Stressed-out men prefer a fleshier woman

WASHINGTON — There may be a love story at the intersection of the nation’s battered economy and a steady rise in its obesity rates: Compared with men without a care in the world, men who are stressed out are more likely to find a rounder, plumper woman more attractive.

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, says a new 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 sex. 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 obese.

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 himself. 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.

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