The "Beauty Myth" Is No Myth : Emphasis on Male-Female Attractiveness in World Folktales

Hum Nat. 2008 Jun;19(2):174-88. doi: 10.1007/s12110-008-9035-3. Epub 2008 Apr 29.


The phenomenon of apparently greater emphasis on human female physical attractiveness has spawned an array of explanatory responses, but the great majority can be broadly categorized as either evolutionary or social constructivist in nature. Both perspectives generate distinct and testable predictions. If, as Naomi Wolf (The beauty myth: How images of female beauty are used against women. New York: William Morrow, [originally published in 1991], 2002) and others have argued, greater emphasis on female attractiveness is part of a predominantly Western "beauty myth," then an analysis of a culturally diverse sample should reveal marked fluctuation in gendered attractiveness emphasis: there should be significant numbers of cultures in which male and female attractiveness are equally emphasized, and cultures in which male attractiveness receives more emphasis. On the other hand, an evolutionary perspective suggests that disproportionate emphasis on female attractiveness will be a universal or near-universal phenomenon. To test these hypotheses, we tallied references to male versus female attractiveness in 90 collections of traditional folktales from 13 diverse cultural areas. The results are consistent with the evolutionary predictions and inconsistent with the constructivist predictions. Across culture areas information on physical attractiveness was much more likely to be conveyed for female characters. Together with other recent studies, these results suggest that the main elements of the beauty myth are not myths: there are large areas of overlap in the attractiveness judgments of diverse populations, and cross-cultural emphasis on physical attractiveness appears to fall principally upon women.

Keywords: Content analysis; Evolution; Folktales; Physical attractiveness; “The beauty myth”.