Science Tells Us What Makes Us Attractive, But We Don’t Have to Listen

leo romeo and juliet

As much as we can claim to have a “type”, usually described by generically attractive attributes that we like to look at on other people, I honestly don’t think that we do. 

Sure, I like people with thick hair and loud opinions, but I also once had the best sex of my life with a soft-spoken restaurant owner who sported a shaved head. And yes, I’m super into people that wear beautifully tailored designer clothes and smell like Tom Ford, but I’ve never dated one. Regardless of gender, age or ‘look’, I can’t explain what makes me attracted to someone by describing their appearance. 

However, we do know that appearances have something to do with initial attraction. We often make snap judgements of people within the first 30 seconds of meeting them, and without knowing them, we’re going purely off our instincts. Our instincts are not to be undermined, because they’re usually pretty bang on. We’re able to observe someone’s energy, their confidence or insecurity and certain traits of their personality just by their posture or the way they walk. Sometimes, these observations can turn us instantly on or off someone. 

But what does science say about attraction? It’s pretty common to be attracted to lots of different kinds of people, but it’s also common to be attracted to the same kind of people. Some people notice a pattern in their dating behaviour or the people they choose to be intimate with, while others won’t be able to see any correlation between their partners.

Let’s break down the science.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

You’ve probably heard of the “rule of thirds” or the “golden ratio”, both of which basically speak to pretty specific ratios of the face that we find more visually appealing. The main one is the distance between the eyes and the mouth. A face considered to be “most attractive” is said to be when the vertical distance between the eyes and the mouth is approximately 36% of the face’s total length and the horizontal distance between the eyes is around 46% of the face’s width. Interestingly, these are the average proportions of the human face, meaning that most of us will have features that sit close to these ratios. 

These proportions create facial symmetry, which has been well-documented to be more attractive across all fronts. Even in elements of design and art, symmetry is something that is pleasant for our eyes to look at; it makes us feel comfortable, which means we gravitate towards symmetry. Symmetry is also thought to reflect exposure to favourable hormone levels and a comfortable environment while in the womb, indicating health and normality.

In hearing what science says about our visual determination of beauty, I’d argue it’s still in the eye of the beholder. Being attracted to symmetry basically shows an attraction to someone who is healthy, which can mean different things to different people at varying stages of life. If you’re in a stage of being single and fabulous, you may not care for symmetry. But if you’re wanting to settle down and start a family, you might find that your partner has a more symmetrical face than you realised. 


According to many scientific theories, straight men rate women with long hair more attractive, regardless of their facial attractiveness. This is to do with the femininity and youth connected to long hair, with evolutionary psychology stating that men are attracted to this because it’s indicative of greater fertility.

Hair grows faster and thicker on young women, while also being a symbol of divine feminine energy since the mid-18th Century. This perception of hair on women is often unconscious. While some people may prefer women with short hair aesthetically, this correlation between femininity and long hair is somewhat ingrained in the gendered psychological framework that is slowly being broken down today.

For men, facial hair can be divisive. Researchers from the University of Queensland have studied how different stages of facial hair might affect their general attractiveness. Out of clean-shaven, light stubble, heavy stubble and a full beard, men with light and heavy stubble were considered the most attractive. This was due to findings that a large percentage of women feel disgust towards parasites – such as fleas that live on the skin – and therefore steering clear of men with full beards. The study also showed that women, when seriously looking for a relationship, are more attracted to men with a light-heavy stubble, as it signifies masculinity and commitment. 

I guess growing and maintaining a beard takes true commitment? 

Talk to me, baby

The way a voice sounds also impacts our desires. There are certain qualities in voices that we all react to positively, mostly without realising it. 

Research that altered voices to specific frequencies, qualities and “formant” spacing (the gaps between emphasised sounds in speech), showed that men are attracted to female voices that are high-pitched, breathy and with big gaps between formants. Think Nigella Lawson. Women also like breathy voices, as breathiness in a voice usually means softness in demeanour and sensitivity in personality. 

You smell good

How people smell is a big one. When it comes to smell, it’s not about perfume or skin products, it’s completely about someone’s actual smell. It’s that smell that hits you when you walk into someone’s bedroom, or when you get real close to a part of their skin that’s a bit sweaty. If you like that smell, it’s usually a pretty big indication that you’re into that person. 

In experiments where women have been presented with men’s natural body odours, there are certain traits that tend to rate as smelling better. The potential scent attraction that’s received the most attention is that women seem to favour the smells of men who have immune genes that differ from their own. The theory is that women might be sniffing out men’s major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a group of genes that affect the immune system. Following evolutionary theory, this makes sense. 

There are many studies that indicate men respond to pheromones given out by women and find them to be more sexually stimulating when they’re ovulating. This is pretty self-explanatory, given that we are creatures in a reproductive system, our natural instincts are to procreate (whether we like it or not), and during ovulation is the most successful time to make that happen. 

There are so many more elements of attraction that haven’t been touched on, because quite frankly, we’d be here for days. But something I’ve noticed during my research is that there’s a lack of scientific literature surrounding the attraction of people outside of heterosexuality. 

We’re an evolving society and as we grow, we learn about ourselves and our desires more. We’ve come to normalise love and attraction as something that isn’t necessarily gendered, and we’re more accepting of our individual and unique desires. In order to truly understand what makes us attracted to someone and attractive to others, I think that we need to look deeper than the aesthetic details that science fixates on and into the depths of our independent realms of attraction. 

Ask yourself, what turns you on? And whatever it is, is unique to you and that’s beautiful. There’s no set of rules around what makes someone or something beautiful attractive to you.

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