Whose beauty?

Facial symmetry and averageness seem to be considered attractive across cultures. But what about body size?

Although the human form is fairly standard, it does vary to some degree around the world because of the different environments in which people live. 

Pygmies, for example, may have evolved in response to very high mortality rates – they mature and begin reproducing early and have relatively short lifespans.

What is considered attractive is therefore likely to vary according to location. Even though facial symmetry and averageness seem to be perceived as attractive in many cultures, a significant difference is seen in perceptions of body size.

While slimness and low waist-to-hip ratios are now seen as desirable in the industrialised world, many non-Western cultures have traditionally held the larger form in higher regard. This may be because in environments where food is scarce a large body indicates fertility, health, strength, wealth and status. (See our Hips do lie article for more.)

There are signs, though, that such attitudes may be changing as countries industrialise. For example, now in Samoa the ideal form is pretty much what it is in the West, but obesity is not viewed so negatively.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Physiology, History
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development