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 is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.