Youthful features are more likely to make people think you are attractive; there is no doubt about that. Youth accentuates and sharpens attractive features. In line with that, neoteny is another characteristic that possibly relates to attractiveness.
There is a direct relationship between neoteny and attractiveness in females. The more neotenous features a female has, the more attractive they are. For men, the link between neoteny and attractiveness is not as clear. These links are products of years of evolution and sexual selection.
Still, there are many features that we can consider as neotenous, and they are usually different in men and women. However, there are still many mature characteristics that make a person attractive. Neoteny is just one characteristic of attractiveness and is by no means a catch-all. The idea that we, as human beings, are most interested in youthful features is not new, but there are still misconceptions about it.
For example, we think of attractiveness as a learned trait. But youthfulness as our basis for attractiveness is not merely cultural. Even though we like to say that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder or that beauty depends on preference, that’s not the case. Yes, personal preference and our cultural influences do play a role. But there are many indicators that we have a natural sense of what is attractive or not. Neoteny is one of these factors.
What Is Neoteny?
Neoteny may be an unfamiliar term to most. It essentially means that even into adulthood, some people retain youthful or baby-like features. There are various neotenous features that we consider to be attractive in many situations. We’ll take a look at facial neoteny and bodily neoteny. Granted, there is much more neoteny in the facial features than there is in the body. There are too many changes that occur in the body during growth to retain child-like features.
1. Skull Shape
The first thing to determine neoteny in females is their skull shape. For a woman to exude a child-like appearance, there has to be an upward and forward growth of their face. In addition to that, many attractive women have large cranial vaults, which you can learn more about in this looks theory video. Having a large neurocranium is an infantile feature. To achieve an overall neotenous appearance, a person needs an angel skull.
Ratios are also incredibly important in neoteny. You may have noticed that cute babies mostly have a large neurocranium (upper part of the head) and the features on the lower face are notably small. In adults, a high ratio between the upper area of the skull and the lower features are neotenous as well. Additionally, a high FWHR is incredibly important in achieving a neotenous appearance. Instead of a long face, an attractive person has facial features that look more grouped together to achieve the right proportions.
2. Large Eyes
One of the most notable neotenous features in human beings is larger eyes. All of the cute babies that we see online and in real life have large eyes. Similarly, many adults retain this doe-eyed look even further into their adult life. The large and round eyes are characteristic of youth and vitality. The sagging of the eye area and reduced canthal tilt has links to old age.
3. Small Nose, Ears, and Full Lips
Another neotenous characteristic is a small nose. We perceive large noses to be less attractive than small noses. Not that large noses cannot be attractive, but our general image of an attractive nose is a small, dainty nose. This is especially true in women. You are more likely to find a woman who has a small nose attractive. The characteristic of a small nose is reliant on the other features of the face as well.
Small ears and full lips also indicate a youthful appearance. Regardless of the true age of the person, having these neotenous traits is more likely to increase their chances of people finding them attractive.
The lack of facial hair is yet another neotenous trait that is more important for women. Men without facial hair are not automatically attractive. But women with facial hair just look odd. Of course, women’s hormones work differently than men’s, and it’s only reasonable that the neotenous trait of facial hairlessness is an expectation in women. But apart from that, it also keeps faces youthful.
Speaking of hair, head hair can also be something that people consider to be neotenous. Many would consider blondes to look more youthful than brunettes and darker hair colors. Changing your hair color is one of the easiest switches that most can make to emulate the appearance of being younger.
5. Brow ridge
The lack of brow ridges is also a neotenous trait. The brow ridge is a sexually dimorphic trait, meaning that it is is a defining characteristic of one sex, in this case, male. Brow ridges usually get much more prominent during puberty. In adults, the lack of a defined brow ridge is usually a youthful trait. Today, the brow ridge is less prominent than it was before in ancient humans. But you can still identify the stark difference between a man’s brow ridge and a woman’s.
Neotenous bodily features are probably less important in the conversation on attractiveness, but they still play a part. They include child-like features of having relatively shorter limbs than their torsos. Proper upright posture is also indicative of youth.
How Does Neoteny Relate to Attraction?
The Truth Behind the Social Aspect of Attraction
These youthful features can be endearing to many people, and not just because we have social perceptions of beauty. There are landmark studies such as this one by Langlois et al. (1987) that became an example and reference for other studies. Langlois’ experiment centered around showing infants photos of attractive and unattractive people to identify which ones they looked at the longest, thus being more attractive.
The conventional way of thinking would be that the babies won’t necessarily choose the more attractive person since they don’t have a perception of beauty just yet. That is what the assumption would be if humans followed current beauty standards. The results of the study showed the opposite. The infants spent more time looking at attractive faces more than they did the unattractive faces. This result rang true regardless of race.
Infants, who supposedly still have no idea what beauty is, can still choose the most attractive face out of a set of faces. They do this without any influence whatsoever and no standards yet imposed unto them. This observation tells us that human attraction is not simply a learned perception. For sure, standards and the changing trends do affect it. But we cannot deny that there is a version of attractiveness that even babies can recognize.
Those attractive faces do not necessarily have neotenous features. But these ingrained ideas of attractiveness had to have come from somewhere. And looking into those reasons will help us see how neoteny relates to attractiveness.
Sexual Selection and Neoteny
The process of sexual selection between humans and other animals are regarded as vastly different. The difference is due to the social and cultural implications of beauty and attraction that centuries of socialization have made quite complex. Regardless, it plays a part in how we developed over the years.
We already understand that beauty and attractiveness are not simply conceptions we learn. From the moment we are born, we already have an idea of what is attractive or not. This ingrained idea of attractiveness comes from the natural impulse to propagate the species and select the best mate. It sounds primitive when you think of it that way, but that’s likely how we evolved to become the version of humans we are today. Of course, it’s not nearly as black and white as that today. However, we are examining the various bases that define human attractiveness.
In humans, the idea of choosing a mate does not only come from a desire to just choose whoever and go with it. There is also a standard for choosing the right mate, meaning that humans had to develop characteristics that would attract the right kind of mate the most. So, how does this all relate to neoteny?
Well, neotenous features or baby-like features ideally attract the nurturing kind of mate. Several studies provide information on how an infant or baby’s appearance triggers the nurturing feeling that we have as humans. Konrad Lorenz’s studies claim that a baby’s cute features (large eyes and forehead) are evolutionary tactics to ensure survival. Since a baby’s appearance triggers their caregiver’s nurturing emotions, it gives them the best chance of survival. This survival further ensures that their genes will go on and pass down to the next generations.
There is even a term for this occurrence called the Kewpie doll effect. With that, it follows that humans would develop a way to attract the most nurturing mate possible. And what better way to do this than to trigger their instinct to care through neotenous features?
Thus, neoteny is a product of sexual selection. And today, neoteny is one of the markers for attractiveness that we probably use to identify attractiveness. Certainly, as beings that are constantly evolving socially, the same rules do not always apply. There will always be personal preferences, trends, and other changing variables to account for. But if we look at it from one angle, neoteny is one of humanity’s way of attracting a person they are most likely to have success with.
Neoteny in Females
Neoteny is no doubt seen as much more attractive in females than it is in males. For some reason, people across different races and ethnicities consider women with neotenous features as attractive. This perception reflects itself in nearly universal acceptance.
Many studies theorize that females’ neotenous features are more prominent, and thus, more relevant because of fertility. Women are more fertile and capable of furthering the species when they are younger. Again, it sounds quite animalistic when we explain human attraction that way. But what we see as attractive now has been influenced by a long period of evolution. Preferences will always exist, and societal pressures can always sway our perceptions of beauty.
An example of a neotenous trait that exists more in women is less body hair. Even today, there are many pressures for women to shave their legs and underarm hair. It’s the backbone of an entire industry of products even. But our perception of body hair as something to be rid of has to have come from somewhere. The lack of body hair in women is almost usually an attractive trait. Men prefer women who have little to no extra hair on their bodies. Although body hair is natural, and even as a neotenous trait, body hair exists, we still have a present point of view that considers it unattractive.
According to Cunningham et al. (1995), we have many cultural signals that point to proper grooming. He said that we might be grooming our features with little understanding of the meanings that these practices convey. We see this idea in how we expect women to maintain as little body hair as possible. In a study by Cunningham, he said that a full and colorful head of hair could be characteristic of neonate vitality. There are many things that we root in neoteny even if we are not doing them consciously.
Cunningham’s study also provides a reference for the universality of neonate features in attractiveness. In examining Asian, Hispanic, and Caucasian faces, the judges of the faces (also Asian, Hispanic, and Caucasian) agreed that the faces with neotenous features were more attractive. In that part of his study, he conceded that western influences did not seem to matter much.
Of course, this is an analysis that you should take with a grain of salt. While there are plenty of studies examining neoteny and attractiveness, many of them could use updating.
Neoteny in Males
The interesting thing about neoteny is that its relationship to males is not as clear as in females. In this study by Wehr et al. (2000), the researchers found that people found average men to be more attractive than men with neotenous features nearly two times over! In a separate study by Keating (1985), she found that mature traits increased the perceived dominance in a person. In men, this trait made them more attractive but did the opposite for women.
Completely contrary to how we view neoteny in females, males receive the opposite treatment. Juvenile features hold less value than mature traits. However, youth, in general, is still valuable on many counts. The preference for youthfulness when examining attractiveness is true across both sexes but not to the same degree. The reason for this still perplexes many researchers. Since women mature earlier and faster than men, one of the reasons why women are not very attracted to juvenile features is that they are looking for a dominant and mature figure.
Is Neoteny Always Attractive?
Neoteny is only one marker for attractiveness. Having neotenous features does not automatically mean that those features are attractive, nor does it mean that non-neotenous features are attractive.
Let’s take, for example, Bella Hadid and Miranda Kerr. Both of these women are people that we consider very attractive. Yet their beauties are different from each other. Miranda Kerr has those typical neotenous looks with her large eyes, high FHWR, and chubby cheeks. On the other hand, Bella Hadid has a more intense and mature version of beauty.
We value many mature features in appearances today, such as high cheekbones, for example (Swami et al., 2012). While previous theorists would suggest that neotenous features are the most attractive (and there is data to back those claims), there is also compelling evidence today that non-neotenous traits are attractive. There are also models examining attractiveness that resulted in neotenous features being more attractive in the center or middle of the face. These features include large eyes and a small nose. On the flip side, the face’s periphery is where more mature features lie, such as high cheekbones in women and large chins in men. These results are in line with the idea of Swami that we also value mature features.
This leads us to our next point on the value of sexual dimorphism. The analysis of sexual dimorphism does not erase the value of neoteny in examining attractiveness. But it does help a lot with creating in-depth evolutionary theory on how we came to perceive attractiveness in the way that we do today.
Which Is More Important: Neoteny or Sexual Dimorphism?
The answer to that question depends a lot on the context. If you are a woman, neotenous traits are something you would want, given the general agreement that youthful features in women are attractive. On that note, many of the neotenous features in women are also sexually dimorphic characteristics. The lack of a pronounced brow bone, for example, is one. The smaller chin and jaw are also neotenous traits that are more present in women than men. Thus, neoteny and sexual dimorphism go together to determine physical attractiveness. The lack of body hair and a small nose are additional traits that you would expect from a woman more than you would a man.
For men, sexual dimorphism probably holds more sway than neoteny. Since men who have juvenile traits don’t necessarily convey attractiveness, the idea of sexually dimorphic traits is more important. An example of this trait is a pronounced brow ridge. The lack of a prominent brow ridge is a neotenous and attractive trait in women. In men, a prominent brow ridge is a good thing (within reason as a prominent brow ridge can also make a recessed forehead look worse). Essentially, sexual dimorphism is probably more important in men. Another manifestation of this is how many people perceive men with beards to be more attractive. Beards make a man look more mature and less juvenile. This observation supports the idea that neotenous features are not very desirable in men.
Much research is needed to fill the gap in understanding why neoteny and attractiveness vary across the sexes. The reasons for it could come from the millennia of evolution and survival instincts. Or it could even have been influenced by our cultural perceptions of beauty, although previous research indicates that the chances of that happening are quite slim. There are now questions raised regarding this very topic. Hopefully, there will be more answers in the coming years. And we understand more why neoteny in men and why it’s not as useful for attractiveness.