I have to side with Matt Yglesias’s claim that Russian women have been beautiful for a long time and that it is not the recent advent of capitalism which elevated their looks. I’ve seen pictures of the younger Natasha, pre-capitalism, and she was beautiful back then too. I know many of her female friends, or have seen early photos of them, and almost all of them are (and were) beautiful. I visited Russia in the early 90s, just as capitalism was taking hold. There was plenty of beauty to go around, although admittedly people dress better now. Countries don’t develop networks of beautiful women overnight. Furthermore, once you get past the point of malnutrition, beauty is not related to per capita income in any simple way. I’ll take Cuba, Croatia, Senegal, and Brazil over Australia and Finland, or to cite a closer comparison Slovakia over Austria. One hypothesis is that inequality of male income and power encourages female beauty for competitive reasons. Admittedly much more research needs to be done on this question.
Addendum: Free Exchange weighs in.