Does the Internet Influence What We Find Attractive?
Internet access could affect perceptions of beauty and attractiveness.
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Having access to the Internet may affect what you find desirable in a partner, a new study suggests.

In the study, researchers visited El Salvador — a Central American country where 74 percent of the population lacks Web access — and found that, compared to people who had access to the Web, men with no Internet preferred fuller, more masculine facial features in women, and women favored more feminine facial characteristics in men.

The researchers questioned roughly 200 people ages 18 to 25 from two different towns in El Salvador — one with a high number of residents with Internet access, and one with a low number of residents with Internet access. Participants were asked which characteristics they found attractive in a face, focusing on masculinity and feminine features, and weight. The researchers used a combination of online surveys and in-person interviews in order to avoid the bias that might come with just using online surveys. (Past studies have relied on online questionnaires without taking into account that people who were able to take online surveys all came from a higher socioeconomic classes and, therefore, were not representative of a culture or population, said Carlota Batres, a psychology Ph.D. student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and one of the researchers on the study.) [Internet Quiz: Do You Know the Web?]

The researchers found that more people with no Internet access reported they preferred more feminine men, masculine women and women with "higher adiposity" — or fat — than those with no Internet access.

They also found that people with no Internet access reported having fewer resources like running water — a finding that lends support to the theory that poorer environments can influence facial preference.

This "digital divide" could have two explanations, Batres said. Exposure to mainstream media — which often promotes beauty ideals of slimmer women and macho men — could affect what residents perceive as conventionally beautiful, the researchers said. Moreover, people who have Internet access are exposed to advertisements and websites that accentuate more masculine men and women with slimmer faces, Batres said.

But another explanation, which the researchers consider more plausible, is that poor environments with fewer resources — like running water and the Internet — make a person see other characteristics as a priority and, therefore, more desirable, Batres said.

"It's such a different reality to what [people in developed countries] live in, and it might be the harshness of this environment driving what they want in a partner," Batres said.  

One example of this would be weight. "Heavier women are better able to reproduce and survive in famine areas, where food is not easily available," Batres said. "So it makes evolutionary sense for men in harsh circumstances to be more attracted to heavier women who are able to reproduce."

Batres hypothesized that women without Internet access preferred more feminine faces in men because more masculine men are more likely to cheat, less likely to get married and more likely to get divorced. "So there is this idea in harsh environments, that you might want a really nice guy who will stick around and take care of your children," Batres said.

"Regardless of which interpretation is correct, the implications for us are that what we find attractive is influenced by outside factors, be it the media or our environment," Batres told Live Science. "Our surroundings dictate what we find most attractive in a partner."

The study was published July 9 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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