Kids' Views on Beauty

I have a confession to make: I was a late-bloomer. I didn’t start regularly kissing girls until the 5th grade (I’m pretty sure that Kelly, Liz, Bianca are not evolvify readers… but ladies, if you are, don’t worry, nobody will make the connection). So it’s with trepidation that I unleash this video of the most adorable, cutest bad-assest kids.

Elliot: “Why did you kiss me?”

Bowie: “Because I like you.”

Elliot: “I kissed you because I like you. I kiss you ’cause you like me.”

Amen lil’ brother. Wouldn’t it be cool if life was this simple? Well… sorry to burst your rationalization bubble, but it kind of is.

Maybe choose a girl with all her teeth next time, but hey, I’m not judging.

[cft format=0]

But behind the scenes, we have something a little more relevant for evolvify.com. It starts off all puppy dogs and ice cream, and the first half is important, but check out the transition in Elliot’s responses at around 2 minutes when he’s really pressed on what’s important…

I’d originally intended to write something about the article “Preschoolers Already Think Thin is Beautiful“, but the videos were more fun and kinda sorta tied in nicely. That article leads…

“Kids as young as 4 think thin is beautiful, suggesting that media associations of thinness with beauty sink in early.”

Sorry, but that statement (whether it’s true or not) is logically flawed. There is nothing in “kids as young as 4 think thin is beautiful” that suggests anything other than that kids as young as 4 think thin is beautiful. Another option is that humans have behavioral heuristics that are innate and kids as young as 4 are capable of expressing this. Yet another option is that humans are innately more susceptible to learning to associate thinness with beauty and kids as young as 4 have learned the preference and are capable of expressing this. Evolutionarily speaking, which is most likely?

The article continues…

Even the youngest 4-year-olds in the study ranked the “most beautiful” body as significantly thinner than the normal-weight original. On average, participants thought the prettiest body was the one that shaved about 5 percent off the width of the original. Meanwhile, the body ranked “most normal” was the original normal-BMI image.

This may be evidence of a cultural influence, but it also may be a heuristic along the lines of error-management theory. Probabilistically, if being overweight was more detrimental to survival and/or reproduction over the course of evolution, a simple “skinny is better” bias could have evolved as a behavioral mechanism. Again, it also could (read: probably would) have evolved in such a way that resource signals from the environment shape the preference. The latter instance seems to be the case in adults coming from resource abundant urban areas when cross-culturally compared with resource scarce agrarian communities.

This is a lead-in to a future article discussing the stigmatization of obesity. If you haven’t already, you should subscribe. I’ll be discussing the following studies

  • “Stigmatization of obesity in medieval times: Asia and Europe.”
  • “Evolutionary origins of the obesity epidemic: natural selection of thrifty genes or genetic drift following predation release?”
  • “The relationship between obesity and fecundity.”
  • “Pathogen-avoidance mechanisms and the stigmatization of obese people”
  • and maybe a few more

For now, I’m most curious about your thoughts on the second video. How much (and what) of that is socialization, and how much do you think has a basis in evolved behavior? Also, is the linked article convincing in arguing for a cultural explanation for the preference for skinny?

25 Comments
  1. @PrimalArturo 4 years ago

    STRONG is the new SKINNY.

    • Author
      Andrew 4 years ago

      I've always thought that was a clever line, but it's not very accurate. In my next post, "A Beginner’s Guide to Showing-Off", I'll explain why.

  2. Danielle Meitiv 4 years ago

    it's only in fairly recent times that round-bodied = "well-fed" (as in access to food not necessarily healthy). Before that roundness, particularly in the belly area meant serious malnutrition. Not surprising that a preference for slimness would prevail.

    Since we evolved way before food hording and surplus were even possible, I can't imagine how else our earliest ancestors could get (or appear to be) fat…

    • Dan 4 years ago

      I don't disagree, but how then do we explain prehistoric figurines like the Venus of Willendorf? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_of_Willendorf) There must have been a way to put on excess fat that was not only not a sign of malnutrition, but was something worthy of worship/awe. Then again, perhaps, just like most fashion models, prehistoric figurines represented a conceivable, but realistically unattainable ideal.

      • Peggy 4 years ago

        There is a lengthy explication of those figurines in the "Prehistory of Sex" that you might be interested in. I would be careful calling them worthy of worship or awe. The real purpose and reverence of those figurines remains unknown.

  3. @jadedbeautyPNW 4 years ago

    5th grade is way late! I kissed Jesse by the library books in 1st grade.

    It’s ok, Andrew, you caught up later. 😉

    I think that Elliot’s statements in the second video make perfect sense from an EP perspective. I also don’t think he said “pretty” was most important because he was tired or bored, I think it was his instinctive answer. I think he became frustrated when pressed about WHY pretty was more important, because he didn’t have an answer, he just knew that it was. His blurting out “I don’t CARE how she is!” was so funny, because how many of us have had a guy friend who was dating a woman that was very attractive, but either dumb as a post or completely mean? Elliot just explained that for you.
    I also found his comment at the end, that his future bride should be “like me” and “beautiful” could definitely go along with the idea that we generally mate-select at a level of attractiveness similar to our own. Particularly coming from a child who hasn’t yet learned all the ways in which it’s ‘wrong’ to think that way.
    I don’t think it necessarily implies his parents or socialization have been overly focused on beauty or in some way shallow or focused on the wrong things. Rather, I think it might simply support the idea that we all (like it or not) have an innate attraction to certain things (like facial symmetry for everyone, a certain waist/hip ratio in women, etc) and kids just haven’t figured out yet that it’s not ‘nice’ to say so.

    • Author
      Andrew 4 years ago

      I also don’t think he said “pretty” was most important because he was tired or bored, I think it was his instinctive answer. I think he became frustrated when pressed about WHY pretty was more important, because he didn’t have an answer, he just knew that it was.

      That was my initial interpretation as well.

      I do also think the bit about flowers and protection are relevant. In the "maligned men" (sorry, there's probably a better term) community, there's a notion that doing things like buying flowers is something like culturally mitigated placation to females who have ridden the wave of feminism to stealth dominance. However, that ignores the costly signalling value of gifting things of zero practical value to communicate control of abundant resources (status, wealth, whatever).

  4. Danielle Meitiv 4 years ago

    The Venus of Willendorf probably represents an exaggerated version of pregnant woman, which would explain why she has such enlarged hips, waist and breasts. In that case, she would have represented fecundity without being an ideal for all non-pregnant women.

  5. Peggy 4 years ago

    That was a completely worthless article! Here we go with faulty logic again. "Study found that kids between the ages of 3 and 5 favor thinness." And "Young kids also consume lots of media." Then, a couple paragraphs down, "Given findings that media exposure is linked to body-image issues in adults…"

    Where were these findings given? The author goes on to assume that the whole "problem" of favoring thinness is a result of media exposure. That is clearly nonsense. It was not supported in any way through research or deduction.

    If they researched kids who aren't exposed to media, what do you suppose they would find? Likely something similar. Thinness often equals health and kids know it. Who are the people playing sports at the park? Not fat people. Which adults swing on the monkey bars with them? Not fat ones. Which type of people have more health problems? Who gets tired easily? This is the stuff that matters to kids most. Active adults that can play are going to be more desirable than ones who can't. Kids can make the simple connection that thinness is more fun if nothing else. There are a whole ton of reasons why kids (and people in general) may be more attracted to thinness but that article certainly didn't lay them down. Additionally, we all say things like "oh damn I've gained a few pounds this week." We keep scales in the bathroom. (I personally think visible bone structure is incredibly attractive and would guess nobody would be particularly attracted to the blurred out facial features of a fat person.) and on and on. (Writing a comment on this is really not worthy. There is too much to say and too much that needs to be backed up.)

    I mean, duh, kids are attracted to thinness and media plays a minimal role.

  6. Author
    Andrew 4 years ago


    "Kids will often say something they don't necessarily mean whole heartedly when they don't understand, don't know the answer, or are bored with the conversation."

    I agree with this statement, but I took it a little differently. Basically, I interpreted it as Sarah (@jaded…) below. I took what you said almost exactly the opposite direction. My thinking was that — when pressed, bored, et cetera — children (all humans probably) drop out of a mode of "rational" cognitive analysis and blurt out a more instinctual answer. At the same time, I can see why someone would respond with the cultural answer. If one was so motivated as to appease the questioner to end the conversation, they might just give the answer the person wants. In this situation, I thought Elliot's response was more a matter of exasperation than appeasement. Another factor in this is that children (I have no idea how old these kids are) between about 2 and 7 may not have a fully developed theory of mind that would enable them to "get into the heads" of interrogators and discover that they are looking for a particular response, and/or what that response might be.

  7. Bennett 4 years ago

    Some things are just individual preference, we're not all automata programmed by evolution in every little thing we do. I've had girlfriends who liked my hair when it was long, and another who wanted it buzzed to almost nothing. Her idea of what looked 'badass' included 'not being easy to pull in a fight'. Others don't really care much at all. It's sorta like a preference for blonde hair over red in a guy, I think, just what looks good to the individual.

    Also, it could be that she thinks your wild, untamed locks look less 'Braveheart' and more 'dirty hobo'. Some girls are weird like that. Do you keep it tidy, or let it billow in the breeze, full of sticks and small birds?

    • @StabbyRaccoon 4 years ago

      Good answer! Yes I can see how it's just as easy to think dirty hobo as it is Braveheart. It is actually pretty tidy but some people will see the length itself as dirtbaggy, even if it is well-kempt

  8. Author
    Andrew 4 years ago

    Note: the camerawoman/questioner is his mom.

    There has to be some semiotic value in the media cavemen stereotypes (medieval people, mountain people, backwoods people, etc.) that shows people caked with layers of dirt and grime all over their faces. Filth is a cue that can trigger pathogen-avoidance responses. Another example is the common anti-semitic slander "dirty jew". Robert Sapolsky talks about that in the second video here. Interesting to consider cleanliness in terms of kids' perceptions (though parents tend to teach that, sometimes excepting the ones who know that a dirty kid is a happy kid).

    BMI in this context is a joke. The mathematician who came up with it specifically warned against its use in individuals. I'm always skeptical of studies who use it in any supposedly meaningful way. Fact is, it's cheap and easy. I try not to be so cynical to think that some scientists use it because they know it opens the door to distortion, but it's hard sometimes.


    what ever happened to the days when skinny was attractive for men, too?


    I wouldn't say skinny is attractive in men per se, but I do think low body-fat allows women to assess gene expression. Aside from the cultural/status implications, layers of excess fat are the phenotypic equivalent of wearing a burqa. I guess that tips of my thinking that the same is true of male assessments of gene expression in women — though the optimal percentage of body fat is quite different.

    • Bennett 4 years ago

      Good thinking! Apparently whatever women in the 1970's saw in Robert Plant's visible rib cage, they liked.

  9. Peggy 4 years ago

    For the record, I wasn't at all trying to say that he didn't hold beauty to be the highest ideal or that it wasn't a valid instinctual answer. I was just pointing out that it may be hard to tell exactly what's going on with him – whether or not he was being totally honest and whether his associations might not have influenced his answer. We just don't know.

  10. Author
    Andrew 4 years ago


    “what is culturally desirable actually stems from what is evolutionarily desirable”

    50% Agreed. I think that culture (generally) comes from two places. 1) An amplification of evolved cues/instincts/behavior. 2) An amplification of the interests of certain parties involved in its dissemination.

    In the latter case, things like religious death threats to women committing ‘adultery’ primarily benefit relatively unattractive men who would otherwise be at a disadvantage in wooing women. There are probably better examples and that’s oversimplified. It could also be argued that this example is just a subset of “what is evolutionarily desirable”, but I think that goes a little too far in mixing proximate and ultimate causes.

    Totally speculation, but your hair-length question might have something to do with whether a woman is practicing (at any given moment) a long-term or short-term mating strategy. The marker of long-hair as a badass trait is likely cultural, but it might be a good thing in a short-term mating scenario.

    • @StabbyRaccoon 4 years ago

      Hmm, it's a good hypothesis. Supporting evidence would be the phenomenon of rock bands and groupies, she's definitely the type to "shop around for genes" in our offensive evopsych parlance.

      The culture as predominantly useful mating/living strategy comes from evidence like different temperaments of Chinese and American babies. These babies haven't learned much in their lives, yet if you put a cloth over an American baby's face it struggles and puts up a fight. Put it over a Chinese baby's face and it learn to breathe through its mouth. Take no shit temperament makes the most sense in an abundant environment and take shit and learn to like it temperament makes most sense in an overpopulated environment. The culture reflects these sorts of things. So I was thinking that neat and office-like appearance would be more desirable in North America whereas rugged and wild hair is more desirable wherever people don't tend to rely on cleanliness as much. Northern Europe seems to still have that Viking culture even though it is less and less like that as time passes. Part of the North American bias towards neatness might also be the result of puritanical culture too.

      Some day researchers will put this stuff to the test so we don't have to speculate so hardcore.

      • Author
        Andrew 4 years ago
        • Bennett 4 years ago

          Speaking of beards, has anyone else noticed that once you go paleo, you develop a sudden desire to sport face fur? I shaved right up until post-college, when I briefly grew a bit of restrained goatee/mustache action (then shaved it because a girl didn't like it–isn't overt reproductive selection fun?) but now I can't seem to recall to do it. Maybe I've just become a slob, but I'm otherwise very up on my appearance and general hygiene.

  11. @StabbyRaccoon 4 years ago

    Ha! That's brilliant, I'm going to try carrying around a sword or something. Might backfire if she decides to give me a haircut with it.

  12. Samantha 4 years ago

    Irrelevant to the discussion, but as a woman I find facial hair beyond stubble on a guy really gross. Ditto most of my friends. Just… ewww. No logic or reason. Loved the videos of the kids, so cute, and true. Agree with statement about skinny (lean, not fat, may be better terms) being beautiful regardless of why, like the fluffy bunnies being cute.

  13. Quinlan 4 years ago

    I think you guys are way off in regards to fat acceptance and "promotion of obesity norms", perhaps explicitly that is the case but implicitly thin is very much still in.

    I have to wonder who taught this boy what the word beautiful means, and what kind of biases they passed on as they did so. Kids are like sponges, they are going to pick up cultural bias as easily as they pick up language. They're not neccessarily going to pick it up from media either, more likely is the ever present self-criticism and fat talk the women in their life likely engage in (even the thin ones).

  14. Quinlan 4 years ago

    Personally I think the natural/innate ideals are plumpish/curvy for women and lean and muscular for men. I think women project (reflect?) their desire for leaness in a mate back onto themselves in a twisted sort of way. I've got nothing to back it up though.

  15. CorbinW 4 years ago

    Everything is subjective. I was at the bar talking with a very attractive woman(by social standards) about attraction. I was suprised to find out that she is very attracted to nerdy, skinny, pale men with a "well fed" belly that sticks way out. She also expressed that lean muscular men are the opposite of what she likes. Strangely enough, her biological sister, who was sitting next to her, radically disagreed. Then, I told them I preffered blondes and ordered a shiner blonde.

    • Author
      Andrew 4 years ago

      The cognitive dissonance inherent in animals having cognition and instincts can't be ignored. What people say and how they behave is often quite different.

      Anecdotes don't refute distributions among populations.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

CONTACT US

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Sending

©2015 KLEO Template a premium and multipurpose theme from Seventh Queen

Log in with your credentials

or    

Forgot your details?

Skip to toolbar