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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.

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