The fair maiden of myth appears to have a basis in scientific reality, according to new research.
Scientists looking into attractiveness in men and women suggest that men of all races are subconsciously attracted to fairer-skinned women, while women are more drawn to dark-complexioned men.
The researchers, whose study shows that across different races, lighter-skinned women are seen as the ideal, say the attraction is driven by preferences based on moral assumptions.
Men are subconsciously attracted to fairer skin because of its association with innocence, purity, modesty, virginity, vulnerability and goodness, according to researchers at the University of Toronto.
Women are attracted to men with darker complexions because these are associated with sex, virility, mystery, villainy and danger.
From Desdemona to Nicole Kidman, fair-skinned beauties have been celebrated by artists and poets for centuries.
Meanwhile, millions of women have been drawn to dark, brooding males, from Heathcliff to actor Javier Bardem.
In an analysis of more than 2,000 advertising photographs of men and women, the researchers found that the skin of white women was 15.2 per cent lighter than the skin of white males, and the skin of black women 11.1 per cent lighter than the skin of black men.
Advertising photographs were chosen because almost invariably the models were considered to be among the most attractive people of the races and genders.
"What the research shows is that our aesthetic preferences operate to reflect moral preferences. Within our cultures we have a set of ideals about how women should look and behave. Lightness and darkness have particular meanings attached to them and we subconsciously relate those moral preferences to women," said Dr Shyon Baumann, a sociologist at the University of Toronto.
In effect, a preference for Colin Farrell over Daniel Craig or Monica Bellucci over Michelle Pfieffer expresses a preference for danger.
The researchers say many judgements about beauty are made at a conscious level, such as about height, weight, leg length, and the shape of the nose and the mouth.
"In contrast, other physical attractiveness ideals, including complexion, are not openly discussed or acknowledged, and are made at the subconscious level," they say.
When they analysed adverts featuring white women only, they found that women with the darkest complexions were more likely to be in an advanced state of undress.
They were also more likely to have a bared midriff, and only they are shown with bared feet or are implied to be totally nude.
The darkest-complexioned women in this group were also likely to be provocatively dressed, wearing a bra and underwear or similar article of clothing.
In contrast, women with the lightest complexion are more likely to be conservatively dressed and portrayed as friendly, happy and honest.
The researchers say the scale of the differences between male and female skin colour selected for their attractiveness is too big to be explained by pure biology.
"I contend the complexion findings should be understood as a product of deeply rooted and enduring cultural values," says Dr Baumann.
"My argument to explain the findings has two key features. First, it is based on the meanings that lightness and darkness have in our culture. Second, it highlights the links between moral and aesthetic judgments.
"Physical lightness and darkness are aesthetic characteristics that, perhaps better than any other aesthetic characteristic, exemplify the link between aesthetic and moral judgments.
"On average, fair complexions in women are the dominant aesthetic ideal because sexual modesty and conventional femininity are the dominant behavioural ideal for women.
"However, there also exists an appreciation for a darker complexion in women, though less common, and this less-common aesthetic preference appears to coexist with a view of such women as more overtly sexual. In other words, darker women are seen as more promiscuous."