Monday, August 13, 2012

Alexandra Sifferlin - WHY Stressed-Out Men Prefer Heavier Women

The other day I posted a research summary showing that stressed-out men prefer larger women. I speculated about skinny women being less likely survive is things are tough, with stress being an indicator that things are tough.

So now Alexandra Sifferlin at Time Magazine tells us just exactly WHY men who under stress prefer heavier women (I was pretty close to what one might suspect the evolutionary psychology people would propose).

 Jane Russell (1950s)

A little more context for this study. Until the 1960s or so, skinny women were not considered attractive. Women with curves and a little "meat on their bones" were the ideal of beauty, like Jane Russell in the image above, or Rita Hayworth (below).

Rita Hayworth (1940s)

Going back to before the 20th century, being skinny signified poverty, whereas being heavier was a sign of wealth and prosperity. Likewise, being pale showed that one did not need to go outside to work, whereas having a tan meant one was so poor that s/he had to work in the sun.

When we look back at the history of Western art, especially at the portraits that so many artists did to earn a living, the patrons who paid for those portraits were all plump by our standards. The models who posed nude for painters were generally much thinner than the patrons (compare the women in the Renoir painting below to the obviously affluent woman in the Rembrandt). Again, having some heft was associated with wealth (and power).

Rembrandt - Young Woman with a Fan (1632)

Renoir - The Bathers (1887)

The point is that our fascination with skinny women is recent - and very short-lived within the history of human desire. It's not likely that this is yet a "real" preference - give it another few decades and we'll see if it persists.

We (men) have preferred shapely women for a few millennia, now. Given that is likely still a psychological default mode, under stress we will tend to fall back into our default modes of behavior and beliefs (a kind of regression). Preferring larger women when stressed might simply be indicative that this is what we prefer in general, and it's only a socially constructed preference that we experience for skinny women.

Why Stressed-Out Men Prefer Heavier Women

Most men prefer leggy and lean women, Gisele Bündchen lookalikes, right? Not necessarily. In fact, the body type that a man finds attractive can change depending on his environment and circumstances, a new study finds: when under stress, for instance, men prefer heavier women.

The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, reports that when men were placed in stressful situations, then asked to rate the attractiveness of women of varying body sizes, they tended to prefer beefier frames, compared with unstressed men whose tastes skewed thinner.

“This suggests that our body size preferences are not innate, but are flexible,” said study co-author Martin Tovée of Newcastle University in the U.K., in an email, noting that they may be influenced by our particular environment and resources.

The findings fall in line with evolutionary theories that suggest when resources are scarce or unpredictable, a woman’s thin physique may signal illness, frailty and the inability to reproduce. Indeed, Tovée and colleague Viren Swami of the University of Westminster in London have previously found that men under trying conditions — like extreme hunger — tend to rate heavier women as more attractive. The researchers suggest also that underlying biological mechanisms, such as blood sugar and hormone levels, are major players in how we perceive our surroundings.

“Our work in parts of Malaysia and Africa has shown that in poorer environments where resources are scarce, people prefer a heavy body in a potential partner,” said Tovée. “If you live in an environment where food is scarce, being heavier means you have fat stored up as a buffer against a potential food reduction in the future, and that you must be higher social status to afford the food in the first place. Both of these are attractive qualities in a partner in those circumstances.”

Moving from a low-resource environment to a richer one, like the U.K. or the U.S., can cause a shift in these preferences, says Tovée, and to test the theory further, the researchers recruited some male volunteers and manipulated their stress levels — a key problem for people living in poor environments.

The study examined 81 heterosexual men, about half of whom underwent the Trier Social Stress Test. In the test, the men participated in an impromptu job interview in front of four interviewers. They were asked them to “sell” themselves for five minutes, and then calculate answers to simple math problems under time pressure.

Afterward, all the study participants were shown images of 10 women with body types ranging from emaciated to obese and were asked to rank them based on their attractiveness.

The images were numbered on a scale of 1 to 10 based on the women’s body mass index (BMI), with 1 representing very thin and 10 obese. The largest body size rated attractive by the stressed-out men was 7.17, which fell in the overweight category. The largest body type deemed attractive by the unstressed control group was 6.25, which was considered normal on the BMI scale.

Overall, stressed men preferred a bigger body — their “ideal” figure was a 4.44 — than the unstressed men, who idealized a thinner body type, at 3.90. Stressed-out men not only rated heavier women as more attractive, but they also gave higher ratings to a wider range of body types overall.

“This shift suggests that stress alters what you find attractive in a potential partner, and it is another factor helping you to optimize the fit of your partner preferences to your environment,” said Tovée.

Understanding how body preferences may change or be influenced by circumstance also sheds light on the development of warped body image, the authors say. “People suffering from conditions such as anorexia nervosa have a distorted perception of body size and body ideals, and it’s important that research focus on the mechanisms underlying and influencing the perception of body size,” says Tovée.

Despite our media’s seeming reverence for size-zero models and ripped muscle men, it may help people suffering from eating disorders and other body-image problems to know that such body “ideals” are not exactly ideal after all. “The information from this article could be useful in therapy of anxiety and eating disorders,” Dr. Igor Galynker, associate chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Beth Israel Medical Center, told ABC News. “The information could be an alternative to thoughts such as, ‘I am fat; no man would find me attractive.’”

1 comment:

Barbara said...

It makes sense that men may prefer heavier women, stressed or otherwise. Physiologically, women actually require a certain percentage of body fat in order to remain fertile. What I also find particularly odd in our culture nowadays, is that with so much wealth/food/progress, in the West at least; we go out of our way to celebrate less, in women, and in many other ways, e.g. interiors. Everything has to be skinny or minimal in some way. Why does society seem to be celebrating hunger or lack? Less stuff, more girl :)