It is too soon to know the toll the last few years of economic turmoil has taken on the American psyche. But with people remaining unemployed for unprecedented amounts of time, as the most recent job report announced, and more than a million households lost, we know it can't be good.
Fortunately, researchers have already studied previous periods of hardship in American history. We decided to get in touch and see what their findings predict for us today.
The good news is we may be able to put on a few pounds.
Two studies, one using American movie actresses, the other Playboy Playmates of the Year, found that in uncertain times, such as when the economy is stuttering along, beauty icons tend to be slightly more "mature" looking women — taller, heavier and sporting larger waists and less babyish facial features.
Contradicting conventional (beauty) wisdom
The results complement a growing body of research suggesting our initial attraction to certain mates may follow a subtle logic, as a person's figure type or facial features can signal certain personality traits. For instance, wider-faced men are less trustworthy and more aggressive, studies show. And curvaceous figures plus pouty lips can indicate fertility in women — guys dig that subconsciously.
The list goes on. Baby-faced people with chubby cheeks and over-sized eyes often have dependent personalities and are more likely to be in nurturing professions, such as nursing or teaching, said psychologist Terry Pettijohn, II at Coastal Carolina University.
People with smaller eyes, larger chins and bigger bodies tend to be more independent and stronger emotionally, he told LiveScience. "And when you feel more threatened or insecure, you will gravitate toward finding friends or partners that look stronger."
But that's not the entire story…
Social and economic conditions — such as unemployment and homicide rates — also influence what traits are viewed as attractive, Pettijohn and colleagues have found.
As a measure of hard times, researchers created a yearly index that took into account the U.S. unemployment rate, changes in disposable personal income, changes in consumer price index, death rate, birth rate, marriage rate, divorce rate, suicide rate and homicide rate.
The facial features of the most popular actresses from 1932 to 1995 and each Playboy Playmate of the Year from 1960 to 2000 were carefully measured. Bust, waist, hip, weight and height measurements were also gathered for the bunnies.
Why Rita Hayworth rocked
When these measurements were graphed against the "hard times" index, significant correlations appeared.
In relatively good times, such as the 1940s and the early 1980s, popular actresses, such as Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland, had babyish features (large eyes, small chin, plump cheeks) and favorite models, such as Dorothy Stratten and Terri Welles, had extreme hourglass figures. These traits have been associated with both naivety and enhanced fertility, Pettijohn explained.
But when things get rocky, like in the 1930s, 1990s and, let's face it, the last couple of years, beauties tend to be taller, thicker around the middle and have less voluminous eyes — features associated with strength, maturity, independence and greater access to resources, Pettijohn said.
Anna Nicole Smith is an example of a heavier playmate popular in the troubled 90s, he said, and Sandra Bullock's mature face may have contributed to her popularity in 2009. Other studies have found similar preferences for mature-looking men during troubled times.
Evolution meets society
While Mother Nature has shaped us to think certain traits are attractive — with her biggest emphasis on reproductive potential — the "ideal" category is actually quite broad.
It is within this category that social situations — a plummeting economy, bad job prospects, equality between sexes — can shift preferences toward one side (playful, curvy) or another (independent, streamlined).
"Our genetics are suggesting that we make certain decisions… but at the same time there is this social element," Pettijohn said. We adapt our innate tastes to our environment in ways that optimize our survival and well-being, he said.
When times are especially tough, the theory goes, it might be better to shack up with someone who looks stable and able to get stuff, than someone who looks needy and likely to get pregnant.
But just because the economy is in a slump, doesn't mean petite women should sit this dating season out. The tastes of some men are relatively immune to economic fluctuations either because of personality or their own secure social situations, Pettijohn said.
Besides, "while social economic factors do influence attractiveness," he said, in the mystery of why someone makes the heart flutter, "it is just one little piece."
The study of Playboy Playmates of the Years was published by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2004. The study using American actresses was published in a 1999 issue of the journal Media Psychology.