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Are Women Getting More Beautiful? Let’s Hope Not.

Women are getting more beautiful, and men are not, according to recent studies by Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, and Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, The Sunday Times reported last week. Relying on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, respectively, Jokela and Kanazawa’s combined findings are that attractive women tend to have more children than unattractive women, and they tend to have girls more than boys. Thus, “attractive genes” are getting passed on disproportionately to female offspring, making women more and more attractive over the years, while men’s attractiveness level stagnates.

The evolutionary explanation for this trend, as The Times explains, is that beauty is a more valuable trait for women than it is for men:

Kanazawa said: “Physical attractiveness is a highly heritable trait, which disproportionately increases the reproductive success of daughters much more than that of sons. … In men, by contrast, good looks appear to count for little, with handsome men being no more successful than others in terms of numbers of children. This means there has been little pressure for men’s appearance to evolve.

These findings may bring self-satisfied smiles to the faces of some women, but I would urge those of you grinning to think again. Because the study perpetuates the kind of evolutionary thinking that locks men and women into often-sexist behavioral models, theories that many evolutionary psychologists have dismissed as being unsupported by hard scientific evidence, as Newsweek’s Sharon Begley does a good job of explaining here. (Yes, I realize that is the second time I’ve linked that article here on The Sisterhood.)

And true to form, the methodology and conclusions of the studies in question have also been challenged, here and here, and here (toward the end), for starters.

One good point made is that if women are becoming more attractive but mating with less attractive men, those less attractive genes could be passed on to offspring just as easily, thus detracting from the trend toward greater beauty overall. Another issue, which I haven’t seen noted in particular elsewhere, is that, according to the Jokela study’s abstract, “In women, attractiveness predicted higher reproductive success in a nonlinear fashion, so that attractive (second highest quartile) women had 16% and very attractive (highest quartile) women 6% more children than their less attractive counterparts.” In other words, the most attractive women didn’t have quite as many kids as the second-most attractive women. Which, if we’re taking the study on its own terms, means that being fairly attractive has some greater genetic advantage than being incredibly beautiful. That may very well be true, but it doesn’t exactly confirm the theory that women are getting more beautiful because it’s evolutionarily advantageous.

But whether or not the studies’ findings are true, I’d rather they not be. Because if the trend toward greater beauty in women is real, it hardly gives average-looking men an incentive to give up their dreams of coupling with a supermodel, or a woman who looks like one. These findings mean that women who are deemed less than attractive are at an even greater disadvantage than they used to be.

Thus, the feminist in me says women should resist this trend. As much as we all want to be beautiful, what if we collectively decided to stop primping? What would men do if we all made ourselves as unattractive as possible? A no-makeup, no-hairspray, no-diet uprising would certainly cause a stir. But would it force men to look beyond beauty, or, as I fear, would it cause even more of an emphasis on genetics, making those exceptional natural beauties among us stand out even more?

Rebecca Honig Friedman writes about Jewish women’s issues on the Jewess blog at www.Jewess.Canonist.com and is a producer for The Jewish Channel.

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