Olympic Size Sex: Stressed Male Brits Prefer Beefy Birds

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A recent psychological sex selection study reveals that in spite of current societal views on what constitutes attractiveness in females, a biological response to stress in men can change their perception of what is sexy. In this study, scientists show that stressed men have a statistically significant sexual preference for women who are on the heavy side over the current societal standard of women who are lean.

In a study titled “The Impact of Psychological Stress on Men's Judgements of Female Body Size” published in the online journal PLoS ONE, researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Westminster and the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, recently report that being fat can have its advantages when it comes to attracting males.

The researchers explain that their study is based on a hypothesis called the “Environmental Security Hypothesis” where during times of socioeconomic hardship or other individual conditions that are personally threatening or uncertain, that individuals will prefer others of the opposite sex with more mature physical characteristics—i.e. body fat.

The reasoning supporting this hypotheses is that physical maturity associated with size is an indicator that a larger person has an increased ability to handle threatening situations because their girth symbolizes for many a physical maturity that communicates an impression of strength, control and independence—qualities that are desirable in a mate when times are tough.

Digging a little deeper into evolutionary biology, the function of adipose tissue as the long-term storage of calories may suggest that body fat is a reliable predictor of food availability, which in turn is associated with access to resources for survival. The authors explain that this idealizes fatness with health and vigor as opposed to thinness which may be perceived as evidence of ill-health and reduced ability to bear young.

Previous research has supported the aforementioned hypothesis by showing a strong inverse relationship between ideal body and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, other studies have shown that when hungry, men prefer heavier women over lean women.

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Because psychological stress may influence a man’s idea or perception of female attractiveness, the authors of the paper wanted to investigate the impact of stress on men's judgments of female body size. To test this, they recruited 81 heterosexual, White, British male undergraduates ranging in age from 18 to 42 who were assigned to either a stressed test group (41 participants) or a non-stressed control group (40 participants).

The stress test group participants were subjected to a proven social stress test where a participant is given the role of a job applicant meeting with a company selection committee. The participant has to introduce himself to the committee and state his case in an attempt to convince the committee members why he is suitable for the interviewed job, as well as perform some mental mathematical calculations before the committee.

After the stress test was completed, the participants were then given a photographic rating scale task in which they viewed and rated a series of images of women ranging in size from emaciated to obese. The images were ranked by the participants in overall attractiveness and then were asked to select their personal choice of the most attractive “leanest” woman and their personal choice of the most attractive “heaviest” woman.

What the data revealed was that the test stress group males rated a significantly heavier female body size as maximally more attractive than the control group did. Men in the stress group also rated heavier female bodies as more attractive and idealized a wider range of female figures than did the control group.

The authors of the study concluded that stress is associated with men having a preference for women with heavier physiques and that their “…results provide the first experimental evidence that the experience of psychological stress shapes men's judgments of female body size. 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.”

Image Source: Courtesy of Morgue File

Reference: “The Impact of Psychological Stress on Men's Judgements of Female Body Size” PLoS ONE 7(8): e42593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042593 (Aug. 2012); Viren Swami and Martin J. Tovée.

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