The Mathematics of (White) Beauty.

Dating site OkCupid has released its latest user study -- which appear periodically on the site's blog -- this time focusing on beauty and women. After promising to get to the male users at some point, author Christian Rudder dives into the data, which apparently reveals:

[W]hen some men think you're ugly, other men are more likely to message you. And when some men think you're cute, other men become less interested. Why would this happen? Perhaps a little game theory can explain:

Suppose you're a man who's really into someone. If you suspect other men are uninterested, it means less competition. You therefore have an added incentive to send a message. You might start thinking: maybe she's lonely. . . maybe she's just waiting to find a guy who appreciates her. . . at least I won't get lost in the crowd. . . maybe these small thoughts, plus the fact that you really think she's hot, prod you to action. You send her the perfectly crafted opening message.

There are several things that are strange about this post, but let's start with the conclusion: "We now have mathematical evidence that minimizing your 'flaws' is the opposite of what you should do. If you're a little chubby, play it up. If you have a big nose, play it up. If you have a weird snaggletooth, play it up: statistically, the guys who don't like it can only help you, and the ones who do like it will be all the more excited."

First, we're dealing with a classic case of causation vsersus correlation. There's absolutely no way of knowing for sure that emphasizing "flaws" (And which flaws? What if you're more than "a little chubby?") will make a woman more attractive to some men. The author's conclusion is a bit of a logical leap, although the nod to game theory makes sense, since it's usually applied to economics, and OkTrends is essentially advising women to market themselves as products, while men are the consumers.

Additionally, all of the examples of beauty that Rudder used in the post were of thin women who look white; the author says the data was "controlled" for race. While I assume the majority of women using the site are white, it still does a major disservice to conversations about beauty if you skip over the race issue. Why ignore the way race affects perception of beauty?

It's not like OkTrends has shied away from talking about its users and race (although I've criticized them on this, too). A previous post focused on how race affects the number of replies men and women of various ethnic groups receive, and pointed out some hard truths about race and perception.

It's likely that Rudder avoided addressing the issue because it muddies up the clear picture he's trying to present. That's sad, though, because it's just not possible to write honestly about beauty without talking about social norms and race, too.

-- Shani O. Hilton

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