A new study shows that the body type a man finds attractive may change with his environment and circumstances: When under stress, for example, men prefer heavier women.
For the study, men were placed in stressful situations, then told to rate the attractiveness of women of varying body sizes.
Under stress, they seemed to prefer larger women, compared with unstressed men whose tastes swayed toward thinner versions.
“This suggests that our body size preferences are not innate, but are flexible,” said study co-author Martin Tovée, Ph.D., of Newcastle University in the U.K., suggesting that preferences may be influenced by our particular environment and resources.
The findings seem to back up evolutionary theories that suggest when resources are limited or erratic, a woman’s thin frame could be a marker for illness, frailty and an inability to reproduce.
In fact, prior studies conducted by Tovée and colleague Viren Swami, Ph.D., of the University of Westminster in London found that men living in harsh conditions, such as extreme hunger, tend to rate heavier women as more attractive.
The researchers also suggest that biological mechanisms, such as blood sugar and hormone levels, play a vital role in how we perceive our environment.
“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 trigger a change in these preferences, Tovée said.
For the study, researchers recruited 81 heterosexual men, about half of whom underwent the Trier Social Stress Test. This included participating in an unplanned job interview in front of four interviewers.
The men were told to “sell” themselves for five minutes, and then calculate answers to simple math problems in a limited amount of time.
Then all the study participants viewed 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 to be considered attractive by the unstressed control group was 6.25 — normal on the BMI scale.
Overall, stressed men preferred a beefier woman, with their ideal figure being a 4.44, compared to 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 more positive ratings to a broader 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.
These results also shed light on how people can develop a warped body image of themselves, say the authors. “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,” Tovée said.
“The information from this article could be useful in therapy of anxiety and eating disorders,” said Dr. Igor Galynker, associate chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Beth Israel Medical Center.
“The information could be an alternative to thoughts such as, ‘I am fat; no man would find me attractive’.”
Source: PLoS ONE