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Stress Makes Men Appreciate Larger Women

A before-and-after of a fat and thing woman.
Body shape preference may be influenced in part by how stressed out you are. (Image credit: <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-18p1.html"> Jaimie Duplass</a>, <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/index-in.mhtml">Shutterstock</a>)

Men under stress find overweight and obese women to be more attractive than do guys in a relaxed state of mind, new research finds.

The findings complement previous studies that have shown when resources are scarce, people prefer heavier partners, presumably because fatness is a sign that the person has access to food and is healthy. In women, for example, being underweight can make it more difficult to get and stay pregnant.

According to one hypothesis, this pattern should hold when people are emotionally stressed, because a heavier, more mature body type is indicative of someone who can handle a rough patch. But few studies have investigated whether stressed people really do prefer heavier bodies.

To find out, psychologist Viren Swami of the University of Westminster in London and his colleague Martin Tovee of Newcastle University randomly assigned men to either a stressful situation that mimicked a job interview or a relaxing condition in which they waited quietly in a room. A total of 81 British white men took part in the experiment.

After the stressful faux interview or quiet waiting period, the men rated the attractiveness of photos of women who ranged in weight from emaciated to obese.

The results revealed that the stressed-out men rated heavier bodies more positively than did men who hadn't experienced stress. Stressed men also rated normal weight women as more attractive than did their relaxed counterparts.

"These results are consistent with previous experimental work indicating that the experience of stress leads participants to prefer more mature physical characteristics, but extends earlier studies in showing that the stress also impacts on body size judgments," the researchers wrote today (Aug. 8) in the journal PLoS ONE.

The findings suggest that context matters a lot in who we find attractive, the researchers added. The findings could help explain why beauty standards vary from culture to culture and even within cultures, they wrote.

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Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science. She covers the world of human and animal behavior, as well as paleontology and other science topics. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has ducked under a glacier in Switzerland and poked hot lava with a stick in Hawaii. Stephanie hails from East Tennessee, the global center for salamander diversity. Follow Stephanie on Google+.