The January l986 issue of the journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies, "Skin Color Preference, Sexual Dimorphism and Sexual Selection: a case of Gene-Culture Co-evolution?" by Peter Frost and Pierre Van der Berghe, stated that in any given race, the women tend to have lighter complexions than the men. Using standard ethnographic files from 51 societies on five continents which have recorded their preference for human skin color, the study found that 30 preferred lighter women and 14 preferred lighter women and lighter men. The cultures of India, China, Brazil and Bali, as well as the Arabs and Negroes regard the lightest women as the most beautiful. --perpetuating the aesthetic appeal of the ivory-skinned, rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed, blond "nordic ideal" of feminine beauty- -even though they themselves do not possess the genetic capacity to reproduce such an organism. Over time, the study said, the upper classes of all races have become lighter-skinned than their fellow countrymen because they have repeatedly skimmed off fairer women from the lower classes.
Scientific research on what constitutes human beauty, in which 300 judges of various backgrounds were shown portrait photographs and asked to rate the beauty of the individual's face, has revealed that nordic Whites are universally recognized as the most attractive humans, even by Blacks. The judges were instructed to evaluate the faces solely on his or her "personal standards of beauty and not to consider popular norms." The results of the study "Age, Sex, Race, and the Perception of Facial Beauty." Developmental Psychology, 5, Nov., 1971, pp 433-439.
Unraveling the Origins of Color Prejudice
Understanding the Sex Difference in Human Skin Color
Tracing the Evolutionary Origins of this Sex Difference
Exploring Male and Female Perceptions
The Gender/Race Transition
Links to related articles
NEW: European Hair and Eye Color
Sex Differences in Physical Attractiveness Preferences
Sex differences in physical attractiveness preferences
Feinman, Saul; Gill, George W
Journal of Social Psychology. Vol 105(1), Jun 1978, pp. 43-52
Investigated the validity of stereotyped beliefs about sex differences in preferences for opposite sex coloration. The likes and dislikes of 482 female and 549 male Caucasian college students for eye color, hair color, and complexion color of the opposite sex were investigated by means of sexual selection questionnaire. Results indicate sex differences in both likes and dislikes for all 3 features. Males indicated somewhat greater preference for lighter female coloration, while females indicated somewhat greater preference for darker male coloration. These results are discussed in terms of the "kernel of truth" hypothesis of stereotyping, and the possible relationship to earlier research on semantic meanings of color and gender words. Special attention was paid to the aversion of both sexes to redheads, and to the implications for understanding the predominance of Black male/White female couplings in Black-White interracial marriage in America.
* * *
The literature of the Middle Ages does attest to an awareness of differences in skin color, but these differences were seen as existing largely between individuals rather than between races. Descriptions of human complexion as "white," "brown" or "black" would correspond in modern usage to "fair," "tan" or "swarthy." Medieval Europeans had no awareness of belonging to a "white" race, if only for want of contact with other races.
This ignorance made them more sensitive to color differences among themselves, particularly between the sexes. Although about only a tenth of the difference separating blacks from whites, there does exist a perceptible dissimilarity in pigmentation between men and women. Male skin has more melanin and hemoglobin than does female skin, i.e., men are browner and ruddier; women, paler.
In medieval romances, a fair complexion was deemed an essential mark of womanhood, the heroine being invariably compared to snow, ivory, ermine, swans, starlight, or briar blossoms. Attitudes to male skin color seem to have been more ambivalent. A man was considered handsome if fair-skinned; yet manly and courageous, if "brown." The tenth token of a knight of "strong Corage" was that he be of "broun coloure in al the body." Many noble English knights were named "the broun."
Men have browner and ruddier complexions in comparison to the relative pallor of women, a result of differing melanin and hemoglobin levels in the skin's outer layers. This sex difference is universal and arises at puberty, as does differentiation in skin texture, body hair, fat distribution, and other cutaneous characteristics. Specifically, it arises because girls lighten in color much more than boys do during adolescence. It may widen even further in adulthood. Repeated tanning causes a gradual darkening of permanent, "constitutive" pigmentation and this effect seems to be stronger in men than in women, although women may also darken with successive pregnancies.
Skin lightens in girls from puberty on. This sexual differentiation has been noted in a wide variety of populations, including the above Indian and Spanish samples (Kalla 1973; Mesa 1983). Here the measurements were taken at the upper inner arm.
Women's skin reflects more light than does men's across the entire visible spectrum.
Across a wide range of populations, women's skin color is lighter than men's at the upper inner arm (Jablonski & Chaplin 2000; van den Berghe & Frost 1986). At this relatively unexposed site, reflectance (the percentage of light reflected by the skin) has an 83% heritability and thus provides a good measure of constitutive pigmentation. The constitutive sex difference seems to decrease from strongly to weakly pigmented peoples and is not significant in the Dutch ï¿½ the least pigmented sample yet examined. Because the Dutch are already close to the physiological limit of human depigmentation, it may be that the skin of their adolescent girls cannot lighten any further (Rigters-Aris 1973).
Guthrie (1970) suggests that a fairer skin is one of several infant-like featuresï¿½smaller nose and chin, smoother skin texture, relative lack of body hair, higher pitch of voiceï¿½that women have evolved to deter male aggression: "the sexual differences in skin color resulted from female whiteness being selected for because it is opposite the threat coloration, although the selection pressures may have been rather mild. Light skin seems to be more paedomorphic, since individuals of all races tend to darken with age. Even in the gorilla, the most heavily pigmented of the hominoids, the young are born with very little pigment."
In some primate species, the adult female retains the infant's body color, apparently in response to a family environment that includes not only offspring but also a continually present male partner. Of the eight primate species where adult males and females differ in color, seven have the female retaining the infant's lighter color and five (63%) are monogamousï¿½versus only 18% of all primate species (Hrdy & Hartung 1979). In monogamous animals, the male contributes more to infant care and cohabits more with the female, thus increasing her vulnerability to aggression and desertion. To reduce this risk, the female may look more like an infant as a way to inhibit aggressive impulses in her mate and to stimulate parental feelings of care. It is perhaps for similar reasons that much of mammalian sexuality seems to come from infant behaviors, like cuddling, murmuring, nipple sucking, and mouth licking.
Skin color has been thought of primarily in terms of race ever since the postmedieval European expansion and the ensuing creation of multiracial colonial societies. Previously, however, it was perceived in a more homogeneous milieu. Our expression 'the fair sex' harks back to a time when people conceived skin color in terms of sexual identity.
In this earlier environment, the sex difference in complexion may have structured how the mind responds to skin color, at least for minor variations of hue. If so, skin color should evoke different responses from men and women. In our ancestral environment, a person with a dark, male coloration would have meant one thing to a man and another to a womanï¿½either a potential rival or a potential mate.
This view has support from several lines of evidence. It has long been known that a hardwired mental mechanism enables us to recognize human faces and even the gender of human faces (Perrett et al. 1994). Recently, one gender cue has turned out to be complexion. People can distinguish a man's face from a woman's by complexion alone, even when the image is blurred and offers no other details (Russell 2004; Tarr et al.2001). A critical cue seems to be the contrast between facial pigmentation and eye/lip pigmentation (Russell 2004).
Subjects identify the left-hand face as female and the right-hand one as male, even though complexion is the only visual cue. Study by Richard Russell, Sinha Laboratory for Vision Research, MIT
Skin color was seen as a sexual characteristic: fair skin incarnated femininity; dark skin, masculinity.
Awareness of this duality was already present in simple hunting and gathering societies, as may be seen in this quote from a Hopi amerindian: "We often talked of the types of women we liked best ï¿½ï¿½ I preferred a light complexion for we say that a woman with a dark skin may be half man." (Talayesva 1942:281). Skin color as a criterion of sexual identity is found across a wide range of culture areas. In a survey of the main anthropological data bank, the Human Relations Area Files (Category 832, "Sexual Stimulation, Ideals of Erotic Beauty and Sexual Attraction"), 47 of the 51 societies with relevant information showed an asymmetric preference for lighter skin in women (van den Berghe & Frost 1986).
The sex difference in complexion is attested in the visual arts of many peoples. Thus, the Egyptians depicted their women as yellow and their men as red-brown. The Etruscans and Greeks followed a similar pattern, with women in rosy white and men in brick red. This convention also appears in Aztec, Chinese, Japanese, Roman, medieval European, and even modern art. Another attestation may be found in the authors of antiquity, such as Aristotle:
Speaking generally, this [vaginal discharge] happens in fair-skinned women who are typically feminine, and not in dark women of a masculine appearance.
Aristotle Generation of Animals 1: 20
Beyond sexual identity per se, human complexion was associated with a number of personal qualities, derived at least in part from notions of femininity and masculinity. In the writings of Ancient Greece, the white skin of a woman incarnated not only her beauty but also her weakness and need for protection. The dark skin of a man evoked his virility and ardor in combat. Although a woman would feel flattered if complimented on her white complexion, a man would take the same remark as an insinuation of effeminacy, impotence, or cowardice. Many expressions associate darkness with virility: a brave, strong man had a 'black rump' whereas a coward had a white one. This dichotomy was projected onto the internal organs and, by extension, onto the soul itself. A 'black heart' signified strong emotions; a 'white heart', indifference (Irwin 1974).
A similar pattern came up during my fieldwork in a small French-Canadian community. The local inhabitants associated a ruddy-brown complexion with a hard (), quick-tempered (), proud (), and malicious () temperament; by contrast, they identified paleness with a soft () and accommodating () one. Similarly, among the Berti, a Sudanese people, "men and women affirm without any hesitation that men are black, hot and hard and women are white, cold and soft" (Holy 1988).
A word-association test on Navajo and Anglo-American subjects found that "BLACK tends to be the more potent and masculine but WHITE the more active and feminine" (Osgood 1960).
In general, lighter skin suggested a soft, weak, calm, or inoffensive person. Darker skin evoked someone who was hard, strong, emotional, or ominous. Depending on the context, each of these qualities might be positive or negative. Whiteness could signify peaceful serenity or cowardly indifference. Blackness could refer to any strong emotion ï¿½ anger, indignation, sadness, hate ï¿½ however justified or malicious. Overall, a light complexion was not judged to be superior to a dark one. Everything depended on the context, within which the most important variable was gender.
Racialization of skin color
People consciously linked skin color to gender only as long as other sources of pigmentary variability remained minimal. This linkage weakened as smaller, mono-ethnic societies gave way to larger, multi-ethnic ones. The transition occurred gradually and unevenly, at first perhaps in certain zones of interethnic contact on the Indian subcontinent. Other zones of contact opened up as the slave trade brought blacks into areas outside sub-Saharan Africa: Pharaonic Egypt from the second millenium B.C. onward; the eastern Mediterranean basin of Late Antiquity; and the Middle East and North Africa after the great Islamic conquests.
In the post-conquest Islamic world, Lewis (1971:9) lists a number of changes in the perception of skin color:
... [There was a] narrowing, specialization, and fixing of colour terms applied to human beings. In time almost all disappear apart from black, red, and white, and these become ethnic and absolute instead of personal and relative. Black, overwhelmingly, means the natives of Africa south of the Sahara and their offspring. White - or occasionally (light) red - means the Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Turks, Slavs, and other peoples to the north and to the east of the black lands.
A similar change occurred in the Hellenic world. After the Homeric Age (700 B.C), men were increasingly reluctant to call themselves "black" although women continued to be "white":
... is he not generous in his proportions and pleasing in his complexion, neither dark nor fair of skin; for the one befits a woman, and the other a slave.
Lucian of Samosata [125-180 A.D.] The Parasite 41
Those who are too swarthy are cowardly; this applies to Egyptians and Ethiopians. But the excessively fair are also cowardly; witness women.
Anon. [300-200 B.C.] Physiognomonica 6: 812
By the Christian era, dark skin had become firmly identified with Egyptians and, even more so, "Ethiopians" - the term then used for Black Africans. Associated color meanings were also changing. Blackness was becoming increasingly pejorative, a trend apparent in both Greek and Latin. The term 'black heart' lost its broader sense of 'emotional' and was left with its narrower one of 'wicked.' In the writings of the early Church fathers, most references to dark skin fall within the realm of demonology, i.e., descriptions of demons or the Devil as being Ethiopian in appearance.
Several reasons may explain this change. First, there had arisen a leisure class of men who cultivated a fair complexion and other aspects of physical beauty even at the risk of seeming effeminate. Second, with urbanization the relative pallor of many town dwellers became more and more acceptable. In a play by Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae [62-64], this urban/rural duality clashes with the earlier woman/man one. The opening act features a group of women who wish to pass for men; they oil themselves, let their body hair grow and stay all day in the sun to make their skin as brown as possible. Although their ruse is successful, one observer is left wondering. Surely, these "men" must exercise a profession where one is seldom in the sun:
There gathered such a crowd about the Pnyx, you never saw the like; such pale-faced fellows; just like shoemakers, we all declared; and strange it was to see how pallid-packed the whole Assembly looked.
Aristophanes [450-385 B.C.] Ecclesiazusae 385-387
Finally, skin color had become a mark of both foreignness and low social status. With the Pax Romana, fewer prisoners of war were being taken and new slaves had to be purchased from outside the Empire, including a significant number from sub-Saharan Africa. Some evidence points to a growing Black presence in Greco-Roman society, particularly during Late Antiquity. In one osteological study, 4% of human remains from early Christian Corinth were identified as Black African (Angel 1972). It may be significant that early Christian descriptions of the Devil as being black or Ethiopian come largely from the eastern regions of the Roman empire, especially Egypt, where Black slaves would have been more numerous (Devisse & Mollat. 1979:9-31)..
Late Antiquity ended with the collapse of Greco-Roman civilization. The decline of trade and the ensuing Islamic conquests of the Middle East and North Africa eroded the political and commercial links between Europe and Africa. Artwork depicted Black Africans poorly, suggesting that the artist had never seen such men and women in the flesh. By the Middle Ages, skin color was defined primarily along the gender axis. A brown complexion was much esteemed in a knight; many were called "the broun" and the tenth token of a knight of "stronge Corage" was that he should be of "broune coloure in al the body." Darker shades, however, were considered more threatening than virile. A review of Middle English literature states that "if there is any doubt as to the beauty or ugliness of brown persons, it is certain that those who are black are decidedly ugly and sometimes hideous" (Curry 1916:80). This was the color of devils, giants, wicked men, and opponents of Christianity. Color meanings were thus less symmetric than in earlier times, possibly because the negative connotations of blackness were being reinforced by Christian discourse and symbolism.
This period of relapse ended around the 15th century as Europeans increasingly came into contact with other peoples. Several factors were responsible. When the Muslim Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, the Black Sea slave markets were closed and Europe had to turn to African sources. The European world was also starting to found overseas colonies where skin color varied visibly between colonists, slaves, and natives. Thus, perceptions and values formerly associated with sexual identity began to acquire a new purpose as color meanings became enmeshed in unequal relationships of power. Commenting on the genesis of American race relations, Jordan (1968) observed that "[w]hiteness, moreover, carried a special significance for Elizabethan Englishmen: it was, particularly when complemented by red, the color of perfect human beauty, especially female beauty. ... English discovery of black Africans came at a time when the accepted standard of ideal beauty was a fair complexion of rose and white. Negroes not only failed to fit this ideal but seemed the very picture of perverse negation."
In Latin America, the development of color prejudice took a less radical turn than it would further north. This difference is at least in part attributable to the scarcity of white women among the Portuguese and Spanish colonists; concubinage with Amerindian and Black women resulted in a large fluid mestizo class that acted as a conduit through which darker individuals could move up in society with help from useful contacts, ingenuity, and personal wealth. In time, such upward mobility would weaken skin color as an absolute social criterion (Boxer 1975; Fiehrer 1979; Saunders 1972).
North American race relations tended to approximate the Latin American model wherever the sex ratio was unbalanced among the European colonists. In the 18th century, Jamaica was the only English colony that had a chronic shortage of white women and it was also the only one to give mulattos rights and privileges normally reserved for whites (Jordan 1968:175-177). Aside from facilitating interracial unions, this shortage may also have subtly influenced attitudes towards non-whites. Van Kirk (1980: 201) refers to this factor and how it changed once white women began to arrive in Western Canada:
In various parts of the British Empire, a direct relationship can be traced between the growth of racial prejudice and the arrival of white women on the scene. With the appearance of women of their own race, the fur traders began to exhibit prejudices toward native females which had previously been dormant. In the words of James Hargrave, "this influx of white faces has cast a still deeper shade over the faces of our Brunettes in the eyes of many." In fact, the question of colour became an issue for the first time. Traditionally, native wives, apart from the European names often bestowed upon them, had been referred to as "my woman", "the mother of my children", "the old lady" or "the guid wife", terms which reveal no concern for their racial origin. Now the derogatory word "squaw" was increasingly applied to native wives, while (Governor) Simpson employed a variety of uncomplimentary terms which emphasized colour: "Brown Jug", "swarthy idol" and "bit of brown".