The colour of love

A re­searcher looks at the science be­hind at­trac­tion and finds that skin light­ness may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - STYLE - By NATALIE HENG star2@thes­

SOME say faces are a win­dow to the soul. Stud­ies on the science of at­trac­tion, how­ever, sug­gest it could a valu­able source of in­for­ma­tion for those in search of a sex­ual part­ner.

In other words, beauty is not some ar­bi­trary con­cept. It’s an ad­ver­tise­ment, re­flect­ing as­pects of our ge­netic and re­pro­duc­tive health.

Evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gists have been study­ing the fac­tors un­der­ly­ing fa­cial at­trac­tive­ness for nigh on three decades and beauty, it seems, has a for­mula. Sym­me­try, av­er­a­ge­ness, mas­culin­ity and fem­i­nin­ity are among the main ingredients.

The the­ory is that each trait is linked to some oth­er­wise in­vis­i­ble as­pect of our fit­ness. A lack of fa­cial sym­me­try, for ex­am­ple, could in­di­cate a lack of sta­bil­ity dur­ing de­vel­op­ment – the per­son may have suf­fered from a high num­ber of in­fec­tions, in­di­cat­ing a less ro­bust im­mune sys­tem.

Or the hor­mones re­sult­ing in overtly fem­i­nine or mas­cu­line fea­tures, such as oe­stro­gen and testos­terone, may also sig­nal a higher level of fer­til­ity or viril­ity.

In other words, our con­cept of beauty may be noth­ing more than a long-term strategy for mate se­lec­tion.

For these as­sump­tions to be true, how­ever, there has to be a se­ries of links, ev­i­dence con­nect­ing the trait in ques­tion to our over­all con­cept of “at­trac­tive­ness”.

Re­searchers may have been good at link­ing traits with at­trac­tive ap­pear­ance, but there has been less suc­cess link­ing these traits to some as­pect of real health.

One of the few fa­cial fea­tures that has re­cently been pro­duc­ing re­li­able ev­i­dence, how­ever, is skin colour or shade – a rel­a­tively new area within the field of fa­cial at­trac­tion.

Up un­til four years ago, most stud­ies on fa­cial at­trac­tive­ness have been fo­cused on the shape of the face or the tex­ture of the skin.

It was only in 2009 that sci­en­tists pub­lished a fas­ci­nat­ing study on our pref­er­ence for skin colour. Dr Ian Stephen, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the School of Psychology at Univer­sity of Not­ting­ham’s Malaysia Cam­pus, has stud­ied the science of sex and at­trac­tion, and posits that mak­ing our­selves more at­trac­tive to the op­po­site sex may in­volve as sim­ple an act as chang­ing our diet.

Colour is skin deep

When Dr Stephen set out to look at how skin coloura­tion af­fects our per­cep­tions of health and at­trac­tive­ness, he was ex­pect­ing peo­ple to favour lighter skin tones.

Af­ter all, the skin-colour de­bate had been rag­ing for quite a while.

“It came out of the ques­tion, why are peo­ple in Europe so pale?” he says. “It’s ob­vi­ous why you need to be dark-skinned near the equa­tor – melanin pro­tects you from harm­ful UV rays and re­duces your like­li­hood of sunburn and skin can­cer.

“But there’s not any ob­vi­ous rea­son why you should be re­ally pale in Europe.”

Ge­netic drift – a con­cept which says that if you take away the need for dark skin, there could be a grad­ual ac­cu­mu­la­tion of DNA muta- tions re­sult­ing in pale skin – was dis­missed as an ex­pla­na­tion.

The time-scales that would be re­quired for this to oc­cur were sim­ply in­suf­fi­cient.

A more promis­ing the­ory re­volved around the sug­ges­tion that low light lev­els in Europe would ac­tu­ally make high amounts of melanin in the skin a dis­ad­van­tage.

Block­ing out too much sun­light could con­trib­ute to a de­fi­ciency in Vi­ta­min D, which can lead to rick­ets, a bone de­for­ma­tion that used to be fairly com­mon among Bri­tain’s nonCau­casian com­mu­nity.

Still, this ar­gu­ment falls short of ex­plain­ing why there are plenty of dark-skinned peo­ple in other re­gions of the far north. Any sug­ges­tions of a more re­cent his­tor­i­cal mi­gra­tion, by dark-skinned peo­ple from the trop­i­cal belt, are not sup­ported by known mi­gra­tion pat­terns.

Then there was an­other school of thought, which put forth sex­ual se­lec­tion as an al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tion.

What if lighter skin is more at­trac­tive?

Any­one tak­ing note of the cos­met­ics mar­ket in Asia will be aware of the wide ar­ray of skin-light­en­ing prod­ucts avail­able.

This was the line of in­quiry Dr Stephen de­cided to pur­sue dur­ing his PhD at the Univer­sity of St An­drews in Scot­land.

Ap­par­ent cul­tural ideals, how­ever, are not al­ways as rep­re­sen­ta­tive. His in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the role that skin colour plays in our per­cep­tions of health and at­trac­tive­ness yielded some sur­prises.

In­stead of light­ness, red­ness and yel­low­ness were more im­por­tant, con­cluded a pa­per he co-au­thored back in 2009. The ques­tion was, why? That red­ness is an im­por­tant fac­tor didn’t come as too much of a sur­prise.

Our bod­ies run on oxy­gen, sup­plied via the blood, which is de­liv­ered via mil­lions of tiny lit­tle ves­sels called cap­il­lar­ies.

It is the blood flow through cap­il­lar­ies in the skin which create a nice red flush. And a nice, red flush is a sign of healthy heart and lungs.

“Oxy­genated blood is bright red,” ex­plains Stephen, “whereas de-oxy­genated blood is still red, but darker and more pur­ple.

“Hence, peo­ple with se­ri­ous lung ill­nesses who end up look­ing a bit blue, and peo­ple with heart prob­lems, of­ten look pal­lid.”

Yel­low, how­ever, was a bit more of a mys­tery.

Most peo­ple know about melanin, which is the dark brown pig­ment in our skin that con­trib­utes to our “yel­low­ness”. How­ever, Dr Stephen was also in­ter­ested in carotenoids, the red-or­ange-yel­low pig­ment that also makes an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the yel­low­ness in our skin.

“That’s when we came across all this re­search about birds and fish, and the role of carotenoids in sex­ual se­lec­tion, and thought, maybe that’s what’s hap­pen­ing in hu­mans...”

Car­rots and Fer­raris

If you were a fe­male bird, you might find a male’s bright yel­low feath­ers ir­re­sistible.

Evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gists have a the­ory for why that is – it’s called the hand­i­cap prin­ci­ple.

A hy­poth­e­sis orig­i­nated by bi­olo- gist Amotz Za­havi back in the 1970s, it is based on the idea that fe­males choos­ing their mates leads to the evo­lu­tion of “hon­est” sig­nals of health and fer­til­ity.

Carotenoids, the pig­ment de­rived from food sources re­spon­si­ble for the bright yel­low feath­ers, are in fact a very im­por­tant cur­rency of the im­mune sys­tem.

“They are an­tiox­i­dants, which means they neu­tralise re­ac­tive oxy­gen species – chem­i­cal by-prod­ucts of the body’s meta­bolic pro­cesses – that ba­si­cally whizz around and dam­age what­ever they bash into, such as pro­teins and DNA,” Dr Stephen ex­plains.

“So if a bird can af­ford to store lots of carotenoids in its feath­ers, leav­ing less for its im­mune sys­tem, it must be in good health.”

In other words, bright yel­low feath­ers are a costly, and there­fore “hon­est”, way of sig­nalling good health.

Hu­mans do some­thing sim­i­lar, says Dr Stephen, re­count­ing an anal­ogy of­ten shared with his stu­dents: “Think about men who drive Fer­raris. A Fer­rari doesn’t ac­tu­ally do any­thing a cheap car doesn’t. Ok, maybe it goes a bit faster. But in some ways, it’s ac­tu­ally worse, be­cause you can fit fewer peo­ple and lug­gage in, right?”

Ul­ti­mately, what’s im­por­tant about Fer­raris is they are loud, look cool, and are re­ally re­ally ex­pen­sive.

“It’s con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion, to bor­row a term econ­o­mists would use.

“The very pur­pose is to show off how much money you’ve got.”

Fer­raris sig­nal wealth. Carotenoids sig­nal health.

It’s just that the lat­ter in­curs a meta­bolic cost, in­stead of a fi­nan­cial one. And hu­mans do both. Dr Stephen’s 2009 study en­abled peo­ple to make colour ad­just­ments via soft­ware to a se­ries of Cau­casian faces.

Par­tic­i­pants in­creased skin red­ness the most, then yel­low­ness and light­ness.

The same tests per­formed on African faces yielded sim­i­lar re­sults, as did Asian faces. In fact, it was search­ing for the East Asian com­po­nent that led Dr Stephen to set up camp at the Univer­sity of Not­ting­ham’s Malaysia Cam­pus.

In­ter­est­ingly, colour only seems to be im­por­tant within our own eth­nic groups.

“Prob­a­bly be­cause we’re more fa­mil­iar with our own group and can de­tect more sub­tle shifts in colour,” he says.

The colour code

The next step was to find out how sen­si­tive peo­ple were to changes in colour.

Pretty sen­si­tive, it turns out, when it comes to red, but less so for yel­low and not much at all for light­ness.

Tan Kok Wei, a PhD stu­dent at Dr Stephen’s lab­o­ra­tory, used com­puter soft­ware to ma­nip­u­late colour pix­els in the skin por­tions of pho­to­graphs of faces, ob­jects and colour patches.

Study par­tic­i­pants were un­able to de­tect the same changes in ob­jects or colour patches when it came to red, but were bet­ter at de­tect­ing changes in ob­jects when it came to light­ness.

This means we have a spe­cial affin­ity for see­ing red in faces, which Stephen. just health, For be­cause save wrath could po­ten­tially

is larger but Stephen. of health and hu­mans their


The at­trac­tion spec­trum: evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gist Dr Ian Stephen and his PhD stu­dent Tan Kok Wei us­ing a spec­tropho­tome­ter to known as ‘light­ness’ of the skin, which is de­ter­mined by the con­cen­tra­tion of melanin in the skin.

Stud­ies show that red­ness, yel­low­ness and light­ness play a role in how we per­ceive at­trac­tive­ness

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