The case for wearing blush

Posted in news by jenapincott on January 24, 2010

Bad news for pale girls like me: red is hot. Not only do studies find that men are more attracted to women in red, now we find that men prefer women who are red. Their cheeks, that is….

In a new study, evolutionary psychologist Ian Stephen and his colleagues at the Face Perception Lab recruited volunteers of various races and asked them to digitally adjust the color tone on more than 50 faces to make them look as healthy and attractive as possible. Volunteers consistently added more red coloring to the cheeks — whether the face was Caucasian, Asian, or Black. The redder the face, the more suggestive it is of oxygen-rich blood reaching the skin. The more oxygen-rich blood, the more suggestive it is of the person’s general health and youth. An old person, a sick person, a person with hypertension or bad circulation…will not get rosy-cheeked.

And not only is a flush suggestive of good health and fitness….but high sex hormones as well. In women in particular, high levels of estrogen may cause an expansion of tiny blood vessels under the skin. Hence, rosy cheeks. As in monkeys, female facial redness may be associated with fertility and reproductive quality.

As Stephen points out, the human eye has evolved to pick up on fine variations on the color red. “People are sensitive to the subtle color difference between oxygenated and deoxygenated blood (oxygenated blood is a bright red colour, deoxygenated blood has a slightly bluish red colour, and we interpret this difference in skin blood oxygenation colour as a cue to the health status of individuals.”)

But why did the researchers find that volunteers preferred women over men with rosy cheeks? One reason may be the sex hormones, which show up more obviously in flushed female faces. But it may also be due to the fact that men already have ruddier faces than women do — they have higher levels of hemoglobin and arterial oxygen content in their blood. As a result, the male blush is not as obvious a cue of good health and high sex hormones.

There are surely other reasons why a maidenly blush is attractive, as I describe in BLONDES. For one, a flash of color to a woman’s cheeks may suggest youth, modesty, embarrassment, excitement…all of which, depending on context, may appeal to red-blooded men.

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