article

03.13.09

Hot and Heavy

Some scientists have argued that during a recession, men desire fuller figured women. So pass the enchiladas and let’s consider the evidence.

Amid plunging bank accounts and canceled vacations, behold: a bright spot. The recession might actually bring one thing that some women can welcome. Studies suggest that changes in the state of the economy can influence what men find sexually attractive in women—and when the economy’s bad, it’s good to be fat. Or, at least, a tiny bit fatter. It isn’t much, but it’s all we’ve got.

In 2005, Dr. Leif Nelson, an experimental psychologist then at NYU's Stern Business School, published a study that now cries out for our renewed attention.

The study assumes that feeling poor and feeling hungry, while not identical sensations, are linked to the same basic, underlying mechanism.

“When the economy is clearly and uniformly tanking,” Dr. Nelson told The Daily Beast earlier this week, “what will emerge is some kind of a shift to more of an ideal of a fuller, plumper woman.”

Together with Evan Morrison of Stanford, Nelson designed four different experimental situations to investigate the question of whether men’s preferences in female bodily dimensions change during times of “resource scarcity.” In two of them, he included variables meant to instill a sense of financial insecurity in a group of college-age students before asking them to state what their ideal woman would weigh.

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Photo of Lily Allen by Richard Drew / AP Photo

In two other experimental scenarios, he looked at the impact of physical hunger instead of monetary security, polling students about the size of their ideal woman as they made their way into the dining hall to eat a meal, and other students as they made their way out, after eating.

Nelson’s findings were stubbornly consistent. The male subjects who were made to feel insecure about their finances reported a preference for women who were, on average, roughly two pounds heavier than their financially confident counterparts. Similarly, Nelson’s hungry subjects reported an affinity for a heavier (by roughly three pounds) female partner than those subjects who were tested when they were full.

It might seem odd that Nelson’s results, while mathematically consistent, would turn on such a minute discrepancy. Two pounds. Who, aside from the most devoted anorexic or determined Chinese diving coach, could even see such a difference?

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Photo of America Ferrera by Bob Ramirez / Retna Ltd.

Nelson concedes that it’s unlikely that men are able to precisely narrow down, pound for pound, their idea of a sexy female body: “If you ask men 'What would the ideal woman weigh?' they have trouble with the question. They don’t even know how much they weigh.”

Nelson 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. The average difference looks small, but it may stand in for something significantly, um, larger.

The concept driving Nelson’s work is that people implicitly judge the overall availability of “resources” in the environment—both cash and food—based on how much of it they themselves have. This assessment, in turn, influences their choice of a romantic partner. Nelson’s work also assumes that feeling poor and feeling hungry, while not identical sensations, are linked to the same basic, underlying mechanism.

He himself does not try to explain what, or why, that is. “This is the sort of opaque black box of the process,” he says. “That feeling of resource scarcity goes into the black box and a relationship preference comes out the other side. Certainly what it is not is that men are introspecting and saying, ‘Hmm, how hungry am I right now? I need to recalibrate my preference in women.’”

Nelson isn’t attached to various biological or psychological reasons that might explain his results, but Dr. Terry Pettijohn II, a psychologist who has done related research, has his own point of view.

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.

Pettijohn investigated his hypothesis in two different studies, looking at the facial features of the most popular American movie actresses from 1932-1995 and then, in a second study, looking at both the bodies and faces of Playboy Magazine’s Playmate of the Year from 1960, when the tradition began, through 2000. He found that during rocky economic and social times (which he calculated with a composite “General Hard Times Measure”), the most popular actresses appeared more mature, with smaller eyes, thinner faces, and stronger chins; likewise, the playmate of the year during these tumultuous periods were slightly “taller and heavier,” and also tended to have smaller eyes. 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.”

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Photo of Jessica Simpson by Ralph Notaro / Splash News

Both Nelson and Pettijohn have also tested female subjects, but failed to find any consistent variation in what women say is their ideal male appearance. This is perhaps because men put more focus on women’s physical features than women do on men’s, says Pettijohn, or, alternatively, because “just being male brings about the association of being strong and independent,” regardless of size of eye, prominence of cheekbone, or heft of ass.

For anyone recoiling from the misogynistic tinge of these studies, take heart: There is some room for skepticism. One obvious question is whether this kind of research generalizes to the real world.

I made some phone calls to see whether I could find any anecdotal evidence for the trend. Three professional matchmakers said they all felt the idea was more or less absurd. “A guy yesterday said, ‘size 6 is too big! It has to be size 2,’” said Lisa Clampitt, a matchmaker in Manhattan.

The researchers’ predictions also failed to resonate with four different Manhattan men I spoke to with jobs in finance. Neither they nor their friends had recently been seeking heavier girlfriends, they told me, once they had finished expressing their incredulity.

“Not even the slightest bit?” I asked. “Not even unconsciously?”

No, they said, not as far they could tell. But then again, maybe they had just eaten dinner.

Casey Schwartz is a graduate of Brown University. She has previously written for The New York Sun and ABC News. Currently, she's working on a book about the brain world.