How Historical Pandemics and Disease Shaped the Evolution of Our Romantic Choices
“How pale I look! – I should like, I think, to die of consumption … because then the women would all say, ‘see that poor Byron – how interesting he looks in dying!’”
Behold – the lyrical words of the 19th-century romantic poet Lord Byron, who made this remark while gazing at his reflection. Consumption, as tuberculosis was known then, was treated as a “beautiful” disease. The paleness, reddish cheeks, slenderness, fragility – all signs of physical deterioration and pain – were desired, even proclaimed sexually attractive. As Charlotte Brontë declared in 1849, “Consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady.”
But “as the century progressed, the disease, once so clouded in romantic imagery and mystery, was revealed to be much more prosaic,” researcher Imogene Clarke wrote. “Romantic portrayals and perceptions of consumption were gradually replaced with scientific facts, and the once-mysterious disease was transformed into a public health problem.”
Throughout history, pandemics and disease have shaped our romantic preferences. The people we find attractive, qualities that appear favorable, all fall on a dynamic graph of biological and psychological evolution.
In 1985, the two plagues of cholera and love coexisted in Márquez’s city without a name. Now, “love in the time of corona” is the phrase preserving flesh memories of romance, “situationships” and the evolving dynamics of who we find attractive during a global pandemic.
Some decades ago; masks were seen as a contamination cue, making others think “they need to stay away.” However, mounting research shows evidence of a change in perception.
Recently, researchers at the U.K.’s Cardiff University found how two years of mask-wearing have altered our idea of attraction. The study found that people wearing blue surgical masks were deemed most attractive. “This may be because we’re used to healthcare workers wearing blue masks and now we associate these with people in caring or medical professions,” Michael Lewis, one of the co-authors of the study, told The Guardian. “At a time when we feel vulnerable, we may find the wearing of medical masks reassuring and so feel more positive towards the wearer.”
The mask wearer’s covered face becomes shorthand for many things: the person adheres to norms, appears safe, and respects public and social health codes.
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“Disease and evidence of disease can play a big role in mate selection — previously any cues to disease would be a big turn-off. Now we can observe a shift in our psychology such that face masks are no longer acting as a contamination cue,” Lewis added.
These shifts can be explained by something evolutionary psychologist Mark Schaller called the “behavioral immune system,” a subconscious messaging that regulates the human response in the presence of an infectious disease. Think of it as a checklist we subconsciously keep to protect ourselves from the threat of pathogens. This other immune system “mobilizes cognitive and emotional responses such as fear, anxiety, and disgust to avoid pathogens,” explained Schaller.
The purpose of the behavioral immune system is to adapt individual instincts to reduce the likelihood of getting infected. Take, for instance, people’s fear of crowded places or hesitation to touch others today. As a professor of psychology, Manos Tsakiris argued, “disgust is an aversion to contact, driven by a fear of contamination. Our hands and mouths are the gatekeepers, the charged body parts whose activities can keep us safe or imperil us.”
In the case of tuberculosis, when people found out more facts about the disease, their behavioral immune system recalibrated to think of what we’re earlier “fragile” markers of beauty as infectious and threatening. Soon after, as author Carolyn A. Day noted in her book, corsets distanced themselves from signs of thinness – “tubercular chic” – to a more curvy form. Curviness suddenly began to be deemed healthy and more attractive.
According to one theory, disgust also forms the fulcrum of our sexual psychology; in that, disgust motivates avoidance of sexual partners who may display signs of infection and potentially risk the health and viability of offspring. “Consumption, coitus, and contact are all behaviors regulated by disgust and — because of the link to disease — all associated with one or more historical foodborne, sexually transmitted, or contact-facilitated pandemics,” a paper published in PNAS concluded.
“I have often wondered what happens to love during such anomalies in time. The temporal experience of love, after all, is an essential aspect of social life… So then what happens to romances in times of war, calamities, and diseases?” wrote author Ipshita Nath last year.
The answer to her question may also lie in understanding the behavioral immune system. A study conducted pre-Covid19 by researchers at McGill University sought to scrutinize how the risk of infectious diseases changed people’s dating behavior.
“People who felt most vulnerable to disease showed lower levels of interest in prospective dates, regardless of how desirable they were,” the researchers noted. They noted patterns like reduced eye contact and speaking less. In one instance, the participant remembers wanting to “flee the date.”
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In another sample survey, young American couples attested to expressing more fear, anger, and sadness during their dating interactions in comparison to pre-2019 levels. In other cases, people with more concerns about Covid19 and infection were found to be more picky and concerned with commitment and future. Researchers also noted an increase in the importance of stability, family commitment, and physical/social attractiveness, as well as fear of being single.
Interestingly, when participants (who were mostly heterosexual) in this study were more acutely aware and anxious about an infectious disease, they were more likely to give weightage to symmetrical faces. Various studies from the last decade have noted that people with symmetrical faces are believed to be healthier themselves. Not only that, but they are also more likely to have children with a stronger immune system. This is evidenced by how people in the African tribe of the Hadza — who face a higher risk of infection due to being closer to the equator — displayed a stronger preference for facial symmetry than participants in the UK.
But this tale of disease and desire also carries hints of prejudice. The unconscious fear of infection shapes many aspects of our psychology (for better or for worse) – our perception of love and attraction is just one of them. “Beyond disgust for primary contaminants such as blood or rotten food, we’re also capable of a wider sense of disgust, shaped by social forces, that extends to groups, objects or situations that bear no reliable connection with a real risk of infection,” argued Tsakiris. India’s sordid history of untouchability, of designating more than 160 million people as “less than human beings,” is only one manifestation of the unholy marriage of psychological bias and political structures.
Theories about mate selection, or germ spreading, stigmatize those who are structurally poor and marginalized when placed within the cultural gender roles and social structures. Schaller expressed concern that “once it [the bias] is active, it can spill over into new domains beyond the one it’s meant to be protecting us against.”
This relationship between love and disease is as microbial as it is social. Its brilliance lies in how swiftly the fear of contagion catches on to us and primes us for self-preservation. We alter our beliefs, our romantic choices, our desires — all in service of survival. But it also hides the terrible rot of prejudice within, feeding hate and bigotry.
The duality is a malady of its own, just not a flattering one.