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HUMAN SKIN COLOR: A POSSIBLE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ITS SEXUAL DIMORPHISM AND ITS SOCIAL PERCEPTION PETER FROST* Homo sapiens is the only primate without body hair. It is thus our skin, and not a covering of fur, that is exposed to view. Intrigued, Charles Darwin attributed the greater visibility of human skin to selection pressures that have caused other species to evolve bright plumage and diverse showy traits [I]: The view which seems to me the most probable is that man, or rather primarily woman, became divested of hair for ornamental purposes, as we shall see under Sexual Selection; and, according to this belief, it is not surprising that man should differ so greatly in hairiness from all other Primates, for characters, gained through sexual selection, often differ to an extraordinary degree in closely related forms. Reactions to Darwin's conjecture were mixed. Many doubted that the conditions necessary for sexual selection had ever prevailed in our species. Moreover, Darwin appeared to suggest that selection had, at least here, acted primarily on women, men being dragged along in the wake of hominization. At a time when Man and Homo sapiens were considered equivalent, it seemed, perhaps, better to accept a more androcentric explanation: primitive man lost his body hair so as to reduce overheating while hunting his prey [2]. It is not only in hairiness that female and male skin differ. In the first paragraph of Sexual Selection in Relation to Man (pt. 3 of The Descent of Man), Darwin [1] states: In certain races the women are said to differ slightly in tint from the men. For instance, Schweinfurth, in speaking of a negress belonging to the Monbuttoos, who inhabit the interior of Africa a few degrees north of the equator, says, "Like ?Department of Anthropology, Université Laval, Ste-Foy, Québec, Canada GlK 7P4.© 1988 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/89/3201-0606$01.00 38 I Peter Frost · Human Skin Color all her race, she had a skin several shades lighter than her husband's, being something of the colour of half-roasted coffee." As the women labour in the fields and are quite unclothed, it is not likely that they differ in colour from the men owing to less exposure to the weather. European women are perhaps the brighter coloured of the two sexes, as may be seen when both have been equally exposed. Darwin was not the first to notice this sex difference. Aristotle [3] alludes to it while discussing the vaginal discharge secreted during intercourse ; "Speaking generally, this [secretion] happens in fair-skinned women who are typically feminine, and not in dark women of a masculine appearance." In the Physiognomonica, a student of Aristotle affirms: "Those who are too swarthy are cowardly; this applies to Egyptians and Ethiopians. But the excessively fair are also cowardly; witness women" [4]. Less explicitly, awareness ofwomen's lighter skin appears in the arts, both literary and graphic [5-7]. A study of Roman literature observes [5]: When referring to the skin, candor (white) is very often used by writers to praise the beauty of girls, women and adolescent boys; so often that more than a quarter of all references [to skin color] fall into this category. . . . The beauty of candor is less often extolled with respect to the male gender—not at all in the case of grown men—for such a feminine skin color, though acceptable for boys and adolescents, would be unbecoming for men. Etruscan paintings depict women as white; men, brick-red [8]. In medieval Europe, "Le teint blanc semble aussi avoir été marque de féminit é. C'est en tout cas ce que suggèrent tant de tableaux à thèmes mythologiques, où les femmes sont systématiquement plus blanches que les hommes" [9]. Recognition of light skin as a feminine trait extends beyond Western societies. Aztec, Egyptian, Chinese, andJapanese art conventionally represent women as fairer-skinned than men [10-12]. Among Chinese peasants in a Yunnan village, "Complexions varied somewhat, and a lighter color was considered preferable to a dark. . . . [For an ideal woman] the lighter her skin, and the rosier and smaller the mouth, the better. . . . the ideal physical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 38-58
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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