The Puzzle of Female Beauty
In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Charles Darwin identified a common pattern of sexual selection where male animals are generally more competitive, more sexually eager and more conspicuous in courtship display, ornamentation, and coloration. He noted that humans generally fit the pattern, except for one thing: in humans it is generally women, not men, who invest in their beauty to "charm," "excite," "fascinate," and "allure" their partners. We can tell this in many ways, not the least of which is a comparison of cosmetic surgery procedures undergone by men and women. Last year, according to statistics by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, women underwent nine procedures for every one undergone by men. Moreover, women underwent far more drastic procedures than men, undergoing 1.6 million surgical procedures, compared with 256,000 for men.
We may not think this strange, because we're used to it. After all, it seems it's pretty much always been the case, from the earliest writings, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, where the hero is seduced by the goddess Ishtar, or in the Bible where Delilah seduces Samson, or in the story of Guinevere. And it's been shown to be true worldwide, not just in Western cultures. In fact, in many cases sexuality is the only way that women can intervene in the political process, as in the story of Judith and Holofernes, where the Hebrew woman seduces the invading Assyrian king and beheads him in bed.
Sexual attractiveness has traditionally been women's power and their threat, but if you think of other species, especially bird species, it is the male who is cosmetically enhanced, i.e. the peacock. So a real challenge to the notion of human evolution might be posed thus: if humans are evolved animals, why don't men put more effort into being attractive?
Reproductive Capital and Mate Selection
In general, the reason why males are so competitive for the attention of females is because females invest far more in the reproduction process than males do. In birds, especially, females are disproportionately responsible for laying and caring for the eggs and then the young, which takes a huge toll on their bodies and on their time. This makes them seem more like humans, in which women's bodies bear a great toll from reproduction and child care, which is told in the high number of breast lifts, tummy tucks, and thigh tucks that follow pregnancy.
This deepens the mystery further. It makes it seem more likely that men would be investing in their attractiveness competing for women, but consider the disparity between pectoral implants for men, which comprise only 406 of the procedures practiced last year, and female breast augmentations, which represent 326,396 of the total procedures done, a ratio of over 900:1. Perhaps a fairer comparison would be between breast implantation and Gynecomastia (swollen male breast tissue) reduction surgery, with 19,881 procedures practiced last year, still representing a disparity of 16:1.
So we're left with three options:
- The evolutionary theory of human origin is untrue, and human beings were simply created different from other animals.
- Evolution did not leave its mark on human reproduction the way it left its mark on other animals and other aspects of the human form.
- There's more to this story than reproductive capital.
The first of these options has been addressed in detail elsewhere. For the purposes of these articles, I assume (1) is false. I'll refer you to the site of the National Center for Science Education for a summary of the arguments.
I'll address possibility (2) in my second article, which explores the relation between the type of procedures practiced by men and women and the evolutionary shaping of human attractiveness.
If you're interested in learning more about cosmetic surgery from a social, scientific, or commercial point of view, a wealth of information can be found in the Cosmetic Surgery Directory.
The Puzzle of Beauty - part 1
The Puzzle of Beauty - part 2