A random sample of 1205 black, white, and mixed-race faces was collected. These faces were then rated for their perceived attractiveness. There was a small but highly significant effect, with mixed-race faces, on average, being perceived as more attractive (Lewis, 2010).
This study has attracted much notice in the media and on the Internet. When photos of black, white, and mixed-race faces were shown to twenty white psychology students from Cardiff University in Wales, the mixed-race faces were considered to be better-looking than either black or white faces. This finding, the author went on to argue, shows the benefits of hybrid vigor.
Actually, it’s doubtful whether this study proves much about hybrid vigor. There are negative effects from mating with close kin (‘inbreeding depression’), but these effects decrease exponentially with increasing genetic distance. Marrying a !Kung provides just a bit more benefit than not marrying your second cousin.
But something else is questionable about this study. The male students rated the black faces more highly than the white faces. This is an interesting finding—just as interesting as the one that the author chose to underscore. After all, British culture has long stigmatized blacks as the antithesis of beauty. In a history of American race relations, Winthrop Jordan (1968, pp. 8-9) notes:
Whiteness, moreover, carried a special significance for Elizabethan Englishmen: it was, particularly when complemented by red, the color of perfect human beauty, especially female beauty. This ideal was already centuries old in Elizabeth’s time, and their fair Queen was its very embodiment: her cheeks were “roses in a bed of lilies.” […] It was important, if incalculably so, that 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. (Jordan, 1968, pp. 8-9)
Of course, that was then and this is now. But even today black women are underrepresented as icons of beauty in men’s magazines:
More than 70 percent of professional athletes are African American, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the latest issue of Sport’s Illustrated’s much ballyhooed swimsuit issue.
The 184-page issue, the magazine’s most profitable, boasts 18 models, but only two are African American and you won’t see them until page 140.
[…] African-American models like Iman and Naomi Campbell broke through the race barrier long ago in fashion, but the under representation of minorities in modeling continues to be a contentious issue to this day.
In 2008, The Wall Street Journal did a major feature on the problem, noting what it called the “Thin White Line” in fashion.
Well, perhaps psychology majors at Cardiff University have different notions of female beauty.
Or perhaps they were just fibbing.
Anon. (2010). Sports Illustrated sends blacks to back of book, The Improper, February 14th, 2010
Jordan, W. (1968). White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro 1550-1812. Williamsburg: University of North Carolina Press.
Lewis, M.B. (2010). Why are mixed-race people perceived as more attractive? Perception, 39, 136 –138