The characteristics we find physically attractive can be influenced by our immediate environmental context.
PROBLEM: In times and places where few resources are readily available, having a large body size is widely envied and desired as it signifies wealth and security. Some research has also suggested that threatening situations have a similar effect on our perception of physical attractiveness, with larger, "mature" bodies representing strength, control and independence. This study looked more closely at this second phenomenon, testing to see whether stress-inducing situations influence the female body sizes that men find attractive.
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METHODOLOGY: Eighty-one heterosexual male college students were recruited as subjects, and half were subjected to one of the most stressful situations possible for a college student: a mock job interview. After their psychological stress levels had been increased by this and various other activities, they were asked to rate ten images of women who ranged in body size from emaciated to obese, on the basis of their physical attractiveness. To control for the resource-scarcity theory, they were also asked to assess how hungry they were during the experiment.
RESULTS: The largest woman considered physically attractive was, for the stressed group, significantly larger than the woman at the heavy end of the control group's threshold. The women with higher BMIs were, in general, received higher attractiveness ratings from members of the stress group than from members of the control group. The stressed subjects had a wide range of body types that they found attractive, but only because they skewed toward larger BMIs -- there was no difference between the groups in how attractive they found the thinnest women to be.
CONCLUSION: When stressed, British college boys find heavier women to be more attractive than they otherwise would. This suggests that our preferences in terms of physical attractiveness vary with our immediate emotional context.
The full study, " The Impact of Psychological Stress on Men's Judgments of Female Body Size," is published in the journal PLoS-ONE.