Does a recession change the beauty standard?

Studies show that times of "resource scarcity" lead to men preferring heavier women -- but not so you'd notice it.

Topics: Broadsheet,

In today’s Daily Beast, Casey Schwartz reminds us of a 2005 study that “now cries out for our renewed attention.” The study, led by doctors Leif Nelson and Evan Morrison and published in the February 2005 Psychological Science, “investigate[d] the question of whether men’s preferences in female bodily dimensions change during times of ‘resource scarcity,’” that is, times like now. And it found that they did. According to the study’s abstract, the hypothesis “that men who feel either poor or hungry prefer heavier women than men who feel rich or full” was confirmed.

How much heavier? Two to three whole pounds! There go my plans to find my next husband by hanging outside the unemployment office and/or Burger King at lunchtime. Nelson, whom Schwartz interviewed, “interprets this ultra-thin margin as the products of statistics, arguing that what is likely going on is that one group of men is swayed, fairly substantially, toward heavier women, while others might not be as affected” — but I find that even more incredible than the thought that a bunch of individuals, under certain circumstances, display an unconscious preference for women who are a couple of pounds fatter. Is he seriously saying that some men, because they’re hungry, suddenly become attracted to noticeably heavier women, but then go back to liking thinner gals when they’re full? (One of the experiments testing the effects of hunger involved polling different men entering and leaving a college dining hall.) Since I don’t know if “fairly substantially” here means a margin of 5 pounds or 30, I’m not sure exactly how much I should boggle, but boggle I shall.

Nevertheless, one theory of why this might be — offered not by Nelson but by Dr. Terry Pettijohn II, “a psychologist who has done related research,” sounds fairly logical. “Pettijohn believes that one major factor that determines what men consider sexually attractive in women is something he calls ‘the environmental-security hypothesis.’ Men are likely to choose the women they’re involved with at least in part from an instinctual sense of what is in their own best interest, given the current state of the ‘environment.’ During challenging economic times, men would gravitate toward women they intuited were mature, independent and protective; when times are flush, men wouldn’t prioritize these same values, and instead seek a woman who appeared to be ‘less emotionally strong, less physically strong,’ Pettijohn says.” His research has included comparing the facial features of popular American actresses between 1935 and 1992, and the faces and bodies of Playboy Playmates between 1960 and 2000. During times when resources were more scarce, “the most popular actresses appeared more mature, with smaller eyes, thinner faces, and stronger chins,” and the Playmates of the year were a bit bigger than in good times. “By contrast, when things were good, the popular actresses had more baby-faced qualities — bigger eyes, chubbier cheeks — and the playmates tended to be ‘shorter and lighter.’”

You Might Also Like

Translation: When times are good, men go for women who look weaker and more like children. (Schwartz’s use of “baby-faced” wasn’t merely idiomatic. In the article about the Playboy study [PDF], Pettijohn comes right out and talks about the attractiveness of “neotenous features” in women.) That makes somewhat more intuitive sense to me, if I consider the pressure men still feel to be providers. When times are good, they’re confident they can take care of a more, um, neotenous woman. When times are rough, they want a woman who can shift for her own damn self. The problem is, we’re once again dealing with “ultra-thin margins.” Would anyone not being paid to research it really notice a difference in eye height between different Playboy centerfolds?

Nope, says Schwartz. She failed to find anecdotal support for the idea that a recession might make men attracted to more mature-looking, larger women than usual. (According to one professional matchmaker, “A guy yesterday said, ‘Size 6 is too big! It has to be size 2.’”) And for once, the anecdata might just trump the scientific research, for all practical purposes. These results are meaningful if you’re looking to confirm an “environmental-security hypothesis,” as Pettijohn is, but not so much if you’re looking for a date, rather than a pattern. Recession or no recession, our culture’s standard for female beauty is still a thin young white woman — what it’s been for the entire span of time Pettijohn studied — and yet, women who don’t meet that standard are out there falling in love every dingdang day. It’s almost as though attraction were a highly individual thing, regardless of the relationship between environmental resources and models’ cheek chubbiness. Go figure.


Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>