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It’s time for my facial masculinity rant – or “how frustrating it was to be right all along and still wrong in ways I hadn’t expected”.

In 2002, as a baby PhD student I gathered data on women’s preferences for masculinity, health and age in men’s faces, expecting to get an overall ‘preference for quality’. It didn’t turn out as planned…
At this time everyone assumed that masculinity, via testosterone (T), indicated underlying immunity because T is immunosuppressive. This was fairly well evidenced in birds and had been put forward to explain cyclic variation in women’s preferences for masculinity.
I had some questions about this approach, but I generally accepted that women preferred masculine faces when fertile because that’s when healthy genes matter.
So it came as a shock when my data showed that women’s preferences for masculinity were unrelated to their preferences for an even better indicator of health … how healthy the face actually looked!
I talked it through with my supervisor and labmates (particularly @Ben_C_J); we remained surprised. So I tried to replicate it. New images, new sample, still no link. I got the stimuli rated just to check; masculinised faces didn’t *look* healthy either.
Publishing this took years; 2 editors, 6 reviewers, and help editing the resulting mess from @Ben_C_J when I was ready to give up. But I got it out there.
I also presented it (precocious smartarse title: ‘The End of Good Genes?’) at @HumBehEvoSoc 2003.
I thought this would make an impact; it was important! It didn’t. Another paper from our lab, showed that preferences for health changed across the cycle in independent of masculinity; very well cited paper but not for the immunocompetence implications.
I ran another study looking at mate-relevant attributions; two factors emerged: overall positive traits and dominance (yes, same as Todorov). Healthy faces looked positive, masculine faces looked dominant; still no link between the two.
I therefore proposed that masculinity was preferred by fertile women/women seeking a short term partner because of the benefits of dominance to future offspring (via the Sexy Son Hypothesis) rather than health.
And then I dug deeper, with more new samples, showing that masculinity preferences weren’t related to other purported indices of health: averageness and symmetry, and masculinity preferences weren’t notably different in more or less symmetric faces.
I presented this at multiple conferences; a leading proponent of the immunocompetence approach told me one two occasions how interesting it was but he’s never cited me on it. By this point I was getting really, really annoyed.
More papers followed; we found evidence for a link between masculinity and actual future health was weak and a systematic review of the literature showed that almost all evidence for a T-health link was also weak and sometimes contradictory.
Critically, we found that masculinity was – if anything - *bad* for offspring survival in 2 small-scale societies. (That paper took years, many revisions, maternity leave, many editors, a 6-page stats rebuttal, and I hated it by the time it came out.)
I teamed up with @isabelmscott to write a review on all this and restated the core issue – evidence for masculinity indicating underlying health was weak (directly or via preferences). We again suggested that dominance/Sexy-sons might be more fruitful.
Because we crucially still believed that masculinity preferences varied across this cycle in a way which needed explanation.
Fast forward to 2018 and a cascade of big, high quality studies found no effect of menstrual cycle/hormones on masculinity preferences. Suddenly everyone was talking about masculinity/good genes being dead.
I was right all along! But mainly because the phenomenon we’d all been trying to understand … maybe didn’t even exist to start with.
Some days I honestly feel like I’ve been gaslit by science itself…
(This rant was brought to you by this really-good-actually paper…)
Haha, got curious and looked through files, and voila! My opening and closing slides at @HumBehEvoSoc 2003 in Nebraska. I still remember @anthonyclittle's face when he sat through my dry run. "That's a really scary title, Lynda."
(I should probably belatedly apologise to the room full of people who had to sit through slides with a colour scheme inspired by my lava lamp...)
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