It is a natural human urge to want to be attractive, and many people take actions, whether minor or major, to enhance their physical appearances. A study published in Evolution and Human Behavior explores how beauty-enhancing behaviors differ by culture, gender, socioeconomic status, relationship status, and more.
The desire to be attractive is seen across the world and has existed across time. Being desirable to the opposite sex has evolutionary importance and can stimulate having more and better choices in romantic partners. Due to this, humans have a long history of taking action to enhance their physical attractiveness. Thousands of years ago, this may have looked like wearing shells as jewelry, but in today’s world it presents in more modern ways, such as getting plastic surgery. Even in modern day, different groups are likely to engage in different self-enhancing behaviors, and this study seeks to explore these discrepancies.
“Many scholars have called for a large-scale study on primarily non-Western samples to comprehensively examine predictors of activities aimed at improving physical attractiveness in humans,” wrote Marta Kowal and colleagues in their new study.
“The present multi-national investigation addressed this core need by testing evolutionarily-driven hypotheses, alongside several other influential hypotheses regarding beauty-enhancing behaviors that have not been jointly and empirically verified in a large-scale global investigation.”
The researchers utilized data from 93,158 adult participants across 93 countries. Participants were recruited and completed their survey online. Participants completed measures on beauty-enhancing behaviors, including how much time per day they spent performing activities to enhance their physical attractiveness. Additionally, participants completed measures on gender roles, individualism, pathogen history, and demographics. Country data was collected as well, including GDP and gender equality.
Results showed that both men and women spent approximately 4 hours a day engaging in self-enhancing behavior, with women averaging around 23 minutes more a day than men. While women engaged in behavior such as putting on makeup, men showed higher levels of exercising to increase attractiveness. The findings are in line with previous research, which has indicated that women and men engage in a similar level of beauty-enhancing behaviors.
Women’s self-enhancing behavior dips to a low around middle age and is significantly more prevalent during reproductive years and elderly years. “To put this into perspective, 18-year-old women spent 63 more minutes a day enhancing their appearance than did 44-year old women, whereas 60-year-old women spent 30 more minutes than did 44-year old women, on average. This effect size was large compared to other predictors,” the researchers said.
Surprisingly, people in committed relationships spent more time enhancing their looks than single people, which may be related to mate retention.
The results also revealed cultural and individual differences. Women from countries with lower levels of gender equality and women who adhered more strictly to traditional gender roles were likely to spend more time on their appearances. People who scored high in individualism were likely to have increased scores, but individualistic versus collectivist countries was not shown to make a significant difference.
Additionally, individuals who spent more time utilizing social media or watching TV were more likely to spend an increased amount of time on beauty-enhancing behavior, likely due to the unrealistic beauty standards that media often portrays.
Kowal and colleagues concluded “that beauty-enhancing behavior is a universal phenomenon,” noting that “99% of the nearly one-hundred thousand people in our cross-cultural sample report spending >10 min a day enhancing their physical appearance.”
This study took important steps into taking a look at a more complete picture of beauty-enhancing behavior by making a cross-cultural and diverse study. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the survey was administered online, which can lead to inattention for participants. Additionally, cultures who have limited or no access to the internet were not represented in this study.
“The main strength of this research is its cross-cultural nature and large sample size, which allows for weighing claims of different theories and examining factors that explain the most variance in activities aimed at improving one’s appearance,” the researchers said. “We believe that a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon of beauty enhancement may translate into developing more effective ways to counteract the negative influence of the uncontrolled pursuit of beauty.”
The study, “Predictors of enhancing human physical attractiveness: Data from 93 countries“, was published September 6, 2022.