Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Large Looks Lovely to the Stressed-Out Male

• August 08, 2012 • 2:00 PM

A new study from England finds men who have just sweated through a tough assignment are more likely to find overweight women attractive.

New research suggests a promising strategy for larger ladies who are looking for love: Find a singles bar near a workplace where the men are really stressed out.

Researchers writing in the journal PLOS ONE report men who had just been experiencing acute stress were more likely than their calm counterparts to find overweight women attractive.

When it comes to changing a man’s perspective, beer goggles may be less effective than frazzle frames.

Psychologists Viren Swami of the University of Westminster and Martin Tovee of Newcastle University describe an experiment involving 81 male undergraduates—all of whom were British, white, and heterosexual. They looked at a series of 10 photographs of women of various sizes, whom they rated for physical attractiveness on a scale of one to nine.

Twenty minutes before that exercise, half the men took part in a social stress test: Playing the role of a job applicant, they were given five minutes to convince a committee they should be hired. They were then asked to “serially subtract the number 13 from 1,022 as fast and accurately as possible.” The testh was designed to provoke anxiety and correspondingly high levels of cortisol.

Compared to their relaxed peers, the men who had just gone through this high-stress situation “selected a significantly heavier female body size as maximally attractive,” the researchers report. In addition, those men “idealized a wider range of female body sizes as being physically attractive.”

Both groups of men stopped finding women attractive once they got to a certain point of skinniness. But at the other end of the spectrum, the stressed guys found women at higher BMIs appealing, even at a point where the excess pounds were viewed as a turn-off by their non-stressed pals.

According to Swami and Tovee, this appreciation of excess pounds can be explained by our evolutionary past. They note that previous research—including a 2009 study that found hungry men prefer larger ladies—suggests men who “experience environmental threats” are drawn to mates who look physically mature and thus capable of providing for their needs. (Another analysis found Playboy centerfold models tend to be older, taller and heavier during times of scarcity or threat.)

That 2009 paper found hungry women were similarly drawn to more mature males, but they judged maturity by the men’s personalities rather than their body size. That finding suggests this newly discovered dynamic may not work the other way. Stressed women, like their hungry counterparts, may have more nuanced benchmarks for male maturity than physical bulk.

Swami and Tovee concede theirs is not the only possible interpretation of these findings. It’s possible the stressed-out men were experiencing low self-esteem. Under those conditions, they may feel they’re unlikely to attract what their culture deems a more perfect woman, and thus cast their eyes at a wider range of choices. (If that were true, however, they’d probably also go for those women who were all skin and bones.)

In any event, this research provides more evidence that our idea of sexual attractiveness is surprisingly malleable. “Although our work was focused on psychological stress,” the researchers write, “accumulating evidence suggests that different forms of stress—physiological, economic, social—have similar effects.”

So, plus-size single gals, you could hang out at the unemployment office—in the unlikely event you don’t mind that your man has no job. Better, perhaps, to head for the airport, and discover where the air traffic controllers have a drink after work.

If these researchers are right, a man who spends an anxiety-filled day guiding jumbo jets in for a landing is also one who appreciates an ample physique.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.