Study finds gap between men’s rating of facial attractiveness and women’s self-perception

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Men look at different elements of women’s faces when judging their attractiveness than women do in evaluating how attractive they are, according to a study published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

Several different aspects of people’s faces that have an impact on their physical attractiveness can be evaluated using digital photos. The distances between a person’s facial features are measured to determine how they compare to the average face.

People tend to find faces more attractive when they are more symmetrical (the left and right sides of the face are nearly mirror images of one another), more sexually dimorphic (having characteristics associated with their gender such as a strong jawline for men and a soft jawline for women), more youthful (having features relatively similar to those of an adolescent), and more average (having features resembling the result of creating a composite face drawn by averaging every face in the population).

Which of these aspects are most important in determining who is seen as attractive or unattractive, however, depends on who is doing the judging.

A study led by José Antonio Muñoz-Reyes of the Universidad de Playa Ancha compared women’s ratings of their own attractiveness with men’s ratings of the same women’s attractiveness in order to examine whether men and women pay attention to the same facial features when making these judgments. The study included 266 female college students from Spain. Participants rated how attractive they perceived themselves to be, and also gave the researchers two photos of themselves. The photos were analyzed to determine participants’ facial symmetry, dimorphism, youthfulness, and averageness. The photos were also rated for attractiveness by 44 Spanish heterosexual male college students.

The only aspect of facial structure related to women’s ratings of their own attractiveness was symmetry. Men’s ratings were not related to women’s facial symmetry, but were related to youthfulness and averageness. Women rated themselves as more attractive when their faces were more symmetrical, but men rated women as more attractive when their faces appeared more youthful and more average. Both women’s and men’s ratings were also strongly influenced by the women’s Body Mass Index (BMI), a measure of body size.

Possibly as a result of their different criteria for facial attractiveness, women’s perceptions of their own attractiveness were weakly related to men’s ratings. The study authors suggest that men’s judgments may have an evolutionary basis, because facial youthfulness and averageness are indicators of health and fertility.

They suggest that women’s self-judgments are based on lifelong experiences reacting to others’ judgments. Since facial symmetry usually remains relatively stable throughout life, whereas other aspects undergo more change first during puberty and later as a result of aging, it has more time to become firmly established as a part of one’s self-image.

These findings suggest that women who are interested in estimating how attractive they are to men may get more accurate results by considering how men’s criteria for what makes a face attractive may differ from their own.