Evolutionary Perspectives on Altering Physical Appearance

This entry was written by Sarah Partridge as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive
Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2


The ways individuals and societies alter their physical appearances varies. In some cultures, altering physical appearance is necessary because without them, they will not be found attractive. In other cultures, it is not necessarily a rite of passage though many still participate at some point in their lives by body piercing, dying hair, or tattooing, or to more extreme levels such as lip injections or plastic surgeries. An underlying basis of altering physical appearances is attractiveness, and its ability to attract mates and provide physical cues of fecundity (Jones, 1996). Attractive people are viewed as being more sociable, altruistic, and intelligent, and having more choice in mates and offered jobs more than those who are less attractive (Strangor et al., 2014).

This essay will investigate why individuals change their appearances and how this may differ in across cultures.

Main Body

In initial encounters, attraction is an important determinant of mate choice and is affected by sensory and cognitive biases. Physical attractiveness of a female appears to be more important for males. While physical attractiveness is important, females are more interested in social status and wealth in a partner (Strangor et al., 2014). Based on this, females are going to be more inclined to alter their physical appearances in attempts to increase their attractiveness to mates. The standard of attractiveness may have increased since the creation of media and popular culture, where most aspects of them involve attractive people, leading to more people taking action to make themselves look more attractive. Attractiveness of an individual can increase their chances of mating via cues that indicate whether an individual is a better mate. This affects mate choice by which individuals judge potential mates based on their mate value. This involves features they prefer and that reflect expected reproductive success from mating with them, and what genetic contribution will be provided to the offspring. Symmetrical features are considered more attractive as they are perceived to be healthier and contain better genes. Preference for symmetry and youth are relatively universal, but others such as how fat is deposited vary across cultures and throughout time.

There is a general preference for younger mates, suggesting at a certain point, attractiveness decreases with age, something that is also found in non-WEIRD societies. Typically, men show a higher preference for younger women as mates. Visible traits that are affected by sex hormones provide cues about a female’s age and thereby attractiveness; components of an individual’s face will change as they age. For example, as you age, your nose and ears get bigger and lips lose their fullness. Hence why some women undergo plastic surgery to by altering nose size or injecting botox to achieve lip fullness to appear younger. On the basis of sexual selection, ancestral females being young and having features that suggested youth was more attractive to ancestral males, leading to selection for retention of youthful features into adulthood in future generations (Fessler et al., 2005).

Kim and Lee (2018) discussed a concept of social comparison, where humans interact and compare themselves with others leading to opinions that generate social power. Their study investigated women in their reproductive prime from South Korea. They found that South Korea had high beauty standards that are set by a few celebrities as a reference point for cultural beauty. The power of media on South Koreans urges many to undergo cosmetic surgery to fit these standards and is essentially forming severe body dissatisfaction in these individuals (Voges et al., 2019). South Korea is also strongly influenced by Confucian culture where males prefer obedient women that are soft and feminine in appearance, and female social status is malleable, such that if she marries a wealthy male she has succeeded. She achieves this goal by changing her appearance to fit Korean ideal beauty. Matchmaking companies there also judge women mainly on their appearance, so it is in the female’s best interest to make herself fit the standards if she wants a certain mate. Many South Korean women voiced they would undergo body modifications, despite the costs, because even if they were unhealthy, they were beautiful.

Exercise can result in losing weight or gaining muscle, characteristics which can increase an individual’s attractiveness. Many young men feel an obligation to be muscular, while many women tend to be slimmer, both are shaped by the overwhelming presence in social media. Voges and colleagues (2019) backed this up by observing longer eye movement toward males and females with these respective characteristics, and negative emotions towards individuals that were overweight. They suggest that being overweight comes with associative feelings that they are lazy, less competent, unhealthy and therefore not a good mate.

Atari and colleagues (2017) investigated strategies undertaken to reduce the risk of infidelity, a behaviour which is a threat to long-term relationships. Mate retention behaviours can be benefit-provisioning which involves behaviour that increases happiness in a relationship to reduce infidelity, or cost-inflicting which involves behaviour that lowers self-esteem of thei partner, resulting in reduction of infidelity. As benefit-provisioning, females are more likely to compete by enhancing their appearance to be more attractive to their partner. Most cosmetic surgeries are performed on women, and since male preference is more reliant upon female attractiveness, this is no surprise. It was claimed that following surgery, women appeared younger and more feminine, which may imply surgery can be associated with mate retention (Atari et al., 2017).

In many cultures, females having smaller feet is more attractive than larger feet because they can indicate youth and fecundity. Foot binding is an extreme practice of body modification that women in historical China undertook to keep their foot size small to be attractive. Without this binding, some may not have been able to marry (Fessler et al., 2005).


More attractive people are considered better mates, leading to evolution of strategies involving altering physical appearance to become more attractive. The severity in how individuals wish to alter their appearance in western cultures is heavily influenced by increasing power of media, leading to higher dissatisfaction of individuals. The evolution of altering physical appearance as a mating strategy, may have arisen from women wanting to look younger to males by rewinding how fecundity cues have changed as they have aged, in order to appear fertile, and could now exist as a way that partners try to maintain their long-term relationships by reducing infidelity risks.


Atari M., Barbaro N., Sela Y., Shackelford T., Chegeni R., (2017), Consideration of Cosmetic Surgery As Part of Women’s Benefit-Provisioning Mate Retention Strategy. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(1389), 1-7

Fessler D., Nettle D., Afshar Y., Pinheiro I., Bolyanatz A., Mulder M., Cravalho M., Delgado T., Gruzd B., Correia M., Khaltourina D., Korotayev A., Marrow J., de Souza L., Zbarauskaite A., (2005), A Cross-Cultural Investigation of the Role of Foot Size in Physical Attractiveness. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 34(3), 267-276

Jones D., (1996), An evolutionary perspective on physical attractiveness. Evolutionary Anthropology Issues News and Reviews, 5(3), 97-109

Stangor C, Jhangiani R., Tarry H., (2014), Principles of Social Psychology - 1st International Edition. Initial Attraction (pages 302-312), Victoria B.C.: BCcampus

Voges M., Giabbiconi C., Schone B., Waldorf M., Hartmann A., Vocks S., (2019), Gender Differences in Body Evaluation: Do Men Show More Self-Serving Double Standards Than Women?. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(544), 1-12

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