Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hungry MenPrefer Full-figured Women

Hungry men prefer full-figured women, a new British psychology study has found -- but only until they have a good meal. Then they start looking for a slimmer date.

Fickle? Actually, the men don't realize their preferences are being gently, but firmly shaped by an evolutionary drive as old as humanity itself.

We're still cave men at heart, the psychologists are saying. And modern men show it in the way they chase women, no matter what they have been taught to admire by all the movie stars and fashion models.

The study in the British Journal of Psychology suggests that although modern western cultures are filled with images of Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron, men "still have an evolutionary preference for more rounded women." It's in our genes.

Viren Swami, a psychologist at Liverpool University, and Martin Tovee, from Newcastle University, enlisted dozens of male students for the study.

Half were well fed, and said they felt full. Half had skipped lunch and rated themselves as either hungry or very hungry.

The two psychologists started showing them pictures of women's bodies and getting them to do the cliche guything of rating them on a scale of beauty from one to nine. (There were no faces in the pictures; just bodies in leotards.)

"Hungry men E rate obese women more positively than men who have eaten," Swami concludes. "They found them slightly more attractive, although the difference was very small between them and women in the normal weight range."

The scientists call on evolutionary theory to explain the difference. Hungry men, it seems, are drawn to women who look as though they have a kitchen full of good eats. Or, as the biologists put it, women with "more resources" to help their families survive the next famine, a constant threat through most of human history.

It would be easy to write this off as a silly bit of evidence that men are pigs (bringing the usual letters to the editor asking who needs evidence anyway). But, the experiment runs a little deeper, into the understanding of what beauty really means to all modern humans.

For instance, is there a central ideal of beauty that is hard-wired into people from all cultures?

Tovee and Swami found instead a shifting ideal: an attraction to whatever is most practical in different environments for the basic, instinctive biological urge at work here -- making babies. Men are drawn to women who appear fertile. And a signal that says "fertile" in one environment may not be ideal in a different setting.

The psychologists again asked men to rate women on a scale of attractiveness -- some men in Britain, and some this time in South Africa. Yes, scientists get paid for this.

Male Brits preferred women with a body mass index (BMI) of about 20. That's relatively slim (though not like a high-fashion model. They're in the emaciated level of 17 or 18, where male attraction falls off fast).

The rural South Africans, living where hunger is widespread and tuberculosis or HIV infect many people, preferred women with a BMI of 25 and up -- levels considered overweight by Western doctors. These are the women who look healthy in the sense they are not likely to have malnourished or sick babies.

But all that changed among South African men who moved to Britain. Once there, they shifted toward British ideals of beauty -- thinner women.

Why?

Once they're in Britain, weight stops being a sign that a woman is healthy and fertile, Tovee says.

Heaviness there is a mark of lower social status and a poorer diet. It also brings health problems, sometimes including infertility.

"So what we found is that you have to be flexible in your ideas of beauty. You have to be ready to change."

Which may not make sense in the fashion world, but it's firmly rooted in human evolution.

As an aside, it's worth seeing how scientists talk when they check out hotties. This is from their study, including the bits in brackets:

"For women in Western Europe and the U.S.A., a low waist to hip ratio (i.e., a curvaceous body) is suggested to correspond to the optimal fat distribution for high fertility (Wass, Waldenstrom, Rossner, & Hellberg, 1997; Zaadstra et al., 1995); hence, this shape should be highly attractive within these cultures. The optimal fat distribution is proposed to correspond to a ratio of 0.7, and this is suggested to be optimally attractive (Furnham, Tan, & McManus, 1997; Henss, 2000; Singh, 1993, 1994)."

Just don't try talking like that at the singles bar.

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