Q: I’m a single 33-year-old woman. Suddenly, after years of outdoor sports, I have a dime-sized dark brown sunspot on my face. It’s not cancerous, and I’m having it lasered off. This will take a while. Though I cover it with makeup, I’m terribly self-conscious about it, and I don’t want to date till it’s removed. I know how visual men are, and I don’t want a man to find out I have this thing and see me as unattractive. My friends say I’m being ridiculous.—Insecure
A: It’s a spot on your face that suggests you’ve done some stuff in the sun; it isn’t the Mark of Satan™ or a button with a message underneath, “Press here to activate the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Your intuition that a clear, even complexion is important isn’t off base. Anthropologist Bernhard Fink and his colleagues did some pretty cool research on how skin tone uniformity affects perceptions of a woman’s attractiveness. This isn’t a new area of study, but almost all of the research has been on Western populations. Social science findings are more likely to be representative of human nature when the subject pool goes beyond the usual “WEIRD” participants (from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries—and, more often than not, 19-year-old college undergrads fighting a wicked hangover to answer survey questions for class credit).
So Fink and his team sought out 172 men and women, ages 17 to 80, from two remote tribes—the cattle-raising Maasai in Tanzania and the forager-farmer Tsimane tribe in Bolivia—each “unfamiliar with lighter-colored skin.” The researchers explain that these tribes have no electricity and “little or no access” to magazines or newspapers from the West. They also live far from any tourist destinations, so no—no pale-faced college girls dropping by, all “C’mon, Mr. Maasai … just one more selfie with me and your totally adorbs cow!”
Tribe members were asked to assess “age, health, and attractiveness” from photographs of skin—squares of white-lady skin cropped from photos of faces of British girls and women ages 11 to 76. Echoing findings from Western populations, women with “homogenous skin color”—meaning even in tone overall, with little or no “skin discoloration” (blotches or spots)—“were judged to be younger and healthier” and more attractive.
Research finds that humans, in general, prefer faces with clear, uniform skin, which is associated with being parasite- and disease-free. There’s also strong support, from cross-cultural studies, for the notion by evolutionary psychologists that men evolved to be drawn to female features that suggest a woman is young and healthy—and thus more likely to be fertile. Men just don’t think of it in so many words—“Better babies when Mommy’s got skin like an airbrushed Vogue cover girl!”—especially not in places where the nearest newsstand is maybe four days away by donkey.
Because women coevolved with men, women anticipate this male preference for flawless skin—leading them to feel, uh, undersparkly when their facial landscape is less than pristine.
This brings us to you. The thing is, you aren’t just a skin dot with a person attached. A guy will look at the whole. Also, we accept that people use products and technology to hide or fix flaws in their appearance—or to enhance the features they have. Accordingly, a guy is not defrauding you by using Rogaine, and no man with an IQ that exceeds your bra size believes you were born wearing eye shadow.
Ultimately, you have more control than you probably realize over how much any imperfections affect your total attractiveness. A woman I know is a living example of this. She’s got two fewer legs than most of us. But she understands—and shows it in the way she carries herself—that she’s vastly more than the sum of her (missing) parts.
In other words, your real problem is you—your feeling that this spot is some kind of boulder-sized diminisher of your worth. Chances are, this comes from putting too much weight on your looks as the source of your value. Though you may not be where you want in your career, doing regular meaningful work to help other people—like volunteer work—might be the quickest way for you to feel bigger than that dot on your face.
There’s nothing wrong with getting it lasered off, but as long as it’s still with you, try something: Revel in having it instead of going into hiding over it. I’m serious. After all, it’s basically a sign that you went outdoors and seized life—not that you got drunk and joined one of those racist Tiki torch marches and now have to hit up some tattoo artist to turn the swastikas into butterflies.
Please note: This column appears only in our online version of the paper this week.