Subjective and Objective Facial Attractiveness Ratings and Gender Differences in Objective Appraisals of Female Faces

Mark S. Nestor, MD, PhD, Center for Clinical and Cosmetic Research (CCCR), Aventura, Florida; Mark A. Stillman, PhD, Center for Clinical and Cosmetic Research (CCCR), Aventura, Florida; Andrew C. Frisina, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York

Background: Studies have not adequately compared subjective/objective ratings of female dermatology patients including patients presenting for cosmetic procedures. Objective: To examine objective versus subjective facial attractiveness ratings, demographic variables, and how men versus women judge female facial attractiveness. Methods: Sixty-five women (mean 42 years) presenting to a dermatology office. Subjects filled out a demographic and attractiveness questionnaire and were photographed. Four judges (2 male and 2 female) rated the photographs on a predefined 1 to 7 scale. Results: Mean subjective rating (subjects rating themselves) was 4.85 versus 3.61 for objective rating (judges rating subjects) (p<0.001). The mean age of subjects self-rating (subjective rating) who rated themselves in the 5 to 7 range was 39 years; the mean age of subjects self-rating (subjective rating) who rated themselves in the 3 to 4 range was 45 years (p=0.053). The mean age of subjects objectively rated by judges in the 5 to 7 range was 33 years; the mean age of subjects objectively rated by judges in the 3 to 4 range was 43 years (p<0.001); and the mean age of subjects objectively rated by judges in the 1 to 2 range was 50 years (p<0.001). The mean subjective rating (subjects rating themselves) for married women was 4.55 versus 5.27 for unmarried women (p=0.007); the mean objective rating (judges rating subjects) was 3.22 versus 4.15 (p<0.001). The mean objective rating by male judges was 3.09 versus 4.12 for female judges (p<0.001) Conclusion: Female patients presenting to a dermatology office rated themselves more attractive than did judges who viewed photographs of the subjects. Age and marital status were significant factors, and male judges rated attractiveness lower than female judges. Limitations of the study, implications, and suggestions for future research directions are discussed. (J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010;3(12):31–36.)

Facial attractiveness has typically been measured by judges who provide independent ratings on the attractiveness of each subject. Their assessments are then averaged to yield objective physical attractiveness ratings.[1] The scholarly consensus has been that agreement among objective raters is generally high,[2-6] and that “raters agreed about the attractiveness of both adults and children.”[7] Regardless of culture of origin and ethnicity, judges generally show a high degree of agreement in the judgment of attractiveness.[8] Components of universal attractiveness have been shown to include averageness, symmetry, sexual dimorphism, a pleasant expression, good grooming, and youthfulness.[9-13] Few researchers, however, have pointed to the importance of individual differences between judges of attractiveness. Indeed, individual differences in the perception of facial attractiveness may arise from learning and differences in life history.[14] Honekopp15 asserts that the claim that facial-attractiveness judgment standards are largely shared is unsubstantiated and that future researchers address differences in judge scores and should recognize inter-individual differences in attractiveness judgments.

Men and women generally agree in their judgments of facial attractiveness for both same-sex and opposite-sex appraisals.[16-20] Among the recent array of literature in facial attractiveness, however, there seems to be a paucity of research exploring possible differences in male versus female objective ratings including differences in how men and women appraise facial attractiveness.

More than 50 percent of United States women currently report dissatisfaction with their overall appearance21 and tend to compare themselves with an idealized standard of beauty, such as a fashion model.[22] However, patients seeking dermatological and cosmetic improvement in aging facial features report greater satisfaction in their overall appearance, spend more time and energy with personal grooming, consider themselves to be more physically attractive, and by large are more satisfied with their overall body image than other women.[23] This may or may not be entirely consistent with data showing that people’s beliefs about their own attractiveness (self-ratings) have been shown to be generally consistent with the manner in which they were seen by others.[24]

This study examined the following: 1) whether a discrepancy exists between objective and subjective facial attractiveness appraisals; 2) the relationship between age, marital status, and/or number of children and subjective attractiveness ratings; and 3) whether a systematic difference would exist in how men and women appraise female facial attractiveness. The judging of facial attractiveness used photographs of the subjects in order to fully objectify facial attractiveness and exclude any possibility that personality or other in-person features would influence ratings.

Material and Methods
Subjects. This study received full institutional review board approval by U.S. IRB, Inc., prior to commencement. A total of 65 adult, female patients between the ages of 18 and 65 years of age were recruited to participate in having their photograph taken and complete a subjective attractiveness rating instrument. Specifically, the sample comprised the first 65 patients approached in the waiting room of the dermatology office of Skin and Cancer Associates and the Center for Cosmetic Enhancement, in Aventura, Florida, who agreed to participate in the study. Four adult participants, two male and two female, of a similar demographic makeup as the subjective group of female participants, were recruited to judge the patient’s facial images. The objective raters had no prior knowledge or relationship with any of the participants.

Measures. Each subject was given a short survey with questions asking them to rate their own facial attractiveness on a scale from 1 to 7 (1=very unattractive; 7=very attractive) as well as provide basic demographic information, after which they were photographed (using a neutral facial expression) with a Polaroid camera set to 0.4. Four objective raters, with a similar survey, used the same 1 to 7 scale to look at the subject’s photograph and objectively appraise the patient’s facial attractiveness.

Rating procedure. The subjects were taken to a private patient waiting area consented to the study,  provided with the study survey, and photographed. Photographs were de-identified using a numerical coding system. All study participants were compensated for their time by being offered a free sample of an antioxidant cream donated to the office.

The photographs were presented to the four adult raters. The objective raters were instructed to examine each image objectively and assign a rating from 1 to 7.  Specifically, each subject’s facial image was presented to all four judges, who were blinded to one another’s ratings.

Analyses. In order to determine a statistical difference between the mean subjective and objective ratings, independent sample t-tests for mean difference and Pearson’s chi-square tests for proportional differences were used. Odds ratios for effect size were also calculated. An alpha level of 0.05 was used for all statistical tests. Analyses of affect of age and number of children were compared using independent sample t-tests and Cohen’s effect size, and marital status was compared using a 2×5 chi-square analysis. For the family of demographic variables, each variable was given an alpha level of 0.05. Analyses were performed with SPSS version 13.0 (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, Illinois).

Subjects. A total of 65 female subjects were enrolled in the study (Table 1). Forty-three percent of the patients presented for dermatological treatment, 29 percent for cosmetic treatment, and 26 percent for both. The mean age of the participants in the subjective group was 42. Fifty-seven percent of the female patients were married at the time of the study, 17 percent reported that they had never been married, 12 percent were divorced, four percent were single, three percent described themselves as separated, and three percent were widowed. The average number of children per participant in the subjective group was less than one (M=0.77), with 35 percent of the sample reporting having children.

Four individuals agreed to participate as objective raters with a mean age of 52. Of the four objective raters, 50 percent were married, 25 percent were divorced, and 25 percent indicated being single. Among the objective raters, the average number of children reported was 1.25.

Objective versus subjective ratings. The mean, self-assessed, subjective, attractiveness rating for the study participants was 4.85. The mean, objective, attractiveness rating for the study participants’ facial images was 3.61. Mean subjective ratings were significantly higher than objective ratings [t(323) = 6.190, p<0.001] (Table 2). Moreover, Pearson’s chi square analysis demonstrated that the proportion of the expected frequency counts were significantly higher for the subjective ratings than objective ratings [X2 (6, N=325) = 52.018, p<0.001]. Additionally, while the objective ratings by female raters were closer to the subjective ratings [M = 4.85; mean difference = 0.72], they were still significantly lower [t(193) = 3.532, p=0.001] than the subjective ratings (Table 3).

Subjective and objective ratings versus age. The mean age of subjects endorsing high (5–7) subjective facial attractiveness ratings (n=37) was 39, whereas the mean age of subjects endorsing neutral (3–4) subjective facial attractiveness ratings (n=28) was 45. No subject endorsed a subjective rating of 1 or 2. Independent samples t-test analysis revealed a trend in the mean age among subjects reporting high ratings versus those reporting neutral ratings [t(63) = -1.968, p=0.053] (Table 4).

The mean age of subjects who received high (5–7) objective facial-attractiveness ratings (n=77) was 33, whereas the mean age of subjects who received low (1–2) objective facial-attractiveness ratings (n=71) was 50. The mean age of subjects who received neutral (3–4) objective facial-attractiveness ratings (n=112) was 43 (Table 5). Independent samples t-test analysis revealed a significant difference in the mean age among subjects receiving high objective ratings versus those receiving low ratings [t(146) = -9.841, p<0.001] and neutral objective ratings [t(187) = -6.608, p<0.001].

Subjective and objective ratings versus children. No difference was found in the mean subjective attractiveness ratings of subjects with children versus those with no children. Specifically, the mean subjective attractiveness rating for subjects with children (n=22) was 4.77. Subjects without children (n=43) reported a mean subjective rating of 4.88. Independent samples t-test analysis revealed no difference in the mean attractiveness rating among subjects with children versus those without    [t (63) = -0.401, p=0.690] (Table 6). Additionally, no difference was noted in the subjective ratings of subjects with one child versus those with more than one child     [t(20) = 0.407, p=0.688] (Table 7). Likewise, no difference was found in the mean objective attractiveness ratings of subjects with children versus those with no children. The mean objective attractiveness rating for subjects with children was 3.52. Subjects without children received a mean objective rating of 3.65. In-dependent samples t-test analysis revealed no significant difference in the mean objective attractive-ness rating among subjects with children as compared to those without children [t(258) = -0.642, p=0.521] (Table 8).

Subjective and objective ratings versus marital status. Marital status was found to be a significant variable with respect to perceived subjective and objective attractiveness appraisals. The mean subjective attractiveness rating found among married subjects (n=38) was 4.55, whereas the mean rating reported among unmarried subjects (n=26) was 5.27 [t(62) = -2.804, p=0.007] (Table 9). Similarly, unmarried subjects received a mean objective attractiveness rating of 4.15, while married subjects received a mean objective rating of 3.22. [t(254) =  -5.004, p<0.001] (see Table 10).

Male versus female raters. Male judges assigned significantly lower ratings to the female faces than did the objective female judges (M=3.09 vs. M=4.12 [t(130) = 5.782, p<0.001; mean difference = 1.031] (Table 11). There was no significant difference in the rating between the two male judges, 2.98 versus 3.20 [t(128) = 0.876, p=0.383; mean difference = 0.22], or between the two female judges, 4.22 versus 4.03 [t(128) = 0.713, p=0.477; mean difference = 0.19].

Overall, results indicate that subjective ratings were sig-nificantly higher than objective ratings for both mean difference and proportional difference. This is contradictory to past research that has shown that women generally tend to rate themselves lower than they are actually perceived by others.[30] Several explanations exist for the divergence in the present study’s results with respect to women’s self versus objective attractiveness appraisals. Past studies have demonstrated a poor relationship between objective and subjective physical attractiveness ratings.[28] Furthermore, research has shown that patients seeking dermatological and cosmetic improvement in aging facial features report greater satisfaction in their overall appearance and spend more time and energy with personal grooming, consider themselves to be more physically attractive, and by large are more satisfied with their overall body image than other women.[23] Therefore, it would seem feasible to posit that, while women in the general population may be overly critical of their appearance and tend to underestimate their facial attractiveness, women seeking dermatological treatment may actually overestimate their facial attractiveness, as compared to an objective perspective. This result may have also been due, in part, to the manner in which the faces were presented to the four objective raters (Polaroid images), which is different from in-vivo appraisal. The cameras used to take the pictures are designed to use light to illuminate even the most minuscule indent or flaw in a person’s face. By looking at the photographs, the objective raters are able to make more critical ratings based on their appraisal of defects rather than overall attractiveness. Thus, this may have changed their opinion of the face from that of the in-vivo appraisal to the flaw-enhanced view created by the camera images. Additionally, in-person appraisals also take into account both subtle and overt personality traits that might influence attractiveness ratings. Therefore, the objective judges may have assigned higher ratings had they appraised each face in person. It is important to note, however, that the majority of facial attractiveness studies use photographs,[15] as they yield a high degree of control with respect to variables including personality effects and overall procedural standardization. Furthermore, the in-vivo versus photograph contention does not explain the relatively high mean subjective appraisals against which the objective ratings were compared. In order to control for this variable, future studies should either implement an in-person objective rating or ask subjects to subjectively rate their image in the photograph and compare those ratings to objective ratings of the images.

An effect of age on both subjective and objective appraisals was detected. Among the female self-ratings, a trend was noticed such that younger participants assigned themselves slightly higher attractiveness ratings (high vs. neutral) than did older participants. None of the women endorsed low self-ratings. When the photographs were evaluated objectively, however, age had a statistically significant effect on the objective ratings. Specifically, a statistically significant difference emerged when comparing the mean age of women who received high attractiveness ratings versus those who received neutral ratings and those who received low attractiveness ratings, thereby indicating that younger women are generally perceived to be more facially attractive, both objectively and subjectively, although subjective data were not statistically significant.

Historically, an inverse relationship between age and attractiveness has been found, with older faces being judged less favorably than younger ones.[30–33] No difference was found in either the subjective (p=0.690) or objective (p=0.521) attractiveness ratings of women who had children as compared to those without children. Furthermore, among women with children, no significant difference was found in the ratings of women with one child as compared to those with more than one child (p=0.688). Past studies have provided support for the evolutionary argument that female facial attractiveness serves as a cue for high fertility, thereby increasing the likelihood that men will place a high value on attractive faces.[15,29] However, the issue of fertility has not been addressed in same-sex attractiveness appraisals for women, although it appears that similar criteria are applied. Results from statistical analyses revealed a clear difference in both objective and subjective facial-attractiveness ratings for married versus unmarried women. Unmarried women reported significantly higher self-ratings of facial attractiveness than did married women. Moreover, when the facial photographs were evaluated objectively, raters assigned significantly higher attractiveness ratings to unmarried versus married women. It is uncertain at this time whether a causal statement can be made with respect to the effect of marriage on self and objective attractiveness ratings; however, the finding is noteworthy and merits further investigation. As aforementioned, physically attractive individuals are judged and treated more positively, offering them a variety of desirable benefits, such as higher self-esteem, better employment, higher salaries, and better physical and mental health.[34] As a result, it seems as though attractive women should be able to easily find and maintain satisfying relationships.[34] The present finding that unmarried women are perceived to be more attractive, however, would seem to contradict this assertion or may point to a phenomenon whereby attractive women are being more selective and waiting longer periods to marry.

Lastly, there seemed to be a clear difference in how men and women rated female facial attractiveness in this study. Agreement among individuals has been a robust finding in the facial-attractiveness literature,[24] and while facial-attractiveness research has established that inter-rater agreement exists when judging facial attractiveness across cultures and ethnicities, studies have not systematically analyzed separate groups of men and women. Honekopp[15] asserts that careful analyses reveal that individual differences do in fact exist and examination of such differences is warranted. Moreover, evolutionary psychology and sociocultural research has demonstrated clear gender differences in how men and women have evolved and are socialized; therefore, it would be compatible that differences would exist in how one gender would perceive, evaluate, and appraise the facial attractiveness of their opposite- or same-sex counterpart.[29]

The panel of objective raters used in this study comprised two male and two female raters of a similar demographic makeup as the subjective group of female participants. The study found that inter-rater agreement existed among the two male and two female raters as the mean rating they assigned to the subjects’ images did not differ statistically. However, when the mean male rating was compared to the mean female rating of the subjects’ images, a statistically significant difference emerged. This finding suggests that men and women may perceive female facial attractiveness differently. Specifically, it was found that men assigned significantly lower attractiveness ratings to the female faces than did the female objective raters. There are clear differences in how males and females have evolved and are socialized; therefore, it is not surprising that differences emerged in how men and women in the present study differed in their perception and evaluation of the facial attractiveness of their opposite- or same-sex counterparts.[29] Overall, the present study sheds light on several interesting phenomena and may demonstrate the need for larger studies with both live and photographic assessments in order to better understand subjective versus objective perceptions of facial attractiveness.

1.    Feingold A. Gender differences in effects of physical attractiveness on romantic attraction: a comparison across five research paradigms. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1990;59:981–993.
2.    Chen AC, German C, Zaidel DW. Asymmetry and facial attractiveness: facial beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. Neuropsychologia. 1997;35:471–476.
3.    Langlois JH, Roggman LA. Attractive faces are only average. Psychological Science. 1990;1:115–121.
4.    Mealy L, Bridgstock R, Townsend GC. Symmetry and perceived facial attractiveness: a monozygotic co-twin comparison. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1999;76:151–158.
5.    Perrett DI, May KA, Yoshikawa S. Facial shape and judgments of female attractiveness. Nature. 1994;368:239–242.
6.    Rhodes G, Zebrowitz LA, Clark A, et al. Do facial averageness and symmetry signal health? Evolution and Human Behavior. 2001;22:31–46.
7.    Langlois HJ, Kalakanis L, Rubenstein AJ, et al. Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychol Bull. 2000;126:390–423.
8.    Woo WN. Age and gender differences in perception of facial attractiveness. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. 2007;68:1364.
9.    Berry D. Attractiveness, attraction and sexual selection: evolutionary perspectives on the form and function of physical attractiveness. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 2000;32:273–342.
10.    Cunningham MR. Measuring the psychical in physical attractiveness: quasi-experiments on the sociobiology of female facial beauty. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1986;50:925–935.
11.    Etcoff N. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. New York: Anchor/Doubleday; 1999:325.
12.    Rhodes G, Zebrowitz LA. Facial Attractiveness: Evolutionary, Cognitive, and Social Perspectives. Westport, CT: Ablex; 2002:311.
13.    Thornhill R, Gangestad SW. Facial attractiveness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 1999;3:452–460.
14.    Little A, Perrett D. Putting beauty back in the eye of the beholder. The Psychologist. 2002;15:28–32.
15.    Honekopp J. Once more, is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Relative contributions of private and shared taste to judgments of facial attractiveness. J Exp Psychol. 2006;32: 199–209.
16.    Baker MJ, Churchill GA. The impact of physically attractive models on advertising evaluations. Journal of Marketing Research. 1977;14(4):538–555.
17.    Berscheid E, Dion K, Hatfield E, Walster GW. Physical attractiveness and dating choice: a test of the matching hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 1971;7:173–189.
18.    Cloonan HA, Ottinger DR. Physical attractiveness and the effects of labeling on adult perceptions of preterm infants. Paper presented at the meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Baltimore; April 1987.
19.    Kopera AA, Maier RA, Johnson JE. Perception of physical attractiveness: the influence of group interaction and group coaction on ratings of the attractiveness of photographs of women. Proceedings of the 79th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. 1971;6:317–318.
20.    Morse SJ, Reis HT, Gruzen J, Wolff E. The “eye of the beholder:” determinants of physical attractiveness judgments in the U.S. and South Africa. J Pers. 1974;42:528–542.
21.    Garner DM. The 1997 body image survey results. Psychology Today. Jan/Feb 1997;30–44,75–80,84.
22.    Flora C. (2006). The beguiling truth about beauty. Psychology Today. 2006;June:62–72.
23.    Sarwer DB, Whitaker LA, Wadden TA, Pertschuk MJ. Body image dissatisfaction in women seeking rhytidectomy or blepharoplasty. Aesthetic Surgery Journal. 1997;17:230–234.
24.    Marcus DK, Miller RS. Sex differences in judgments of physical attractiveness: a social relations analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2003;29:325–335.
25.    Gilovich T, Kruger J, Medvec V. The spotlight effect revisited: overestimating the manifest variability in our actions and appearance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2002;31:93–99.
26.    Jansen W, van de Looij-Jansen PM, Ferreira I, de Wilde EJ, Brug J. Differences in measured and self-reported height and weight in Dutch adolescents. Ann Nutr Metab. 2006;50:339–346.
27.    Little AC, Burt DM, Penton-Voak IS, Perrett DI. Self-perceived attractiveness influences human female preferences for sexual dimorphism and symmetry in male faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B, Biological Sciences. 2001;268:39–44.
28.    Jovanovic J, Lerner RM, Lerner JV. Objective and subjective attractiveness and early adolescent adjustment. J Adolesc. 1989;12:225–229.
29.    Luxen MF, Van De Vijver FJR. Facial attractiveness, sexual selection, and personnel selection: when evolved preferences matter. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 2006;27: 241–255.
30.    Downs AC, Walz PJ. Sex differences in preschoolers perceptions of young, middle-aged, and elderly adults. J Psychol. 1981;109:119–122.
31.    Korthase KM, Trenholme I. Perceived age and perceived physical attractiveness. Percept Mot Skills. 1982;54:1251–1258.
32.    Mathes EW, Brennan SM, Haughen PM, Rice HB. Ratings of physical attractiveness as a function of age. J Soc Psychol. 1985;125:157–168.
33.    McLellan, McKelvie. Effects of age and gender on physical attractiveness. Candian Journal of Behavioural Science. 1993;25(1):135–142.
34.    McNulty, Neff, Karney. (2008). Beyond initial attraction: physical attractiveness in newlywed marriage. Journal of Family Psychology. 2008;22(1):135–143.
35.    Luftman D, Ritvo E. The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2008.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin