Sexual attraction is largely conditioned.
As marketers are well aware, the physical traits that people find sexually attractive are as much conditioned as they are innate. While putting together my book The Sex Effect, I noticed that people in different cultures have adhered to a wide variety of tactics to make themselves “more attractive” according to their societies’ standards.
According to A. J. Jacobs’ The Know-It-All, Mayan Indians found crossed eyes attractive, so they hung objects between babies’ eyes to cause the condition, and Padaung women increase their sex appeal by stretching their necks with fifteen-inch brass neck rings that pull the vertebrae into the neck. Meanwhile, breasts have seen it all. They were compressed in seventeenth- century Spain, are distended in Paraguay, and are inflated to obscene sizes in California today.
While ads in American magazines might glamourize thin women who frequent tanning salons, the adulation of both of these traits is specific to culture. For instance, in previous centuries pudginess was prized, as it symbolized wealth because few people could afford enough food to become fat. Even in modern times, there are places where pudginess is the cultural ideal, as seen in the wife-fattening farms of Mauritania, where obesity is a sign of wealth and attractiveness. And the arbitrary attractiveness of fake baking can be seen in China and Korea where women will bring umbrellas and wear ski masks to the beach, because they want to avoid becoming tan like peasant workers. Some Asian women also apply skin cream to make themselves appear lighter.
And it’s not just women who observe subjective standards of physical attractiveness. The Internet is full of products for enlarging penises, and some men even undergo surgery for this, even though the ancient Greeks found small penises more aesthetically pleasing. The question this raises is: Between history, culture, and marketing, is there really such a thing as “normal” sexual attraction?