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Human Nature

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 174–188 | Cite as

The “Beauty Myth” Is No Myth

Emphasis on Male-Female Attractiveness in World Folktales
  • Jonathan GottschallEmail author
  • Kacey Anderson, Chad Burbank, Jasper Burch, Chelsea Byrnes, Christine Callanan, Nicole Casamento, Amy Gardiner, Natalie Gladd, Allison Hartnett, Elisabeth Henry, Eloise Hilarides, Chelsea Lemke, Kristen Manganini, Sara Merrihew, Tonya Milan-Robinson, Patrick O’Connell, Jessica Mott, Kimberly Parker, Karlin Revoir, Nathan Riley, Darcie Robinson, Sheila Rodriguez, Chelsea Sauve, April Spearance, Valerie Stucker, Adam Tapply, Alexa Unser, Christopher Wall, Alexis Webb, and Melinda Zocco
Article

Abstract

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

Physical attractiveness “The beauty myth” Folktales Content analysis Evolution 

Notes

Acknowledgments

The authors are grateful for support provided by the dean of St. Lawrence University, Grant Cornwell, and, especially, Assistant Dean Steven Horwitz. We also thank two other St. Lawrence University faculty members, Robin Lock (Statistics) and Alan Searleman (Psychology), both of whom provided consultation on statistical matters. Like these professors, John Johnson (Penn State University) generously lent us the benefit of specialized statistical expertise. Finally, we thank the three anonymous peer-reviewers; this article benefited greatly from their challenges and their advice.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan Gottschall
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kacey Anderson, Chad Burbank, Jasper Burch, Chelsea Byrnes, Christine Callanan, Nicole Casamento, Amy Gardiner, Natalie Gladd, Allison Hartnett, Elisabeth Henry, Eloise Hilarides, Chelsea Lemke, Kristen Manganini, Sara Merrihew, Tonya Milan-Robinson, Patrick O’Connell, Jessica Mott, Kimberly Parker, Karlin Revoir, Nathan Riley, Darcie Robinson, Sheila Rodriguez, Chelsea Sauve, April Spearance, Valerie Stucker, Adam Tapply, Alexa Unser, Christopher Wall, Alexis Webb, and Melinda Zocco
  1. 1.Department of EnglishWashington and Jefferson CollegeWashingtonUSA

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