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Stressed Men Like Bigger Butts

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Weight is a big issue in America. More than half of Americans are unhappy with their weight, spending 33 billion on dieting and weight loss programs and products every year. This obsession starts younger than we’d like to admit, as 80 percent of 10 year old girls will say they are on a diet. But whether you count the millions dissatisfied with their looks, the percentage trying to lose weight, or the billions wasted on pills and fad diets, the message is the same: being the ideal weight matters, and it matters a lot.

But what is the ideal weight? Doctors say somewhere between a BMI of 20 to 25. Looking at runway models, you’d think it was just this side of starving, as the stick figures that grace our catwalks have an average BMI of only 16. Ask the average man and… well, actually, that will depend on a number of things, including his mood.

A number of factors affect what weight a guy prefers a woman to be, and evolution is to blame. For a long time, scientists have believed that attractiveness is really just our way of interpreting how good a person will be as a mate, starting with genes. “Good-genes theory posits that human judgments of physical attractiveness, particularly in mating contexts, have evolved to respond in part to heritable cues associated with health,” explains Jason Weeden and John Sabini in their scientific review of the topic. As the theory goes, the better someone’s genetic makeup, the more symmetrical and ideal their body becomes.

But being a good potential mate isn’t just dictated by our DNA. Current health status, ability to provide for young, and other variable factors also play a role in how fit a person is as a potential husband or wife. A woman can have all the good genes in the world, for example, but if she’s starving, she won’t have the fat reserves to feed a child, let alone survive pregnancy. So, it makes sense that in times of hardship, men would prefer women better equipped to handle times of scarcity – and by better equipped, I mean with fat reserves.

“A primary function of adipose tissue is the storage of calories, which in turn suggests that body fat is a reliable predictor of food availability,” explain co-authors Viren Swami and Martin J. Tovée in their PLoS ONE paper released today. “In situations marked by resource uncertainty, therefore, individuals should come to idealise heavier individuals.”

But do times of hardship actually shift body size preferences? Science to date has supported this hypothesis, as hungrier and poorer men prefer larger women. But what Swami and Tovée wanted to know was whether the stress had to be related to food scarcity. What about other kinds of stress? Does stress in general shift preferences, or only hardship?

So, the team took college men and had half of them perform a stressful task unrelated to food or money which raised their cortisol levels. They then asked the stressed and unstressed men to take a look at some images of women, and rate their attractiveness. The images varied in body size, from underweight to obese. Finally, they recorded the participants own weight, height, and hunger status, as controlling variables.

The results were clear. The stressed out guys preferred a larger body size than their relaxed counterparts – but that was not all. “Men experiencing stress not only perceive a heavier female body size as maximally attractive, but also more positively perceive heavier female body sizes and have a wider range of body sizes considered physically attractive,” explain the authors.

The wider range of preference was notably one-sided. “This difference was driven by the shift in the experimental group’s upper limit of attractive female bodies,” the authors write. “While there was no significant difference in the lower end of the range, the experimental group appear to have shifted the maximum cut-off for attractive bodies at higher BMIs, which resulted in their wider attractiveness range.”

Why did the stressed-out guys prefer weightier women? Because, evolutionarily, more weight means better able to survive in tough times. “In contexts marked by prolonged stress as a result of resource deprivation, individuals may idealise larger body sizes because such body types are associated with better ability to handle environmental threat.” These results are consistent with cross-cultural studies on attractiveness, which found that ideal body size varies by socioeconomic status and resource scarcity. In other words, our evolutionary past has affected why different cultures throughout the world have very different ideals when it comes to beauty.

Nowadays, of course, the connection between body weight and ability to survive is uncoupled. Unlike our ancestors, Americans generally don’t worry about having the fat reserves to chase down their next meal. Modern medical technologies and an abundance of high calorie foods have made surviving and reproducing much easier. But, this evolutionary leftover does raise some interesting questions about modern life, too. What are the full implications of an economic depression, for example? I wonder if cutting taxes affects what size girls end up with modeling contracts, or if the association goes both ways, and girls on a diet become less picky. More research will have to determine if stressed women prefer larger men, too, or how chronic stress instead of acute stress affects attractiveness ratings.

 
Citation: Swami V, Tovée MJ (2012) The Impact of Psychological Stress on Men’s Judgements of Female Body Size. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42593. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042593.t001

Tape measure image c/o Fybrid Stock Photos

Christie Wilcox About the Author: Christie Wilcox is a science writer and blogger who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. Follow on Google+. Follow on Twitter @NerdyChristie.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Tomsing 7:28 pm 08/8/2012

    Christie, the first link has a stray quote mark at the end that breaks it.

    [CW: oops! Fixed :) ]

    Link to this
  2. 2. zstansfi 11:43 am 08/9/2012

    “A number of factors affect what weight a guy prefers a woman to be, and evolution is to blame. ”

    “So, it makes sense that in times of hardship, men would prefer women better equipped to handle times of scarcity”

    Alright, so great. These claims make sense in light of evolutionary theory. They may or may not be fully correct, but the general gist of each seems to fit with what we understand about how evolution might function.

    However, do these claims logically imply anything about how individuals in our current society view beauty in response to stress?

    Some evolutionary psychologists would claim yes. And this is why much of evolutionary psychology (but not all) is ascientific. The critical problem here is that some researchers in this field will conduct the following study: first take simple, general predictions which could be derived from evolutionary theory and then apply them to simple experimental findings from the current day without attempting to prove a relationship between the two. In the above example, these experimental findings neither demonstrate conclusively that acute stress in a modern environment alters how men perceive beauty (they are, after all, only conducted in a highly artificial lab environment), nor that these forms of stress are in any way related to how humans evolved to cope with scarce resources.

    In fact, this particular study is even more dumbfounding, as if these authors had desired to conduct a legitimate study on this topic they would have looked at chronic (not acute) stress, which is much more consistent with scarcity. Moreover, they look at temporary measures of attractiveness ratings. Is there any legitimate evolutionary rationale by which simply being hungry would be expected to temporarily increase the attractiveness of fatter women? This seems like a huge stretch.

    And yet, as reported here, the conclusion is…

    “Why did the stressed-out guys prefer weightier women? Because, evolutionarily, more weight means better able to survive in tough times.”

    I’ll admit, it’s a sexy conclusion–however it is based upon multiple levels of logical inference which lack any empirical support.

    Link to this
  3. 3. iwikler 3:38 pm 08/9/2012

    re: “Why did the stressed-out guys prefer weightier women? Because, evolutionarily, more weight means better able to survive in tough times.”
    That conclusion is only valid if the stressed-out male intends to eat the weightier female.

    Link to this
  4. 4. kurosawa 2:12 am 08/10/2012

    You wrote: ‘The results were clear. The stressed out guys preferred a larger body size than their relaxed counterparts – but that was not all. “Men experiencing stress not on
    ly perceive a heavier female body size as maximally attractive, but also more positively perceive heavier female body sizes and have a wider range of body sizes considered physically attractive,” explain the authors.’

    Then: “Why did the stressed-out guys prefer weightier women? Because, evolutionarily, more weight means better able to survive in tough times.”

    Say rather that the stressed men found a wider range of body sizes attractive. They spread out on either side of their normal ideal. It’s not as if they preferred, say, the ones in the crack between ecto and meso, then suddenly leapt across all mesos to the endo.

    We know the dominant male golden lion tamarind in the group has very high cortisol levels (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15978593). The body demands antioxidants under stress, and the chemically cheapest antioxidant the body can crank out on demand is “bad” cholesterol, which goes to pregnenolone, which goes to the mineralocorticoids and glucocorticoids including cortisol.

    Pregnenolone also goes to dehydroepiandrosterone, which goes to testosterone before going to the estrogens. And what does the dominant male tamarind do with his heartier helping of testosterone among the females of the pride?

    So which is the more straightforward surmise? That more food storage on the female body equates to her enhanced survival thus necessarily attracting the man when he’s stressed? There appears to be a discontinuity there.

    Or is simply it that higher testosterone levels motivate a male to disseminate his genome as widely as possible, which necessarily demands he find attractive a group of females with a broader range of physical attributes?

    Link to this
  5. 5. SavingGood 5:42 am 08/10/2012

    I didn’t read the article. So here’s the picture. ~ I believe it. Cause I’ve been in a good mood and some of those slim Olympic asses were looking good. Normally Petra Verkaik is my cello shaped T&A sex idol.

    But lately Pussy Riot has been looking really really good. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/aug/8/madonna-shows-support-jailed-pussy-riot-band/

    So this is the song Modanna sang in honor of Pussy Riot. http://youtu.be/GS6FCoq349o And to be let’s be real… It’s a crime that doing 2012 Olympic edition in the red tights of Aliya Mustafina is a crime. Yeah most of the pictures of her are a turn off. But her this year in the red… You’ve have to see her in action to understand how they censored the truth. http://d1.yimg.com/sr/img/1/9ce52ad6-5cd3-3aac-9412-76665faedac7 She is 17. And worked it Hella well. That’s no virgin. That’s a gold medal woman. And the only one, besides Alexandra, the American, whom I actually enjoyed watching. http://sports.yahoo.com/olympics/gymnastics/alexandra-raisman-1134192/ ~ Everyone else looks like kids. Thank God for woman’s beach volley ball. Brazil had the best ass overall.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Tomsing 9:46 am 08/10/2012

    Kurosawa, I think you missed this paragraph:

    The wider range of preference was notably one-sided. “This difference was driven by the shift in the experimental group’s upper limit of attractive female bodies,” the authors write. “While there was no significant difference in the lower end of the range, the experimental group appear to have shifted the maximum cut-off for attractive bodies at higher BMIs, which resulted in their wider attractiveness range.”

    Link to this
  7. 7. just sayin 9:57 am 08/10/2012

    “Men experiencing stress not only perceive a heavier female body size as maximally attractive, but also more positively perceive heavier female body sizes and have a wider range of body sizes considered physically attractive,”

    Perhaps the guys just want to get laid because they are stressed and inherently understand that (A) heavier women are usually easier pickings and (B) allowing yourself a wider variety of body types as sexual partners increases your likelihood of having intercourse.

    Link to this
  8. 8. kurosawa 2:36 am 08/15/2012

    Tomsing: In terms of practical applicability (number of available photos, probably), I’d guess desire was already maxed out on the ecto end of the scale, though not necessarily on the theoretical end. Regarding the article’s explanation of the WHY of it all, let’s go with Ockham, OK?

    Link to this
  9. 9. Tomsing 1:11 pm 08/15/2012

    kurosawa, I’m afraid I don’t follow. You said, “They spread out on either side of their normal ideal.” The cited data contradicts that – the skinny end of their range remains unchanged, so there’s no spreading on the skinny side of their normal ideal due to stress. This isn’t a discussion of WHY, it’s a discussion of WHAT.

    Link to this

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