(Continued from: Male Physical Attractiveness Part I or: You Shallow, Shallow Ladies)

The attractiveness of facial symmetry seems to have woven itself thoroughly into the nerdier shallower echelons of pop culture. Long-story short: symmetry is a reflection of developmental stability via genetic quality and/or resistance to parasites that would cause asymmetrical development.

In the eternal quest for defense of my own ego via self-justification, I need a loophole. You see, my brother did me the favor of breaking my nose via airborne frozen pine cone when I was about 13. Hence, the ol’ schnoze is somewhat lacking in symmetrical perfection on the Y-axis. Don’t get me wrong, the nose remains perfect, but the angle relative to my face is no longer exacly 90°. Fortunately, it’s almost balanced out by the scar bestowed upon me after my cousin tagged my face with a “snowball” (ice-packed dog bone embedded in the faintest veneer of snow).

Side Note: The comparing scar stories conversation has to be one of the Top 10 moments of any human relationship. So no, I’m not going to tell you about the rest of them now. Why are you trying to progress our relationship so fast? I’m starting to feel suffocated.

Keanu, ever the sage:“Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever.”


Short-Term vs. Long Term Mating Strategies

Human matings can last a few years, a few months, a few weeks, a few days, or even a few minutes. One end of this temporal continuum may be called short-term mating. This temporal dimension turns out to be critical to many components of mating, perhaps none more central than the qualities desired. Furthermore, humans display remarkable creativity in their ability to mix and match mating strategies. It is not uncommon, for example, for a person to engage in one long-term committed mateship with heavy investment in children, while simultaneously pursuing an extramarital affair, or series of affairs, on the side.

Humans, in short, are neither solely monogamous, nor solely promiscuous; neither polygynous nor polyandrous. Which items on the menu of strategies a particular person chooses is heavily dependent on contexts. (Buss 2002)

Chicks Dig Scars: Sometimes

Post-traumatic scarring has been shown to increase perceived social worth in certain circumstances. In particular, women find facial scars on men more attractive in the short-term mating context, but not in the long-term context (Burriss et al. 2009). In a straightforward study, attractiveness ratings were gathered by showing images of non-scarred faces to raters. The same images were shown and rated with scars digitally added.

Example stimuli from Burriss et al 2009. Scar intensity +/- 30% color difference from surrounding skin

The increase in attractiveness was significant, but not overwhelming. The authors noted that the relatively light scarring used for the test may have tempered the attractiveness gain of the scarred faces in the short-term context. The image above shows the maximum intensity of digital scarring used in the study.

The Folk Wisdom of Scarification

In modern Western cultures, scarification can be associated with generally negative connotations. This makes sense when noting that modern Western cultures place higher values on strict monogamy (legal marriage) by way of religion, politics, and other reproductive-interest-driven mechanisms of socialization. As such, short-term mating strategies are taboo and hard to disentangle from the cultural framework. However…

In many non-Western cultures, scars derived from ritual scarification (intentional scarring) are prized. Scarification is employed to enhance beauty and symmetry in men and women and its use is positively associated with polygyny, warfare against other cultural groups, and with pathogen prevalence. Scarification is also employed to mark rites of passage in men and women, and in particular the passage from childhood to adulthood. It has therefore been suggested that intentional scarring, as well as other forms of visible body modification such as tattooing, may serve to promote solidarity amongst men as well as advertise or simulate genetic quality, signal sexual maturity, and aid in attracting and securing mates. (Burriss et al. 2009)

For those who’ve earned their scars the old-fashioned way, don’t hide ’em…

Yanomamö men often shave their heads and rub red pigment into their scalps to increase the visibility of their scars, thus demonstrating their bravery and ability to withstand and recover from an enemy’s blow. (Burriss et al. 2009)


Consistent with the practice of ritual scarification in non-Western cultures, Burris et al suggest scarification acts as a costly signal for heroism. In a study pitting heroism (and/or bravery) against altruism, women found heroism more attractive in men than altruism in both short and long-term mating contexts. However, the attraction to heroism was again more pronounced in the short-term context (Kelly & Dunbar 2001).

In every comparison between brave and non-brave potential partners, both for the short-term and long-term, bravery was always preferred. In evolutionary terms, there must have been some considerable advantages to choosing a brave mate. Sexual selection theory offers two general reason why bravery might be selected for in males. One is that such males can offer benefits to a female in terms of provision of food and/or defense. Anthropological evidence supports both suggestions. In traditional societies, the provision of meat acquired by hunting is generally a male province. Hunting for game often involves some degree of personal ris, either from the prey itself or from a dangerous environment. The best hunters enjoy social respect and increased sexual favors… Alternatively, brave men may simply provide better protection for women and their offspring against both marauders and from neighboring tribes and other members of their own group. Among the Ache, for example, the risk of infanticide by other males increases dramatically if a woman’s husband dies or leaves the group. The second advantage for a female of selecting a brave male may be that bravery is an honest cue for good quality genes, not least because only those males with good genes will be able to withstand the costs imposed by risk-taking. (Kelly & Dunbar 2001) *also see my post on The Adventure Gene.

It seems very likely that scars do act as a proxy for heroism, and that heroism is evolutionarily valuable. However, a dose of inductive reasoning to connect the dots until more research is done. What women found attractive about men with scars wasn’t explicitly studied here (or elsewhere as far as I know).

It would also be interesting to further explore why women don’t find men with scars more attractive in the long-term mating context. If scars are a proxy signal for heroism, and heroism is attractive in both contexts, then scars should be attractive in both. Perhaps stigmatization or other social mechanisms mitigate the effect. It’s also true that scars are an imperfect signal of heroism. Since we do see a rise in women’s ratings of men’s attractiveness in altruism in the long-term context, this could combine with the noise in the scarification signal to reduce its effect enough to be rather easily offset by social influence.

As far as my own self-justification, it looks like bad news. Off-axis broken noses are more likely to be read as developmental instability (bad) than any sort of heroism or ability to survive attacks. “Frozen projectile wounds don’t always heal. Chicks dig scars. Sometimes beauty is only skin deep.”

Buss, D.M. (2002). Human Mating Strategies. Samfundsokonomen, 4, 47-58. [pdf]

Burriss, R, H Rowland, and a Little. “Facial scarring enhances men’s attractiveness for short-term relationships.” Personality and Individual Differences 46, no. 2 (January 2009): 213-217. [pdf]

Kelly, Susan, and R I M Dunbar. “Who Dares, Wins: Heroism versus Altruism in Womenʼs Mate Choice.” Human Nature 12, no. 2 (2001): 89-105.

Other Articles In This Series
Male Physical Attractiveness Part I or: You Shallow, Shallow Ladies

  1. Author
    @melissamcewen 13 years ago

    Have you heard of dueling scars? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dueling_scars talk about hardcore.

  2. Neill 13 years ago

    I met a US college student who was branded as part of a fraternity ritual. The scar (on his shoulder) was big as the palm of my hand. I guess that's a modern version of ritual scarification.

    Also, here in London I sometimes see African people with various scares on their face that were obviously done in a deliberate way, short cuts on both cheeks.

  3. Jorge 13 years ago

    "It would also be interesting to further explore why women don't find men with scars more attractive in the long-term mating context."

    My take: Indicator of aggressiveness. Good genes but potentially unreliable when it comes to long-term parental investment

    • Aeryn 13 years ago

      Agreed. Scars can result from risky behaviors, and you don't want a long-term mate dying early because they were foolishly injured.

  4. David Csonka 13 years ago

    Fleur Delacour found Bill Weasley's scars from his fight with the werewolf to be attractive. Just saying… #harrypotter

    On a real world note, one of the guys who worked as a boss for the landscaping company I used to work with was a Mexican knife fighter in his "former life". Dude had scars all over his back and chest, like Edmond Dantès.

  5. Peggy 13 years ago

    Women aren't excluded from scarification. What's the deal with with that? I've always wondered in what way men find that attractive. (African men mostly I guess)

    I think it's interesting that in Asia softness is valued and in Africa body modification is common. It's gets pretty extreme doesn't it?

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      Hard to say. According to this study… "Men’s ratings of female attractiveness were unaffected by scarring."

      Unless there's some hidden evolutionary advantage (or exapted bias of some sort) to such extreme body mods, we pretty much have to write them off as cultural differences.

      I find it interesting that tattoos and scars are so often mentioned in tandem in this context. Tattoos signal something different (or in a very different way) than scars. Of course, I'm referring to non-intentional/non-decorative scars here. The ritualized modifications seem to be more involved with in-group social psychology than conveying a bravery signal. Science hasn't yet explained to me why I find tattoos on women particularly sexy, but am totally creeped out by 8" lip plates.

      • Neill 13 years ago

        Maybe it's down to the positive experiences you've had with tattooed women in the past?

        Certain 'impulsive' behaviours are correlated; drinking, smoking, drug taking, tattoos… 'casual' sex.

  6. Mike Fout 13 years ago

    This article was a huge ego booster for me. Score one for the tattooed rescue swimmer!

    Seriously, as anecdotal experience, tattoos are like fishhooks for the ladies, but the glamor must wear off pretty quickly. In my past experiences the women that followed through were usually bat-shit crazy or intimidated. The long-term strategy worked out for my wife, but I attribute that more to compatible personalities than aesthetics. However, my tattoos were definitely an ice breaker.

  7. Bennett 13 years ago

    Heh, maybe the scarring is attractive because it shows that you got out of a scrape with only superficial wounds, whereas a broken nose or other 'deeper' injury suggests that you didn't get off so light. In the long term, that might signal that you're prone to getting in over your head in fights. Totally speculative and half-baked, but it might be something. Or, possibly, the eye just can't discern between a badly set nose and a badly created one.

    If it makes ya feel any better, I know plenty of girls who (anecdotally) find the whole crooked nose thing attractive in a rugged way. As long as you got it while boxing, not from a 13 year old with a snowball. Maybe it's the story that counts.

  8. Quinlan 13 years ago

    I wonder if a well healed scar isn’t also a marker for a robust immune system, I assume before modern medicine wounds would often become easily infected and result in death or disease. So having a nice clean scar would be proof of a strong immune system.

  9. Franco 13 years ago

    I have an asymmetrical nose (very visible) which is long to boot! And it wasn't even from a fight. Just a genetical thing – 2 uncles and my grandfather have/had it.
    But still there are enough girls who either don't mind or are actively turned on by it. For whatever reason.
    Your beard might be a bigger problem… 😉

  10. soahc 13 years ago

    Hmnnn…I think that altruism requires the utmost heroics. How attracted would chicks be to a guy who leaps into a burning building to rescue a puppy, and emerges with the puppy shielded in his jacket and burns on his face? To fully embrace altruism necessitates disregard for self safety. Best of both worlds.

  11. meredith 13 years ago

    In my facebook group we read Deep Nutrition which goes into facial symmetry and Marquardt's mask and all. We pretty much unanimously decided that a scar, an off center nose, an eye that is a little more blinky than the other are all kinda hot. A too perfect face gives us an "uncanny feeling" – like what Freud said about wax statues.

  12. Luke Shanahan 13 years ago

    That's right on, Meredith. Harrison Ford's a great example—he's got the scar AND a crooked nose! These features play against the wonderful dynamic symmetry of his face, which serves to accentuate his perfect dynamic symmetry. The imperfections act as a kind of foil; Call it, "Perfect with a twist."

    Another good example would be the mole found on the left cheeks of the faces of Cindy Crawford and Marilyn Monroe. And it does exactly what you said: it takes away the "uncanny" look of a perfect face. Of course, it all boils down to genes, what the "selfish gene" wants. The perfect features indicate great genes. The imperfection implies humanity, something that comes in handy when it comes to the loving art of raising children.

    Sounds like you've got a smart bunch of Facebook friends. Thanks for reading our book! LS

  13. Author

    […] Male Physical Attractiveness Part II: Chicks Dig Scars – Part two of the article above. As it should be obvious, this one discusses scaring and its impact on male attractiveness for short and long term relationships. […]

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