Scientist says this debunks theory that physical attraction is hardwired and doesn't change
BY SHERYL UBELACKER, CANADIAN PRESS AUGUST 9, 2012
Many men might say they're most attracted to women who are svelte, icons of that so-called feminine ideal portrayed in magazines and other media.
But never fear, you ladies of more Rubenesque proportions: it seems a man's body size preference can be somewhat fluid - and one of the factors that appears to affect it is stress.
British researchers have found that men faced with a stressful situation tend to change their assessment of what constitutes an attractive female, moving away from slender to a range of plumper women.
"Evolutionary psychology tells us that what you find attractive about someone tells you about their health and their fertility," said neuroscientist Martin Tovee of Newcastle University, co-author of a study published in the journal PLoS One.
"But what's healthy and fertile - body-size shape - is going to vary depending on your environment," Tovee said Wednesday from Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
In the U.K., Canada and other western countries with abundantly available food, having a higher body mass suggests a person is not only less healthy, but also may belong to a lower socioeconomic group, because cheaper food tends to have a higher fat content, he said.
But in parts of rural South Africa where food is generally less plentiful and there are periods of severe food shortages, a heftier body type is a sign of physical well-being.
"Also it means that you're higher status because you can afford to be heavier. So you choose somebody heavier because that's best in that environment.
"But in this [U.K.] environment, the reverse is true."
To test the effects of stress on men's notions of the most attractive form of female body, Tovee and co-author Viren Swami of the University of Westminster in London recruited 81 heterosexual men for their study.
The men were all Caucasian, aged 18 to 42, with a body mass index ranging between about 17 and 31.
Forty-one of the subjects were subjected to a number of back-to-back stress-inducing tasks, including a mock job interview in front of a four-person panel that was being recorded and videotaped. The other 40 participants - the control group - were taken to a room where they sat quietly.
Both groups were then shown photographs of a variety of female body types, ranging from emaciated through obese, with the faces removed.
The stressed group gave significantly higher attractiveness ratings to normal weight and overweight figures than did the non-stressed group, said Tovee.
Men in the stressed group also indicated attraction to a broader range of sizes among the figures, compared with those in the non-stressed group.
"Although you read a lot in evolutionary psychology that our preferences for attractiveness are hardwired and we can't do anything about it, that's probably not true," he said.
Tovee said the preference of many men in western society for slender women is out of sync with reality, as the average BMI is drifting upwards.
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