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.

Published March 13, 2009 3:10PM (EDT)

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.'"

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.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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