Looks Matter More in a City

For women, looks may matter more if they live in the city than in rural areas, a new study finds.

The results, which are based on body shape rather than overall beauty, showed that in cities the most attractive gals had higher social and psychological well-being. That same link wasn't found for country residents.

The researchers suggest with higher population densities, cities offer more potential friends and sexual partners, allowing city folks to be choosier and so theoretically able to select the cream of the crop to associate with.

Though the study is based on women, the researchers suspect similar results would hold for men, with their physical appeal also impacting their personal lives more so in cities where a more "free market" of relationships exists.

What's going on

In rural areas, people don't tend to handpick their pals. "Rural areas have more embedded networks for relationships, more densely overlapping relationships where you see the same people and are friends with the same people across time," said study researcher Victoria Plaut, a cultural and social psychologist at the University of Georgia. "If there is more security, then attractiveness is less likely to matter for forming friendships."

Plaut and her colleagues analyzed survey data from women ages 26 to 75 within city and rural communities across the United States. The scientists used waist-to-hip ratios as a proxy for a woman's physical desirability, comparing that with personal assessments of well-being, such as life satisfaction, self-acceptance, feelings of control, and interaction with and support from friends.

"We don't know how [waist-to-hip ratio] represents 'overall' attractiveness, only that studies have found it to be related to judgments of female attractiveness," Plaut told LiveScience.

In fact, past research has shown that women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 — indicating a waist significantly narrower than the hips — are most desirable to men.

Overall, the women who lived in cities were just as happy as their rural counterparts. But the researchers found a stronger correlation between level of desirability and contentment with themselves and their social lives for urbanites than those living in the country. City dwellers who were aesthetically just a smidgen below average experienced less robust social ties as well as more diminished psychological well-beings.

Different social scenes

The data also pointed to differences in the structures of the social scenes. Urban residents tended to enjoy more frequent contact with individual friends while rural residents felt a greater sense of belonging within their larger community.

In addition to attractiveness, Plaut said other traits such as intelligence and personality might also cement more social connections.

"I think anything that is typically used to sort people as more desirable or less desirable relationship partners would be increased in settings like that, where relationships are constructed as a matter of choice," she said.

The findings suggest the importance of being attractive to your happiness is not universal, and that its significance is more a matter of culture than human nature. Still, Plaut cautions against people switching zip codes in the hopes of bolstering their emotional support network.

"If you're a city girl who moves to the country, you are also taking your social habits with you," she said. "You're not necessarily going to change your entire outlook on relationships."

The research is published in the December 2009 issue of the journal Personal Relationships.