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February 10, 2003

Black Beauty

(NOTE from duende: I accidentally published this beneath Razib's "black chix" post. Sorry if it's taking up too much space. )

Recently, in Razib's "Jungle Fever" post, an acolyte posted the following phrase, "black = ugly". In a rare burst of sensitivity, Razib gently chided him, and the debate focused more in sexual attractiveness than aesthetics.

However, I think this is a great opportunity to consider one of the most important factors of globalism and biodiversity: the exportation of Western aesthetics around the world. Western standards for beauty of the person have, for the most part, persisted since antiquity. Here's a fairly good example. There are a few variations, but the standard is pretty basic: high forehead, straight nose, large wide-set eyes, small but full mouth, and a small rounded chin like an egg. As the picture shows, this was also the ideal for children and adolescent boys. Certain characteristics here also apply to adult men, such as wide-set eyes, but features like a strong chin are also prized, so the aesthetic usually isn't so readily applied to adult, masculine men. Also since beauty standards always weigh more heavily on women than men, I'll focus on women in this essay.

Now deviating slightly from this motif doesn’t mean you’re condemned to ugliness. Sweeping your hair off your face can make a low forehead look higher. If your eyes are too close together, you may be saved by a particularly small mouth. Here’s a test: place your index fingers on the outer corners of your eyes. Move them down your face until you touch the corners of your mouth. Ideally, the motion should form something of an inverted triangle. Proportion is the key.

Razib has noted that the beauty standard prized by African Americans is not very African. However, comparing these two photos, who looks more like the aforementioned Madonna? As far as African-looking women go, a big problem with their facial features is that their mouths and noses are too wide. Personally, I think that Miss Barbados is quite lovely. But she is not the Western archetype.

A wide mouth can make a woman's face quite awkward by throwing off its symmetry. Mojo from Joe Millionaire (see the pop-up photo gallery) had this problem, as does Monica Lewinsky. Wide, ungainly mouths aren't limited to any race, however black people on average tend to have wider mouths.

Orientals tend to have smaller eyes than European whites, but their mouths also tend to be a bit smaller. In the Oriental women I’ve seen, mouths as wide as their eyes are slightly less common than in white women. The application of Western beauty standards in Oriental cultures is clear by the prominence of stars like Gong Li and Kyoko Fukada. Both have the specific facial symmetry admired in the West. The latter would probably have had no suitors during the Meiji Restoration , so clearly the standards have Westernized. However, I disagree with Maxine Hong Kingston that Orientals who get eyelid surgery are “trying to look white”. I think that people who get that surgery want their eyes to be larger than the mean for their races, but to them eyes as round as white ideal would look strange. I went to high school near a military base, so I knew a lot of mixed Oriental/white kids. I remember one girl who was half-white and half-Chinese. She looked very Chinese, short and slim with long black hair and a delicate face. However, her eyes were as large and round as mine, sans any hint of epicanthic fold. It’s hard to describe how unsettling this looked. I felt uncomfortable around her because this girl always looked as though she’d just suffered a terrible shock.

Perhaps Orientals without the epicanthic fold are so rare that they are shocking. However, I wonder if large, round eyes require the support of a certain type of facial structure that is simply uncommon in Orientals. Maybe a less rounded face, sans the layer of subcutaneous fat is necessary to make round eyes the centerpiece of a face instead of a pop-up ad. Even though traditional Western aesthetics don’t cotton round faces, they frequently make Oriental women look young, which can make up for the difference. I think the biggest problem that Orientals have in conforming to the Western facial aesthetic is the higher tendency toward flat noses. I seem to remember somewhere reading that nose jobs are very popular in China.

Unfortunately, although one can get a nose job quite easily, narrowing your mouth is a bit more difficult. To my knowledge there is no operation that can give you a cupid’s bow if you were born grinning from ear to ear. However the, uh, success story of Michael Jackson suggests that it might be possible if you have the money and the free time. But unfortunately, at least as far as African features go when judged by Western aesthetics, black=ugly is more accurate than not. However, there is a lot to be gained by slightly altering your perspective to view different cultures through their own standards of beauty.

Posted by duende at 10:04 AM

good post-but this part:

She looked very Chinese, short and slim with long black hair and a delicate face. However, her eyes were as large and round as mine, sans any hint of epicanthic fold. It’s hard to describe how unsettling this looked. I felt uncomfortable around her because this girl always looked as though she’d just suffered a terrible shock.


Posted by: razib at February 10, 2003 10:42 AM

Is that constructive criticism or a compliment?

Posted by: duende at February 10, 2003 10:49 AM

compliment. is it messed up to be funny? :)

Posted by: razib at February 10, 2003 12:19 PM

I think if all women looked just like Laetitia Casta, the world would be a better place. Except for my wife, because she's beautiful just the way she is,... so now I'm off that hook.

Posted by: andy at February 10, 2003 02:58 PM

I have a really dumb question: are men and women of each race attracted most strongly to members of their own race? (I know some aren't, but there are always exceptions. I'm interested in the majority.) Are Negro men attracted strongest to Negro women and vice-versa (the majority)? Are Chinese men ditto to Chinese women and vice versa (the majority)? Etc., etc. I've often wondered about this. I'm white and am attracted most strongly to white women, and I think there's something inborn that makes us each attracted most to our own race.

Skin color means nothing to me in this regard. I'm happily married to a white woman, who could have jet-black skin for all I care and I wouldn't feel less attracted to her (assuming everything else about her was the same). Skin color just has no importance for me. I *can* find oriental women attractive (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan) (on rare occasions, very attractive), but I seldom do and that's always been a mystery for me. Outside of the white world, it's easier for me to find Hindu and Pakistani women attractive than oriental women. I interpret that to be probably because Hindu and Pakistani women are white (caucasian) even though some may have skin the color of chocolate fudge. I worked with some of them once, in Trenton, New Jersey, including a few who were quite dark, darker than Negroes, and quite attractive -- easily as attractive as very attractive white women. In fact I saw no difference between them and white-skinned white women (that's in regard to looks -- in regard to personality they were more feminine and more refined, more dignified, than white women). I think some of the world's most attractive women are found in the Indian sub-continent -- certainly (to me) as attractive as white women, no matter what shade their skin may be. It's hard for me to be attracted to latino women unless they look white. It's impossible for me to be attracted to Negro women. I do not understand why. Though I've tried, I've never succeeded in feeling attracted to one in my entire life and to that there have been no exceptions -- no movie or pop star, no fashion model, no sports figure, none I've ever known or seen passing by on the street -- no exceptions. I have no idea why. It's some combination of looks and personality that just doesn't do it for me, I suppose the explanation must be.

To get back to my point: are the members of every race the same as me, in feeling most attracted BY FAR to members of their own race, way less attracted to some races than to their own race, and unable to feel attracted at all to yet other races?

Posted by: Unadorned at February 10, 2003 03:50 PM

The chick from Barbados is hot. Period.

I don't dig on Asian chicks. never have. I think their appeal lies mainly in looking young (round face, small frame), and men value a youthful look.

I'm still of the opinion that black women would be a lot more attractive to white US men if:
1) they got thinner. something like 60-70% of black women are overweight
2) they lose the 'ghetto' attitude/speech

This is why, to me, foreign black women are more attractive than American black women.


Posted by: David at February 10, 2003 04:31 PM


I think you have to clarify on the small mouth thing because I think you're half right. A small mouth is okay when not smiling, but this male likes a nice big, wide smile. A scrunched up Meryl Streep-like smile, which is narrow, is NOT attractive to me or most males.

To Unadorned's question, I think ON AVERAGE I'm more attracted to women of my own race, and I'd imagine most people are due to the higher rates of same-race marriages.

Posted by: V at February 10, 2003 04:50 PM

As I posted elsewhere, Black American men tend to prefer women with big butts, which may have something to do with the fact that a lot of Black American women have big butts. Other peoples whose men seem to prefer large women are pacific Islanders and Arabs, in my experience.

I think that distinct local / tribal / cultural standards of beauty are tending to disappear as elites become Westernized and cultures just plain die. I have read that to pure Maya cross-eyed women are especially beautiful, and that to Inuit tiny, almost invisible noses are just adorable, but these cultures are being assimilated or destroyed.

Posted by: zizka at February 10, 2003 06:43 PM

Study: Faces Like Our Own Seem the Most Attractive.

of course, this does not apply to everyone ;)

Posted by: razib at February 10, 2003 08:01 PM

Focusing solely on looks, I find women of all ethnicities attractive, well, except perhaps pure-blooded Tasmanian Aborigines.

Posted by: Jason Soon at February 10, 2003 09:22 PM

The Africans in I knew in Europe tended to eat a traditional diet of vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat and fish. I don't have the stats on this, but I think that a great many blue collar American blacks live on fast food and packaged junk food like doughnuts. Sometimes I think they'd be much slimmer and healthier if they just had time to cook.

Posted by: duende at February 11, 2003 06:17 AM

Could you find a better pic of Halle Berry?She looks like Michael Jackson in that one and that's just not right,man.

Posted by: M. at February 11, 2003 06:33 AM

"A wide mouth can make a woman's face quite awkward by throwing off its symmetry."

It can also have quite the opposite effect. Let me quote Camille Paglia:

"One reason I believed the Paula Jones story right from the start was because of the allegation that he [Clinton] demanded oral sex from her. Based on my long study of pornographic pictures and videos, I can easily see why Paula Jones would instantly produce a fantasy of oral sex. People kept saying, very ignorantly, "Oh, she's not very attractive -- what would he have seen in her?" Well, I can see very clearly she has this big wide mouth, and a lot of teeth, and there's a sort of slackness about her jaw -- which is what women porn stars develop when they learn how to relax their jaw muscles to perform great oral sex. I think that Paula Jones was at every stage a walking, talking advertisement for oral sex! So I was stunned when I first saw the pictures of Monica Lewinsky on every TV program -- the big wide smile, the nicely relaxed lips with all those teeth -- and I thought, Oh my God, here we go again!"

Camille is correct.

Posted by: martin at February 11, 2003 08:24 PM

I do not really understand claims that "white" ideals are taking over the world. Very few beauties are pictured with such very European features as ill-defined, even bulbous noses (much more common than straight) or heavily lidded, downturned eyes. Instead, all around I see beauties with high cheekbones, and eyes that are tilted up, whether almond shaped or not, features much more common among those of African or Asian descent. (I have to say that West Africans have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen, almond-shaped, upturned, large and luminous).

In fact, those I have seen who most match the suposedly white Western standards of beauty are those who are of a mixed heritage - perhaps a wisdom in that? In mixing we come out with the best. :)

PS - The historian in me must caution one little detail of duende's otherwise very interesting essay: When looking at a work of art, such as the Meiji print, conventions of art may not reflect the actual standards of (living) beauty. It helps to corroborate with other evidence (if you are lucky, someone writes "What people find beautiful is...")

Posted by: JB at February 11, 2003 09:38 PM

To counterbalance Martin's comment with one: I recall reading Prof. Paglia's column where she advanced that theory, and I've also heard the exact same theory from someone -- also a woman -- who had never heard of Camille Paglia and claimed the idea was her own. As a man, I can say I've never looked at women's faces in this way -- with this in mind -- and I seriously doubt that any but, conceivably, a tiny minority of men, ever do. This is not even remotely what registers when a woman's face has its effect on a man's brain.

Posted by: Unadorned at February 11, 2003 09:50 PM

Ah, but most men don't so vociferously dispute the meaning of the work "is"!

First time I saw Bill Clinton, I thought "dear god, he looks like a used car dealer," and knew to not ever believe a damned thing he said.

Posted by: David Mercer at February 11, 2003 11:41 PM

About the comment about mixed raced people being the most attractive, there's an article in Marie Claire called the "New Multiculturalism: How its making us all more attractive" (Interesting that by culti they mean racially) A researcher claims that the faces of mixed race people are more symmetrical than monoracial people.

Posted by: Rob at February 12, 2003 06:18 AM

David Mercer,
My mother's family all has high cheekbones due to her Cherokee descent. But remember, the classical standards of beauty will always leave most people, of whatever race, in the dust. I certainly don't meet them all.

Posted by: duende at February 12, 2003 06:26 AM

I think that perhaps the aesthetics of attraction are not the deciding factor, really. I have heard about many studies that find that women and men prefer the smell of potential partners whose immune systems differ most from their own. This is a useful evolutionary trait, causing people with different immune systems to mix and so produce children with better immune systems, etc. But if you think about it, different races are more likely to have more different immune systems, so from these studies we can confer that in general people will prefer the smell (put it down to pheromones if you will) of other races. This will inevitably lead to race mixing, something that has happened throughout history.

And therein lies my second point. I'm English, and we (well, at least here in London) are perfectly happy with different races - there is no social barrier. But people still think that 'white' people are a race in and of themselves - we aren't. You get blondes, brunettes, redheads; fairskinned, darkskinned; we are heavy limbed, light limbed, skinny, stocky, broadshouldered, hourglass; we can have wide-set eyes, narrow-set eyes, any size ears, any shape nose. We are descended from ancient Britons (Celts), Vikings, French, Romans and various others. Today is only a new wave of races to mix and enrich us - Afro-carribean, Asian, Oriental.

I personally find mixed race women most attractive - afro-caribbean/white, asian/white, in particular - with examples of Halle Berry and Angela Griffin (a British actress). I also find black women attractive, and this seems to be a family trait on both my mother and father's sides, with a mixed marriage (black/white) on each. I think the thing is that I've grown up knowing people of many and various races, and I don't really see different races as anything particularly special. Women can be beautiful from any race, and for me the most infectious thing is usually their personality. At the moment I'm living in Richmond, a more upper class (and hence almost entirely white) area, and this is a bit bland for me - I'm so used to having Asian, black, mixed race friends, and since I don't want to cut myself out of the chance of having a mixed race or black wife, I'm not too keen to stay where I am. That sounds a bit like some sort of retro/anti racism, but it's not - I'm pretty race blind, I just have a bit of a thing for non white women it seems.

One final point - there is a website somewhere about a study that some researchers did, where they took photos of all the people in some town, and averaged pairs, then averaged the pairs of pairs etc of faces, until they had one average face. The face was white (since the town was pretty much white), but was inherently beautiful - some artist somewhere said that beaty lies in averages, that the most beautiful woman has an average sized chin, an average nose, eyes and average distance apart. And I think perhaps this is still true with different races, except that our average is shifted to include people of different races too. Which could explain my preference for black-white mixed race women. Perhaps.


Posted by: Phil at March 9, 2003 02:16 PM

Posted by David:
I'm still of the opinion that black women would be a lot more attractive to white US men if:
1) they got thinner. something like 60-70% of black women are overweight
2) they lose the 'ghetto' attitude/speech

Posted by: Remmy at March 27, 2003 08:26 PM