attractive to us. This means symmetry, hips, and a familiar face can go a long way to landing a lover.

 

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