By Chilinh Nguyen and Greta Hurlbut

“We just had good chemistry,” is a reason often cited as an explanation for why two people find each other attractive. However, it is usually said without realizing that there is truly a science behind attraction. Chemistry can help guide people in finding their mate. For instance, attraction can be analyzed in terms of physical characteristics like smell and body type and how they can indicate potential reproductive success.

Recent research addressed attraction and the smells of various test subjects. In this research, women were exposed to t-shirts worn by various potential mates. They were asked to rate which smell they found most attractive, and the t-shirt each woman rated the highest belonged to the man that had DNA that was most dissimilar to her own (Sexual Attraction 2006).

This attraction to a mate with dissimilar DNA is important, as can be seen when studying the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a set of genes that determines immunity to pathogens. Children born to couples with the most different MHC had a broader immunity and were healthier (Sexual Attraction 2006). Therefore, it would be ideal to be attracted to the mate with the most dissimilar DNA because this increases the chances of healthier children.

Another feature that determines attractiveness is the waist-to-hip ratio. Studies have generally shown that a low waist-to-hip ratio is considered attractive, with the ideal being about 0.7 (Berngner 2010). The waist-to-hip ratio itself is important because bigger hips are an indicator of fertility and ability to bear children (Carter 2006).

One study was conducted by Dutch psychologist, Karremans, using two identical mannequins that differed only in their waist-to-hip ratios. One had a ratio of 0.7, while the other had a ratio of 0.84. Men who had been blind from birth were asked to touch these mannequins, focusing on the waists and hips. Because they were blind, they were presumably less influenced by factors such as media and societal ideals. They also decided the more attractive mannequin was the one with the waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7. (Berngner 2010)

Other studies have been conducted around the world where men were shown line drawings of women, and again, the ones that were considered most attractive had a lower waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 (Bergner 2010). These findings help prove the theory that the attractiveness of a female is based a lot on her capacity to be a good mate.

Male features that are considered attractive by women are broad shoulders and a strong jaw line, features that generally arise after puberty (Carter 2006). These are seen as trusted signals for virility and good health. This is because these are features are directly related to testosterone (Carter 2006). Women are interested in a mate that can provide healthy offspring as well as provide for them, just like men want women who can be good mothers.

Such findings suggest that attraction itself is deeper and more ingrained than cultural ideals. Yet is biology the only thing that is needed to explain human attraction?


The short answer is no. Take the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, where the main character Humbert Humbert finds himself completely in love with his housemate’s twelve year old daughter, Lolita. In our culture (and many others), the attraction of a forty year old man to a young girl is not something that is celebrated. Nonetheless, Humbert cannot help but to think about her all day long.

The things that attract him to his Lolita are the characteristics of a type of girl that he refers to as a “nymphet.” What separates a nymphet from her peers between 9 and 14 years of age is not only the “slightly feline outline of [her] cheekbone, the slenderness of [her] downy limb” but the magical quality that Humbert feels she exudes (Nabokov 1955, 17). He is attracted to her small, curved back and pre-pubescent chest. This love of a body type, though unusual, is what Humbert looks for in a mate when he stalks the playgrounds of America.

Clearly society has an issue with Humbert’s obsessive attraction to Lolita. One reason that it may find this attraction disturbing is that it is to a young twelve year old girl, making it unnatural. As her pre-pubescent chest and hips indicate, she is not able to carry his child. Following these, he should not be attracted to such a young, naïve girl because she would not be a good mate.

Another reason society could find this obsession problematic is because of its established ideals. Humbert is going against traditional ideals of when a girl becomes a woman and is ready for adult relationships; moreover, he is abusing his age and position to do so. The reason this attraction is frowned upon can be explained by either biological or societal terms shows that attraction itself is not easily understood.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

In a more conventional attraction, like the one between Oliver Mellors and Connie in Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, what Mellors finds attractive in his lover is also primarily physical. He praises her hips as well as her rump, like when during one of their nights together he says, “That’s got the nicest arse of anybody.” (Lawrence 1968, 244) Lady Chatterley likewise says that she is attracted to Mellors’s body and its virility. She explicitly says so, “I liked your body,” (Lawrence 186). Their attraction begins as mainly physical.

For the majority of their relationship, it is the physical qualities that are important. Mellors admires Connie’s physical features and vice versa. The attraction Connie feels for Mellors will never happen between Clifford and Connie. This is because she and Mellors share both the mental and physical intimacy of a relationship, and this combination permits their relationship to grow throughout the novel.

She can never have the physical aspect with Clifford, something she realizes is important. Even Clifford realizes how important sex and the possibility of having a child is when he encourages Connie to do this with another man, saying, “If we had a child to rear, it would be our own, and it would carry on. Don’t you think it’s worth considering?” (Lawrence 1928,45). While Connie’s attraction to Mellors may be more than merely physical, it is undeniable that one part of it is based on the fact that he can have sex and therefore give her children, while Clifford cannot.

Obviously Mellors and Connie do not make a conscious effort to be attracted to each other because of the other’s ability to produce and care for a child. This explicit thought does not cross their minds. However, it is clear that the features that they do admire can be directly associated to these family skills. Mellors enjoys Connie’s hips and rump. These indicate body fat and hip size, which are both important in fertility and childbirth. Mellors, on the other hand, can have sex and give her a child, which is more than Clifford can do. This suggests that a substantial part of attraction is subconscious, dealing with features related to reproduction.


It can be argued, however, that biology does not play such a major role in attraction because culture seems to dictate what is attractive as well. To illustrate the fluctuations in cultural values, it is nearly impossible to deny the popularity and attractiveness of sex and beauty icon of the 1950’s, Marilyn Monroe. The song “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful) by British singer-songwriter Mika would have definitely applied to her.

However, she was a size 14 in her day, which would translate to a size 8 by today’s standards (Lewis 2006). This ideal attractive body type has evolved since, shifting from the naturally curvy Marilyn Monroe to the waifish Kate Moss. In the 1960’s, the stick-thin Biritish model Twiggy, who was 5’ 6” and weighed 91 pounds, was idolized. Since the 1970’s, the ideal body type has evolved to value taller, thinner women as models.

However, there is a backlash to this desired body image as the archetypal model is seen as both unrealistic and unhealthy. The reality that the model body is typically unachievable is seen in the fact that by the 1990’s models weigh about 23 percent than the average woman (Body Image and Media 2008). The media is being used to point out the how unrealistic this “ideal” is. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has recently been putting up ads to show how the media is trying to make us conform to the thin, athletic, sexy, and totally unrealistic body type that is simply unrealistic.

This shocking video shows how young girls are being brainwashed into thinking that there is one way to look, which is not true. Dove’s campaign is a valiant effort to prove that bodies are beautiful, no matter the type.


With all these different body types coming in and out of fashion and being seen as attractive then suddenly not, it would be natural to suggest that biology does not play such a major part in attraction and that culture does. Yet as we have shown, there is a biological link to the traits that attract the different sexes to each other, like smell and body shape. Desire runs through biology and culture.

Attraction is apparent all around us. We’re sure you’ve figured that out already. So enjoy!

Works Cited

Bergner, Daniel. “The Anatomy of Desire.” The New York Times 12 Apr. 2010: n. pag. Web. 28 Apr. 2010.

Carter, Stuart. “Science of Sex.” First Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2010.

Lawrence, D.H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. New York: Bantam Dell, 1968.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. United States: Random House, inc., 1955

Sturnheimer, Karen. “Thinking Like a Sociologist: Understanding Changes in the ‘Ideal’ Body Size” Everyday Sociology Blog. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1 Aug 2009. Web. 22 Apr 2010.

Sexual Attraction: The Magic Formula.” Times Online. The Sunday Times, 28 May 2006. Web. 28 Apr. 2010.

9 thoughts on “Attraction

    1. Freese and Meland were responding to the Playboy study. It seems that above there are other studies at play that would need to be critiqued. I’m not defending it, just sawing that Freese and Meland may not actually lay the entire field to rest, although they do offer a significant and important critique to the data of the playboy study.

  1. I find it somewhat problematic to talk about ‘cultural ideals’ in this way, given the extensive social science about how mass mediated images of bodies work in the actual meaning-making engaged in by consumers. Although fashion models look more or less like gaunt 19 year old boys with vaginas, and although the fasion industry has a kind of dominance in American culture (as well as others), this does not translate into a one-to-one assimilation of the mediated image into the “ideal” of particular individuals, communities, or nations. In addition to the fact that mass-mediated images are always contested and modified by their consumers (i.e., production of those images is always participatory at the consumption level), the actual behavior of people on the ground belies the inability of those mass-mediated images to dominate behavior on a large scale.

    The most common negative impact of mass-mediated images of women’s bodies is in women themselves. But research about the effects of such images on women across the class and race spectrum reveals that only specific demographics absorb and adopt those images as normative (I’ll give you one guess as to which demo that is), and others ignore them. Indeed, a quick perusal of porn for straight men reveals a much more “normal” body range (although skewed to younger) and there is not a Twiggy in sight.

    I also find that I’m getting caught on the subtextual nature/nurture issue dichotomy being repeated in this language, as if “culture” exists separate from our evolutionary/biological heritage. A more naturalistic philosophy—specifically that culture is constituted in “nature” and that nature is only apprehended culturally and that the two exist in a reciprocal, emergent tango—would be useful here. Culture doesn’t trump or transform our biological heritage. It *is* our biological heritage. Conversely, our genes and evolutionary programs for reproduction don’t trump culture. They are the base out of which culture emerges. Culture is best seen as a complex meaning-making process, an emergent phenomenon of human interaction in their umbworld, as they attempt to fit into, survive, and succeed within it.

    To be honest, I’m not quite sure how I would frame the above article differently, given a naturalistic understanding of cognition, culture, and “nature”, but I find that I’m continually uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the way we talk about these things. I’m a sociologist who researches culture, and the problem is even more stark in my discipline, with a complete refusal to allow for embodiment of human agents at all.

    1. Great comment, Todd. I agree that looking to actual behavior and experiences is important, indeed crucial, to understanding human sexuality. Sometimes the appeals to cultural or biological causation completely miss what people actually do, in favor of an over-reaching theory.

      I also have been uncomfortable and dissatisfied many times with how we talk about and think about these things. I think we have a lot of work ahead of us to create more compelling ideas, explanation and bodies of data to get across how to better think about people.

      That said, the culture/biology framing is one that most students already have in their heads. Getting them to work from both sides is a pretty good option for now, because they can engage with research that is already there, see its limits, see how other explanations are relevant, and then hopefully move onto helping out with creating the sorts of language, ideas, and research that will forge a better synthesis.

      Anyway, those are my two cents. I might have a different two cents when I teach a straight-up integrated course, but that’s how it played out this semester!

      1. Yes, I often approach teaching in the same way, because the dichotomy is so deeply embedded in our consciousness, both through language (English) and the 2500 year symbolic history of the body/soul split since Sophocles/Plato. Yet, as I’ve commented before here on Neuroanthropology, I still want to figure out a way to break through that language, and somehow introduce a whole new vocabulary. I’ve been reading a bit in genetics, because geneticists, especially in their evolving theories of epigenetics, seem to be developing better language to talk about the reciprocity between bodies and environments.

        Hope I wasn’t too hard in my comment for a student post. It was clearly an excellent example of student work.

  2. Not having read the studies in question I can’t comment substantively, but shooting ‘from the hip’ the hip-to-waist ratio analysis reported here looks like a classic reductionist just-so story, for at least two reasons. One, because it’s leapt to without consideration of other possible explanations. For example, an incurved waist may simply create visual (or tactile, in the case of the blind) appeal by clearly demarcating zones of interest.

    Two, because from a reproductive standpoint bigger is better, with no advantage to an incurve and quite a lot of advantage to capable musculature. So if that’s what guys are keying on they should want to see big, thick, stompy, kickass women.

  3. I just wanted to mention research has turned against the WHR theory of female attractiveness more broadly. In critiquing a recent book, Ian Penton Voak wrote, newer research shows the extent to which the WHR hypothesis has fallen out of favor.

    Recent studies show other anthropometric characteristics are superior predictors.

    Cornelissen, P.L., Tovee, M.J. and Bateson, M. (2009) Patterns of subcutaneous fat deposition and the relationship between body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio: Implications for models of physical attractiveness. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 256(3), 343-350.

    Another study found males don’t gaze at the same regions when they judge WHR as they do overall attractiveness.

    Cornelissen, P.L., Hancock, P.J.B., Kiviniemi, V., George, H.R. and Tovee, M.J. (2009) Patterns of eye-movements when Male and Female observers judge female attractiveness, body fat and waist-to-hip ratio. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 30, 417-428.

    Two recent studies that used video clips of real women as opposed to line drawings found no role for WHR in multiple regressions.

    Smith, K.L., Cornelissen, P.L. & Tovée, M.J. (2007) Colour 3D Bodies and Judgements of Human Female Attractiveness. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 28, 48-54

    J RILLING, T KAUFMAN, E SMITH, R PATEL, C WORTHMAN (2009). Abdominal depth and waist circumference as influential determinants of human female attractiveness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30 (1), 21-31

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