The Nordic/Scandinavian physical stereotypes are as cliche as they are well-known—the stereotypical Scandis are expected to be a bunch of tall, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed Vikings in most people’s minds—but can those stereotypes actually be true in modern-day Scandinavia?
Stereotypical Scandinavian traits have since the early 20th century—according to Werner & Björks 2014 book Blond and blue-eyed—included straight, blonde hair; blue eyes; tall figure; straight nose; thin lips; and non-prominent cheekbones. Peter Frost also supports this in his European hair and eye color; showing at least 60% of people having light hair, and at least 50% with light eyes in the Scandinavian countries.
This does not mean that all Scandinavians look like this, but it does mean that this is the common view that most people to this day hold on what it means to “look Scandinavian”, including in the Scandinavian countries.
The reality is that Scandinavians have indeed been generally more blond and blue-eyed than the rest of the world for a long time, from the Vikings—who were “blond in their majority” according to Ashot Margaryan, a lecturer at the University of Copenhagen—to present-day Scandinavians of whom more than 50% have light hair according to a 1999 study by Lock-Andersen.
So the Nordic stereotype seems to hold true, but where did these traits come from, and why are they still here?
A History of Scandinavian Looks
So where do these physical traits come from and why do they still seem to have a strong presence in the Nordics? Let’s take a look at what we know about the first Scandinavians.
The First Scandinavians Where Dark-skinned and Blue-eyed
The First Scandinavians
the first inhabitants of the Scandinavian peninsula came from the south with darker skin and blue eyes (known as Western Hunter-Gatherers), later joined by migrants from the east (known as Eastern Hunter-Gatherers) who had lighter skin but darker eyes.
During the following centuries, these two hunter-gatherer groups intermingled and produced one of the most diverse populations of the stone age, with a population at the time of about 10 000 to 20 000 in all of Scandinavia.
The Scandinavian Hunter-Gatherers lived in the region between 8000 BCE and 2800 BCE, and have been found to have had mixed eye colors (ranging from blue to light-brown), mostly dark hair (with the odd blondes present), and intermediate skin color (somewhere in between dark and light) with the odd light-skinned individual also present.
The Black Sea Steppe Herders
Another wave of migrants came into Scandinavia around 4800 years ago from the Russian steppes, originating from the northern shores of the Black sea and commonly called the Western Steppe Herders. This wave of primarily herders eventually fused with the current habitants (I see a pattern here…) to produce the so-called Battle Axe culture group in Scandinavia, establishing themselves and flourishing in modern-day Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
In summary, it seems Scandinavians from before the Viking age looked a bit different from today’s Scandis.
How do the modern-day Scandinavians compare to their ancestors?
Today’s Scandinavians are about 65%-80% “Scandinavian” as far as DNA goes, with the rest of the DNA being primarily Finnish, Western European, British, Eastern European, and Irish (all are > 1%). Digging a little further back in history, DNA studies have also shown that around 40% of modern Swedish men have their roots in bronze age migrations from the Russian steppes, with another 40% with roots from bronze age migrations from northern German, leaving around 20% with ancestors from before the bronze age migrations.
Still, genealogists from Stockholm university believe modern Swedes are most closely related to the hunter-gatherers from the so-called Pitted Ware culture when it comes to physical appearance. DNA analysis from specimens from this period has shown people with dark hair, a mix of light and dark skin, and most likely blue eyes—which sounds like a lot of modern-day Scandinavians I know.
So what do the rest of the Nordics look like?
In the rest of the Nordics (namely Iceland, Finland, and the Faroe Islands) the people tend to look very similar to the Scandinavians, with especially Finland having a very large majority of their population being light-haired (blonde, light-brown, red) and light-eyed (Blue, Green, Grey) according to Peter Frosts data and illustrations from 2006.
Nordic and Scandinavian Physical Traits Today
All of our knowledge about pre-viking Scandinavians comes from DNA-analysis and theories, but for an idea on how modern-day Scandinavians look like we can turn to some cold hard data and settle some standard questions right off the bat.
Are Scandinavians tall?
Simple answer: Yes, the average height is both individually and regionally high in Scandinavia.
According to a 2020 study published in The Lancet, Danes are the 4th tallest people in the world, followed by the Icelandic in 6th, the Swedes in 12th, Norwegians in 13th, and finally the Finns as 17th tallest people in the world.
Let’s take a more detailed look at how the Nordic people—both male and female—stack up against each other and the world when it comes to height:
|Country||Female avg. height||Male avg. height||Global rank|
|Denmark||169 cm / 5 ft 6 in||182 cm / 5 ft 11½ in||4th|
|Iceland||168 cm / 5 ft 6⅛ in||181 cm / 5 ft 11¼ in||6th|
|Sweden||167 cm / 5 ft 5¾ in||180 cm / 5 ft 10⅞ in||12th|
|Norway||166 cm / 5 ft 5⅜ in||180 cm / 5 ft 10⅞ in||13th|
|Finland||166 cm / 5 ft 5⅜ in||180 cm / 5 ft 10⅞in||17th|
So yes, Nordics and therefore Scandinavians are quite tall as all the Nordic countries all rank in the top 17 globally for average height, and all with a male average height over 180 cm.
The Danish are the tallest people in the Nordics, with the average male Dane reaching 182 cm / 5’12”, followed by the Icelandic men at 181 cm, and finally the Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns at 180 cm.
To sum it up, the average Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Finns, and Icelanders are all very tall compared to the rest of the world.
Let’s also look at how Nordic people as a whole compare to people from other regions of the world in height:
|Rank||Region||Female weighted avg. height||Male weighted avg. height|
|1st||Baltics||167.54 cm / 5 ft 5¾ in||180.44 cm / 5 ft 10⅞ in|
|2nd||Nordics||167.03 cm / 5 ft 5¾ in||180.44 cm / 5 ft 10⅞ in|
|3rd||Central Europe||165.72 cm / 5 ft 4⅞ in||179.70 cm / 5 ft 10½ in|
|4th||Benelux + France||165.10 cm / 5 ft 4⅞ in||179.21 cm / 5 ft 10½ in|
|5th||British Isles||164.00 cm / 5 ft 4½ in||178.07 cm / 5 ft 10⅛ in|
|6th||Southeastern Europe||164.88 cm / 5 ft 4½ in||177.57 cm / 5 ft 9¾ in|
|7th||US + Canada||163.21 cm / 5 ft 4¼ in||177.10 cm / 5 ft 9¾ in|
|8th||Southern Europe||162.88 cm / 5 ft 3¾ in||176.58 cm / 5 ft 9¼ in|
|9th||Southwestern Europe||162.64 cm / 5 ft 3¾ in||176.57 cm / 5 ft 9¼ in|
After adding up the individual country data and calculating a weighted average for each region (i.e. an average adjusted for the population of each country within the region), we can see that the Nordic and Baltic men are the tallest in the world, but as the Baltic ladies are slightly taller (0.5 cm / 0.2 in) than their Nordic sisters, the Baltics narrowly takes the prize as tallest region in the World in front of the Nordics.
It should also be added that the countries around the Dinaric Alps in Western Balkans would place in the top if S.E. Europe had been split up into smaller sub-regions, as these countries are among the tallest in the world.
How are Scandinavians (Swedes, Danes, Norwegians) so tall?
Scandinavians and other Europeans are tall on average primarily due to a vastly improved diet from the mid-1800s and onwards according to Lars Werdelin, a professor in paleozoology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.
It should be noted that human length, in general, is determined by a mixture of nature (genes) and nurture (diet), and there are also regions of the world that are believed to have a taller or shorter average height due to primarily genetic reasons—such as the short Pygmee people of central Africa, and the tall Dinka people of South Sudan.
Are Scandinavians and Nordics especially strong?
The average Scandinavian isn’t necessarily stronger than any other given person in the world, but there has been a very high amount of “World’s Strongest Man” contestants and winners from the Nordic and Scandinavian countries, with Nordic men landing in the top 3 a whopping 30 out of the 44 years the competition has taken place (that’s a 68% chance of at least one Nordic in the top 3).
Notable Nordic winners of the strongman competition include Iceland’s Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (of Game of Thrones fame as Ser Gregor Clegan/The Mountain) and Sweden’s Magnus Samuelsson (who features in the series The Last Kingdom as the viking Clapa).
How do Nordic people get so strong?
Outside the extreme muscle competitions, the fact that Nordics—and Scandinavians specifically—are among the tallest people in the world would suggest that there might be some additional muscle mass that comes with the extra height.
This—coupled with the opportunity to spend time on athletic endeavors and have access to a protein-rich and generally plentyfull diet—can explain why some Nordic people tend to generally do well in muscle competitions.
It should be added that those athletes are extreme outliers, and not at all representative of the general Nordic population.
Scandinavian and Nordic Eyes
As we’ve established most Nordic people today have brightly colored eyes, so let’s look at which other eye characteristics are unique or interesting in the Scandinavian region.
Are Epicanthic folds common in Scandinavia?
It is not common with Epicanthic folds, but Swedes with Sami heritage (such as Jens Byggmark, Anja Pärson and Ingemar Stenmark) have higher rates of Epicanthic eye folds.
Scandinavians as a whole are part of a group of ethnicities (along with Finns, English, Irish, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Polish, Hungarians, and Russians) where Epicanthic fold is occurring more than in other European populations, but still at a much lower frequency than for example Asian ethnicities.
Do Scandinavians have hooded eyes?
Yes, hooded eyes are prevalent in the Scandinavian population and furthermore, studies have shown that about 18 percent of northern Europeans have so-called “sagging eyelids” (which is related to hooded eyes but more specifically excess skin over your eye that may or may not disrupt your vision).
Surgeons in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark all offer surgery to counteract this condition in case it disrupts your eyesight, or as an elective procedure for cosmetic reasons.
What is Scandinavian Hair Like?
It is estimated that at least 50% of Scandinavians have a light hair color, with some regions in Sweden, Finland and Norway reaching 80%. This means Scandinavian hair mostly fall into these categories:
So Scandinavian hair color is mostly light in character, but how is the hair like other than that?
According to a Popular Science Monthly study, most Scandinavians have wavy hair, with some parts of northern Scandinavia having more coarse/straight hair.
Furthermore, it has been observed that northern Europeans in general also have a much higher frequency of a specific genetic trait that is linked to straight hair.
Do Scandinavians have curly hair?
Scandinavians do have curly hair, but as we’ve established most of them have wavy or straight hair.
The amount of curly-haired people in the Nordics is furthermore a much lower part of the population compared to the rest of Europe, according to genetic research by Medland et al. published in The American Journal Of Human Genetics.
So you will not meet as many curly-haired Scandinavians, as you would southern Europeans or Americans for example.
Do Scandinavians have thin hair?
Scandinavians do not have a very high prevalence of the EDAR gene, thought to be connected with multiple traits, among them hair thickness.
This does mean that Scandinavians (along with most Europeans) generally have thinner hair than for example East Asians and Native Americans, which has a high prevalence of the EDAR gene.
Do Scandinavians have red hair?
Yes, according to studies mapping out the so-called “red hair genes”, in Scandinavia between 1-10% of the population has red hair, depending on where you are in Scandinavia.
Western Norway has almost as many red heads as the British isles (who win the red hair race by a mile), whereas northern Sweden barely has any.
Do Scandinavians have natural white or platinum blonde hair?
Platinum blonde or near-white hair occurs naturally among the population in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland, primarily among children (as hair tends to darken with age).
Do Scandinavians have a lot of body hair?
Yes, Scandinavians are among the groups of people with the highest percentage of their male population with androgenic hair (or body hair as it can also be called), with over 70% of male Scandinavians having some form of body hair.
If we’re talking below the neck, this body hair is generally concentrated on the arms and legs in the Nordics, as opposed to the Mediterranean region where it’s concentrated on the chest and back instead.
Do Scandinavians have a lot of facial hair?
The short answer is that studies show that most Scandinavian men are generally able to grow a full beard if they choose to do so, which of course not everyone does.
To elaborate on this, facial hair is included in the term androgenic hair, so based on data from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, we can assume that over 70% of Nordic men (along with Mediterranean men) can grow a beard or mustache (which is well above the global average).
Furthermore, according to a 2016 study published in Wiley, people of European origin generally have a facial hair growth pattern concentrated around the upper lip, cheek, neck, and chin, so it can be assumed that Scandinavians also are able to generally grow what’s considered a full and thick beard.
Do Scandinavians have freckles?
Yes, since freckles are thought to be connected to the same genes as red hair, we can assume that between 1-10% of the Scandinavian population—again depending on where in Scandinavia you are—has freckles, and is therefore also more sensitive to UV light.
The prevalence of this gene on the Norwegian west coast is thought to be linked to slaves from Ireland and Scotland being brought to Scandinavia. Depending on which combination of the genes you have, you will develop either red hair and freckles, only red hair, or only freckles.
Why do Scandinavians tan well?
There are a few theories on why people from Scandinavia, and the Nordics in general, may be light-skinned under low UV conditions (i.e. Nordic fall/winter), but also get a darker tan under high UV conditions (i.e. Nordic spring/summer):
- Scandinavia before the bronze age had the most genetically diverse population in Europe, with the original darker skinned people being present much longer in Scandinavia compared to the rest of Europe (where the light-skinned farmers pushed away the dark-skinned hunters almost entirely). The theory is that this has had a long-term effect on the genetical makeup that determines skin color and tanning ability in the Scandinavian region.
- The further north you live, the less sunlight you get during the colder part of the year. However, people living close to the arctic circle are also exposed to extremely high UV exposure levels during the warmer half of the year (on par with Australia which is notorious for high levels of skin cancer) due to the ozone layer being thinner around the poles. In order to survive the UV-bombardment during summers as well as the lack of sunlight in the winters, the skin of Scandinavians have needed to be adaptable.
- Throughout Scandinavian history the people in the region have had a diet very high in Vitamin D due to a high amount of fish present in the diet. So the theory is that on top of any Vitamin D you’d get from the sun, Scandinavians have also stocked up on it via their fish intake. High levels of Vitamin D produces more melanin, which in simple terms enables skin to tan instead of burn.
Are Scandinavians dark-skinned?
First off, there are some dark-skinned people in Scandinavia, but they are generally not of Scandinavian heritage.
Second, as we mentioned already Scandinavian ancestors are thought to have been dark-skinned, but after mixing with other populations and adapting to the geographical area this trait eventually disappeared.
Third, as we mentioned in the previous section, Scandinavians do tend to tan and get olive-skinned in the summer.
Scandinavian facial features
Do Scandinavians have big noses?
Not really. In fact, northern Europeans tend to have more narrow noses than people in warmer climates, such as Africa for example, but differences in size is generally seen as bigger between men and women than between different ethnicities in the end.
Are Scandinavians seen as attractive?
Whether the Scandinavian beauty myth is real or not is hard to say, but Nordic magazine The Local listed “Beautiful Women” and “Handsome Men” among the top 10 things expats notice after they’ve lived in Sweden for a while, so there is at least something to the myth from a North American perspective (beauty standards differ around the world, after all).
Scientifically speaking, there are a couple of factors that could play in the Scandinavian’s favor as far as sexual selection goes:
- Height: As mentioned, Scandinavians and Nordics are on average fairly tall, which is a trait that makes you stand out, quite literally. A study following 100 000 dutch men (Proceedings of the Royal Society B 2015) found that the taller men on average fathered more children than the shorter men, and although it was only a difference of 0.24 children per man, it seems to at least be a factor at play in sexual selection.
- Athleticism: Swedes seem to exercise more than the average person both as children (International Journal of Pediatrics 2020) and as adults (The Local 2014) according to studies and surveys mapping physical activity, something that invetiably leads to higher levels of athleticism, which in turn is seen as a favorable sexual trait in most cultures.
- Eye Color: There seems to be a correlation between how rare an eye color is and how attractive it’s deemed to be, and since at least 50% of Scandinavians (and up to 80% in certain areas) have light eyes (which are among the rarest), one could assume these bright eyes could help out a little as far as perceived attractiveness goes simply because they are rare.
- Hair Color: It’s boring and overdone, but the “Sexy Blonde” cliche does unfortunately seem to have some legs to stand on, partly due to a heavy media bias toward portraying blondes as attractive, but also due to blonde hair being less common, and thus deemed more attractive as per the previous point.
How Nordics and Scandinavians see each other
It looks like the people of the Nordics really like the Swedes and Norwegians. A survey by Hotels.com and Match.com asked 5000 Nordic singles in 2014 which Nordic country has the most attractive people, and here are the results:
Singles in Norway, Denmark, and Finland all voted for Swedes as the most attractive (you could not vote for your own country), while the Swedes overwhelmingly seem to prefer Norwegian women and men. The dating site isn’t active in Iceland so the Icelanders was not part of the survey.
However, a survey done by the Swedish Institute in November 2020 do point towards the Swedish image being affected negatively during the 2020-2021 pandemic.
Although the rest of the Nordics generally view Sweden in a positive light still, there has been a slight shift towards more people having a more negative image of Sweden lately.
Do Scandinavians have Neanderthal DNA?
All living humans who descended from Africa have about 2% Neanderthal DNA, and this includes Scandinavians. The two species met and started having reproductive relationships in modern-day Israel some 60 000 years ago, before ultimately clashing and resulting in the demise of the Neanderthals.
When it all comes down to it the classic Nordic/Scandinavian stereotype seems to hold true still. Most people from the Nordics have light eyes and hair, and are quite tall compared to other nationalities.
Whether these traits stem from a diverse pre-bronze age population, geographical conditions, or the modern diet of the region as a whole is hard to say, but they all likely played some part at least.