”Stressed men prefer larger women,” the Daily Telegraph reported today. It said that while men are usually programmed to prefer slimmer, younger-looking women, stress can make men “treasure more homely qualities”, such as larger body size.
The story comes from a small study which set out to look at the impact of psychological stress on men’s judgements of female attractiveness in relation to body size. It found that men given tasks designed to put them under pressure rated a slightly larger female body size as their physical ideal, compared with the size chosen by men in a control group. The men who were in the “stress” group were also more likely to rate overweight women as being attractive than the control group.
This experimental research does give weight to a long-held theory known as the “environmental security hypothesis”. This hypothesis is that men become more attracted to larger women as they are seen as more mature and more likely to help provide resources in times of hardship.
One of the most famous pieces of research on the environmental security hypothesis found that Playmate centrefolds were more likely to be “curvy” in times of economic downturn and more likely to be “waif-like” during more prosperous times.
Interestingly, both the control group and the stress group rated severely underweight women as being unattractive. So the cliché that you can “never be too rich or too thin” may at least be wrong on one count.
In conclusion this was a small study which tells us very little about men’s real-life preferences. For one thing, there is no way of knowing whether the stress test used in the study actually induced a stress response in the men who took it since researchers did not objectively measure participants’ stress levels.
The study may be of interest to specialists in the field of cultural studies, but it’s unclear how useful its results are to the rest of us.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Westminster UK, HELP University College Malaysia and Newcastle University.
The study was reported fairly enough, although some of the headlines were misleading. The study results did not show that stressed men actively preferred larger women to women with the recommended BMI. Rather they were more likely to assess larger women as being attractive than the men in the control group.
While the Telegraph quipped that “although tightening one’s belt in a recession is usually considered prudent, women may be advised to do the opposite”, this “advice” assumes that all women are looking for a man, even a stressed-out one.
What kind of research was this?
This was an experimental study designed to assess the impact of psychological stress on men’s judgments of female body size. The researchers said that it is known that “resource security” helps to shape body size ideals, with heavier body sizes being preferred where or when resources are unpredictable, highlighting the association between fatness and access to food. However, although some work has shown that stress may also affect body size preferences, it seems few experimental studies in this area have been undertaken.
There was no external funding. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLoS ONE.
What did the research involve?
The researchers recruited 81 heterosexual male undergraduates with an average age of 22, who were randomly assigned to either the “stress” group (41) or the control group (40). Because ethnicity may impact on body size preferences, only British white participants were invited to take part.
Participants in the stress group took a 15-minute stress test that has been shown to increase levels of acute psychobiological stress (as measured by levels of the hormone cortisol). The test involves standing at a microphone in front of four individuals and playing the role of a job applicant invited for interview, and being asked to do a mental arithmetic test as fast and as accurately as possible.
Twenty minutes after the test (the time delay known to coincide with peak stress response, following an acute psychological stressor), participants were taken to a separate room where they were asked to complete a rating scale to indicate their preferences about female body size. The scale consisted of 10 photographic, standardised images of women in front view, with body sizes representing established BMI categories, ranging from emaciated to obese.
On the scale:
- figures 1 and 2 represent emaciated figures
- figures 3 and 4 underweight figures
- 5 and 6 normal weight figures
- 7 and 8 overweight figures
- 9 and 10 obese figures
Participants were asked to
- rate each of the ten images for physical attractiveness on a 9 point scale (1 = very unattractive and 9 = very attractive).
- rate the figure they found most physically attractive (the “ideal”),
- rate the largest figure they found physically attractive
- rate the thinnest figure they found physically attractive
Responses on the last three items were made on a 10-point scale, with 1 representing the figure with the lowest BMI and 10 representing the figure with the highest BMI. “Largest” and “thinnest” ratings were used to calculate an “attractiveness” range.
Participants in the control group did not take part in the stress test. After waiting quietly in a room for the same amount of time as taken by the stress test procedure, they were asked to complete the photographic rating scale. The researchers speculated as to whether this may have triggered feelings of boredom which could have impacted on the results of the study.
All participants had their own BMIs measured, and their appetites at the time of the experiment were measured using a validated scale. Both these factors could influence judgements about body size.
The researchers analysed their results, adjusting for the confounders BMI, appetite and age.
What were the basic results?
The researchers reported that:
- Men in the stress group gave significantly higher ratings of attractiveness than did the control group for both normal weight and overweight figures and for one obese figure.
- Men who undertook the stress test rated a significantly heavier female body size as the physical ideal than those in the control group. Among men who had undertaken the stress test, the most physically attractive female body size was 3.90, compared to 4.44 in the control group.
- Men in the stress group also had a significantly wider “attractiveness range” than those in the control group. This result was largely driven by the fact that the stress group rated a significantly heavier body size as the largest figure they considered attractive. The largest figure deemed attractive by the stress group was 7.17 (which falls in the overweight category) while the largest attractive figure for the control group was 6.25, which is classified as normal weight. There was no difference between the groups on the ratings of the thinnest figure perceived as attractive.
- There were no significant differences in age, BMI and appetite ratings between the groups.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers said that the experience of stress is associated with a preference among men for heavier female body sizes. They said that the results indicated that human attractiveness judgements are sensitive to “variations in local ecologies” and they reflect “adaptive strategies for dealing with changing environmental conditions”.
This small experimental study was relatively well-conducted. It used a validated laboratory test which has been shown to induce a stress response and a standardised photographic figure rating scale for men to assess female attractiveness. Researchers took account of factors which could have influenced the results, including the men’s ages, their BMI and whether they were hungry at the time of the study. They also asked participants to complete additional scales in order to mask the aims of the study.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to draw any conclusions from this study as to whether long-term stress levels influence male judgements of female body size. One limitation is that although participants in the stress group all took a validated stress test, their stress levels were not measured directly, so it is uncertain if the test affected stress levels or whether they were more stressed than the control group. As the researchers pointed out, measuring blood levels of cortisol, a hormone which is known to be produced by stress, would give a more accurate picture of the association between stress and body size preferences.
Another limitation is that the study was limited to participants described as “white British”. The same attitudes towards female body size may not be shared in other ethnic groups, which the researchers acknowledged; therefore the findings cannot be universally applied.
It should also be noted that, although significant, the difference between the two groups’ judgements of the physical “ideal” was quite small, as was the difference in the largest body size deemed attractive.
This study will be of interest to specialists in the field of cross-cultural studies but it is difficult to see its relevance to the general population.
Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on twitter.