There may be a love story at the intersection of the battered
economy and a steady rise in its obesity rates: men who are
stressed are more likely to find a rounder, plumper woman
Men under stress not only rated the attractiveness of heavier
women more positively, they found women appealing across a
wider size spectrum than did men who were not stressed,
according to a study published by the open-access journal
Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.
Those findings are in line with long-standing evolutionary
theories of how humans define beauty ideals in the opposite
Whether it's a man's square chin or the curve of a woman's
waist, physical traits that project good health, maximum
fertility and access to food and shelter promise the
interested party the prospect of a good mate for carrying
forth one's genes, and are thus more attractive.
By this reasoning, traits that convey ample access to food
and an ability to withstand hardship will become more
appealing in places and at times when food supplies are
scarce or threatened.
The study, conducted by researchers from the University of
Westminster in London, gathered 81 heterosexual male
university students between the ages of 18 and 42, and
divided them into two groups.
Each individual in the no-stress group was shown to a quiet
room before he was asked to judge a series of photographic
and standardized images of women who ranged from emaciated to
To induce stress in the members of one group, the researchers
put individuals in a mock job-interview situation, standing
each man before a video camera, tape recorder and a panel of
four judges and asking him to make a five-minute pitch for
The "stressed" participants were then further rattled by
having to count backward from 1,022 by factors of 13.
In the wake of those trials, the average "ideal" body shape
identified by the stressed men was larger than that
identified by men who had not experienced the combined
pressures of a job interview and arithmetic gymnastics.
The stressed men rated female body shapes at a higher
body-mass index as more attractive than did the unstressed
men. At the same time, the stressed men were a little less
discriminating in their references than were the unstressed
men: They found themselves attracted to a wider range of body
shapes and sizes than did the unstressed men.
In designing their experiment, the researchers acknowledged
that beauty ideals are strongly influenced by culture and can
differ markedly among various ethnic groups. As a result, all
of the participants in the study were white British men.
Further research, the researchers said, might aim to flesh
out how the experience of chronic stress - a more toxic form
of stress than that induced in a 15-minute job interview -
might account for differences in body-size judgments within
and between ethnic groups.