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A new psychology study reveals no sex differences in beauty investments

A new psychology study reveals no sex differences in beauty investments

Are there differences between men and women in terms of beauty-enhancing behaviors? According to research published in Environmental Research and Public Health, there is an overlooked side to masculinity; while women invest more time on cosmetic usage, men spend more time exercising and bodybuilding.

“There is this widespread belief that men have to wait for (eternity) hours until their female partners (finally) get ready. Usually, there is a kernel of truth in such shared worldviews because they often derive from actual world observations. But does such common knowledge perfectly reflect reality? As a woman myself, I always wondered if most women do indeed spend so much time on their attractiveness,” said Marta Kowal (@Marta7Kowal), a PhD student at the University of Wrocław.

“Or maybe it is just the distorted image created by all the ads, Hollywood movies, and TV series? After all, many studies provide evidence that being perceived as physically attractive by others (and oneself) is beneficial in multiple ways, both for women and men. So do modern men ‘don’t even try’ to enhance their beauty because it is ‘only a female’ thing to do? Luckily, in moments of doubt, science comes in.”

Make-up use and personal care products for the purpose of enhancing appearances are most typically associated with women. However, this does not preclude men from engaging in other behaviors that could enhance their looks – such as, building muscle. The increased media attention to the male physique over the past few decades converges with evolutionary theories that emphasize the role of male upper body strength in intra- and inter-sexual competition. For example, women have more favorable attitudes toward muscular (vs. non-muscular men), which could explain why men (vs. women) are more interested in their muscularity.

Across two studies, Kowal and her colleague Piotr Sorokowski examined the ways in which men and women attend to their looks, and how much time each sex invests in enhancing their appearances. Study 1 used qualitative research methods, recruiting 121 participants between ages 18-49. Participants were asked two open-ended questions, specifically: what do people do to improve their physical attractiveness? and how do you enhance the way you look? The researchers narrowed down the responses to the eight most common beauty-enhancing behaviors participants shared, including: make-up use, cosmetic use, cardio, strength training, hair grooming, body cleaning, hands grooming, and mirror-checking to adjust one’s image.

Study 2 included 62 participants between ages 20-67, who were tasked with recording beauty-enhancing habits in an online diary for one week. Thirty-three individuals provided responses to each of the outlined questions on all seven days, while the average number of daily diary entries was 3.76. Demographic information (i.e., age, sex, education) was provided on the first day.

Participants also completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory-13 and indicated their self-perceived physical attractiveness (e.g., how attractive would you rate yourself?) and the daily intensity of improving their appearances. The appearance-improving scale included eight questions assessing the eight different types of beauty-enhancing behaviors established in Study 1. Specifically, participants indicated the number of minutes (i.e., 1 minute to 6 hours) they spent on each activity per day. Self-perceived physical attractiveness and daily intensity of improving appearances were also assessed on the subsequent six days.

“First of all, our study highlights that ways to achieve a good look vary between both sexes. While in general women focus on stereotypically female activities that increase their appeal, such as putting on makeup, men may be more interested in more masculine activities, such as bodybuilding or even caring for their hair,” Kowal told PsyPost.

“Secondly, when we narrow the definition of beauty-enhancing behaviors only to those stereotypically perceived as female, unsurprisingly, women appear to spend more time improving their looks. However, when we broaden the definition to include various activities – including those stereotypically connected with masculinity, like cardio or physical exercise – the sex difference might decrease or even disappear!”

“Even though our study may seem to refute evolutionary psychology notions – which, oversimplifying, state that women should be more interested in enhancing their physical attractiveness due to, inter alia, different mating strategies – it is not necessarily irreconcilable. We observed that men are interested in looking attractive mainly via improving their prowess, strength, and agility, which is very much in line with the evolutionary perspective. After all, our male ancestors who possessed these features could have had higher fitness outcomes.”

The researcher added, “Modern masculinity is evolving. It becomes culturally more and more acceptable for men to admit they want to look physically attractive and attend to their attractiveness.”

With regard to study limitations, she noted, “Although our study is innovative, as it utilizes a diary design (i.e., participants filled the diary each day for seven days, reporting all the activities they performed on the given day that were aimed to increase their attractiveness), the sample size warrants caution when drawing any general conclusions. Therefore, future studies should investigate this matter on larger and more diverse samples. To address the limitations of this study, my team and I conducted large cross-cultural research on physical-enhancing behaviors. We recruited 107,715 participants from 175 countries, so please, stay tuned for the results of this research!”

“The current research is part of the grant I received from the Polish National Science Center (2019/33/N/HS6/00054). I would like to thank this organization and Committee for giving me the chance to pursue this exciting topic of physical enhancing behaviors.”

What about future research directions? Kowal said, “We observed that individuals who perceive themselves as more (vs. less) attractive spend more time improving their looks. As our study is correlational in nature, future research could investigate what a cause is (and what is a consequence). For example, is it that the belief of one’s attractiveness stems from intensified self-care, or instead being beautiful leads to increased efforts to preserve one’s beautifulness? Or perhaps, they are so interrelated that it is like this conundrum: ‘Which came first: the chicken or the egg?’.”

The research, “Sex Differences in Physical Attractiveness Investments: Overlooked Side of Masculinity”, was authored by Marta Kowal and Piotr Sorokowski.