For thousands of years, seers and sages have examined our body’s features, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet, to read personality traits or to predict the future. Researchers are now discovering that our body characteristics do contain a wealth of information that provides unique insights into our behaviour and wellbeing. 

What makes a face attractive to you? You are most likely to agree with the new research that men and women throughout the world prefer a face with symmetrical features. We find symmetric faces, like nose and mouth precisely at an equal distance between eyes, more attractive because they reflect ‘good genes’.

Yet, as the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A recent study reveals that 50 per cent of people’s preferences for faces is unique to them, even among twins: ‘This fits with the common intuition that on the one hand, fashion models can make a fortune with their good looks, while on the other hand, friends can endlessly debate who is attractive and who is not,’ says Laura Germine of Harvard University and her colleagues.

Instead of focusing primarily on universal features of attraction such as symmetry, the Harvard researchers wanted to know more about where those disagreements over facial attractiveness come from. Their study shows surprisingly that an individual’s face preference is mostly based on experience, not genes. Those experiences are truly unique to each individual; they are not even shared by those who grew up in the same family.

A face that is attractive to you is the result of the faces you have seen before: in the media; your friends and colleagues; or perhaps even the face of your first boyfriend or girlfriend. You are also likely to fall for a face with positive information such as a good friend’s physical characteristics.

If it’s not in your genes or upbringing, what makes you attractive to others? Here’re a few more new laws of attraction. The well-known law ‘opposites attract’ still holds.

Add a touch of ‘breathiness’ to your voice

When you are physically attracted to someone, you would think it’s a random, subconscious choice. Science doesn’t agree: our subconscious choices are not random; they are based on some relevant biological traits. For example, women are typically attracted to distinctively masculine facial features because they indicate high testosterone levels and physical strength. Men’s preference for women with exaggerated youthful features such as large eyes and full lips gives them an evolutionary advantage when coupling with mates that seem younger.

Like the face, the voice is also a sexual characteristic. It also affects how we perceive someone attractive. Women like men with low-pitched deep voices; they become most attractive when a touch of breathiness softens these voices. Men prefer women with breathy, moderately high-pitched voices. It’s all about the body size the voices signal, say researchers from University College London, led by Yi Xu. A deep male voice signals a large body size; a high female voice conveys that the speaker has a small body.

Xu’s team worked this out after playing recordings of digitally manipulated voices to male and female students, all native speakers of English. But they were puzzled by female participants’ slightly nuanced choice of a touch of ‘breathiness’ in deep male voices. Their hypothesis suggests that breathiness presumably neutralises the aggressiveness associated with the large body projected by a low-pitched deep voice. A poll of the participants also showed that the breathy deep male voices sounded much happier and less angry than the male voices that were less breathy.

Again, men’s preference for smaller women and women’s preference for larger men can be explained in evolutionary terms: males benefit by mating with smaller females, and females by mating with larger but less aggressive males. This is the strategy widely used by animals for guaranteeing success in survival and reproduction. That’s why birds and other mammals advertise their physical attractiveness via the sound of their mating calls. These mating calls also project their body size. 

Adding a touch of breathiness to your voice doesn’t seem like a bad idea, after all.

Women with small feet have prettier faces

At least, that’s what Jeremy Atkinson and Michelle Rowe, evolutionary psychologists at the University of Albany in New York, say. They measured hand length, foot length, thigh length and hip width of 60 white female college students and adjusted each measurement to account for individual differences in overall height. They then separately combined faces of eight women with the shortest feet and eight women with longest feet in two composite faces or morphs. They then asked 77 heterosexual male students to rate these morphs according to attractiveness. The men were three-and-a-half times more likely to pick the short-footed morph as being more attractive. They were also 11 times more likely to pick the narrow-hipped morph more attractive, and eight times as likely to choose the long-thighed morph. All this from just looking at a photograph!

Atkinson and Rowe believe that millenniums of evolutionary adaptation have given men the subconscious ability to judge features of women that are markers of a healthy childhood. Stress and poor nutrition during foetal development and puberty can cause hormonal imbalances, leaving such women relatively short and stout. A stress-free and well-fed childhood, on the other hand, allows growth for longer, resulting in a slender, more stereotypically feminine face and body.

Worried? Slip on a pair of stilettos. Fashion experts say high heels give the illusion of smaller feet.

Sniff his sweaty shirt

If you’re looking for Mr Right. Several studies have discovered that by sniffing sweaty shirts worn by men overnight women can tell whether they find men wearing them attractive or not. The key is a set of genes known as MHC genes, which fight disease. We are more attracted to the odours of those whose MHC genes are different from our own. This makes sense since children of parents with differing MHC genes would have more diverse disease-fighting genes.

A team of Dutch scientists led by Gün Semin of Utrecht University have discovered that women can tell by sniffing sweaty shirts whether the men wearing them had been fearful or happy. These emotions were induced by the videos they were watching.

We produce chemical compounds or chemosignals when we are happy or fearful which are detectable by others who smell our sweat. Chemosignalling had been shown to convey fear and disgust, but the Dutch scientists are the first to show that we can convey happiness through smell. ‘This suggests that somebody who is happy will infuse others in their vicinity with happiness. In a way, happiness sweat is somewhat like smiling—it is infectious,’ says Semin.

Smile while you are exercising and your smile and the smell of your sweat would make everyone around you doubly happy.

It’s not only about waist-hip ratio

Women with waist-hip ratios of about 0.7 are most attractive is the popular notion. Misha Donohoe of the University of New South Wales in Sydney and her colleagues say that this notion is only true if the rest of the body is average. They asked 100 men to judge the attractiveness of 200 line drawings of female torsos with different hip, waist and shoulder measurements. The men showed a strong preference for women of average-sized hips, waist and shoulder measurements.

Interestingly, four groups of real women—Playboy centrefolds, 1920s models, 1990s models and contemporary Australian escorts—didn’t match the preferred body shape. The fifth group that best represented the average Australian women between the ages of 25 and 44 most closely matched the preferred body shape.

Average can be the winner when it comes to body shape.

A measure of attractiveness

Take a ruler, stretch your right-hand palm up and measure the length of index and ring fingers, starting from the crease nearest your palm to the tip of the finger. Or, you can take measurements from a photocopy of the hand. Now divide the length of your index finger, called the second digit or 2D, by the length of your ring finger (fourth digit, 4D). The result is known as the second-to-fourth-digit-length ratio (2D:4D), or simply the finger ratio. In most people, both hands have slightly different finger ratios. The ratio is higher in females than males: the average for women is 1 or above 1 and for men less than 1.

In the early stages of pregnancy, the womb is washed over by sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone. If you were exposed to more oestrogen than testosterone in the womb, the index finger will be longer than the ring finger (high ratio). If you were exposed to more testosterone than the ring finger will be longer than index finger (low ratio). Although oestrogen and testosterone are present in both sexes, oestrogen is a female sex hormone and testosterone a male sex hormone.

Put simplySimply put, a relatively long ring finger is ‘masculine’ as it shows more exposure to testosterone in the womb. A relatively large index finger is ‘feminine’.

Our early exposure to oestrogen and testosterone affects how our body develops. There is growing evidence that it may affect predisposition in later life to disease and sexual orientation — and even our behaviour and personality.

Compared with men whose ring fingers are shorter than their index fingers, men who have longer ring fingers are likely to have more attractive faces. Finger ratio is a good predictor of facial attractiveness in men because physical features such as face symmetry are closely linked to foetal levels of testosterone, according to a research team led by Camille Ferdenzi of the University of Geneva. But voice and body odour, other traits of male qualities, are not linked to finger ratio. These traits are believed to be directly controlled by circulating testosterone later in life history.

It’s also about your personality

Relatively short index fingers are associated with an extroverted personality and willingness to take a risk. Both men and women with shorter index fingers, that is a low finger ratio, tend to be assertive. According to American anthropologist Helen Fisher, if you have a longer index finger, ‘you have good verbal skills, can find the right word rapidly, are good at remembering, better at compassion, nurturing, patience, have good people skills.’ If you have got a longer ring finger, ‘you tend to have poorer social skills but be direct, decisive, ambitious, competitive’.

Successful financial traders are not aggressive risk takers. They are usually very calm and don’t lose their temper. Research has linked these qualities to traders’ finger ratio, a marker of prenatal testosterone exposure. After studying finger ratio of male traders in the City of London, John Coates of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues have found that traders with longer ring fingers, and therefore higher prenatal testosterone, made on average six times more profit than traders with shorter ring fingers. They also tended to remain traders for longer.

If you are thinking of applying for a trading job in the financial market, you would still need a detailed résumé, not simply a photocopy of your hand.

Casanova would have passed the ‘marshmallow test’

The number of studies on finger ratio—2D:4D in researchers’ jargon—runs into hundreds. Among other things, they reveal that men whose index fingers are longer are prone to schizophrenia and early heart diseases. But they are less likely to be autistic or have ADHD.

Men whose left hands weren’t exactly mirror images of their right hands (meaning their left and rights hands have different finger ratios) are more likely to have low sperm counts—and the sperm they do have often can’t swim. This news comes from John Manning, the author of The Finger Book.

The most interesting of 2D:4D studies is the one that was inspired by the famous Stanford University ‘Oreo cookie’ experiment that in 1972 measured preschooler’s ability to delay gratification. The experiment has been replicated many time using other rewards, including marshmallows. In the latest 201 version of the experiment, 141 Brazilian children, ages 4 to 6, at six kindergartens took part.

The teacher gave one candy to each child at the beginning of the class and told them that they could eat it any time during the class. Additionally, the teacher also explained that, if they resisted the temptation the first candy and waited for further instructions, they would be given another candy as a reward. After 20 minutes, the teacher offered a second candy to those children who had resisted the temptation to eat the first candy. The result of thre study—led by Segio Da Silva of the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil—showed that children with a lower finger ratio failed to delay gratification (a delay in eating candy to receive more candy) more often those with a higher finger ratio.

Look at your fingers and see how long you could resist the temptation of eating that chocolate doughnut.

And for trivia fans, Casanova believed that the ring finger is relatively longer than the index finger for both men and women. Those with a longer ring finger have a low ‘masculine’ finger ratio of less than 1. This is called the ‘Casanova pattern’. Casanova’s longer ring finger indicates he had a charming face—and self-control. As a young boy, he would have, for sure, resisted the temptation of eating the ‘marshmallow’.

A delicate matter of length

Korean researchers have stretched the ‘power of prediction’ of finger ratio a bit too far by linking it to penis length. They have found that men with a lower ratio tended to have a longer penile length. Their result is based on the study of right hands of 144 men 20 or older who were hospitalised for urological surgery. Their results: the average flaccid and stretched penile lengths were 7.7 cm (3 in) and 11.7 cm (4.6 in) respectively, while the average finger ratio was 0.97.

Don’t rush to generalise these results. The Korean study, led by Ho Choi, was conducted on a single ethnic group of men, and finger ratio has been shown to vary among ethnic groups.

Other studies have suggested that men with lower finger ratio have more children. We are not saying that it’s correlated with their (supposedly) longer penises.

And the serious issue of cancer

The Korean study led to silly headlines in the popular media such as ‘Sexy ratio: Your hands give away your hotness’. Forget the ‘sexiness’ of the ratio and look at two reports in the British Journal of Cancer. The first report says that scientists have discovered a substantial link between prostate cancer and finger ratio: men with higher ratios run a significantly higher risk of prostate cancer.

The second report says that the difference in finger ratio of a woman’s right hand compared with the left hand may indicate whether she has a higher risk of breast cancer. Women with a greater difference between the finger ratio of their right and left hand, which is an indicator of foetal levels of testosterone, were at a slightly lower risk of breast cancer. The researchers didn’t find any association between finger ratios of one hand and breast cancer risk.

Finger ratio is simply an indicator of hormone exposure; it’s not a replacement for screening tools for breast or prostate cancer.

© Surendra Verma 2016

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