Stress and Beauty

A recent study in England found an interesting outcome from stress. The researchers took white British male subjects and submitted half of them to a stress-causing experience (a job interview and a difficult mental task). Each group (the stressed and the unstressed) were then shown some pictures of different women with different body types and asked to judge which they found beautiful. What was discovered was that the stressed out men had a wider range of body types that they considered “attractive.” In other words, stressed men were more likely to be turned on by plumper women.

There are a number of interesting elements here. First, as the researchers point out, male assessments of beauty are very culture specific. They might have gotten exactly the opposite results had they used black American males as their subjects. I remember reading an article in which different plastic surgery preferences were analyzed according to different ethnicities. It turned out that white American women mostly got butt reductions, while black and Latina American women tended to get butt enhancements. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so the results of this study are very specific to the group of men studied. But if you think you are one of that group, or you are in a relationship with one of that group, then the study pertains to you.


I think there are two ways to view this study, which I’ll call the negative and the positive. The negative view is that stressed men are more likely to be depressed and insecure, so they are like less likely to think they can attain their ideal, so they therefore lower their ideals and try to attain less. In this instance, the data is interpreted as signifying a “wider selection of body types” as a lowering of the beauty ideal. The positive view is that stressed men are more likely to shift their ideal to a woman who is more attainable, more secure, and more likely to be a long-term partner who can contribute emotionally and economically, thus bringing more stability.

I can say from experience with my clients that some men are stuck desiring an ideal woman rather than desiring the kind of woman they can actually score. This leads to frustration, loneliness, and depression. So it is a positive turn that stress might make a man broaden his beauty definition so he actually desires a wider array of women and therefore is more likely to land one. Think of it as life giving him a bit of stress to wake him up what his true potential is. But the other side of this point is that the kind of deflation of one’s self-esteem that stress can cause, and thus a broad sense of not being able to achieve ideals (in women, in jobs, in lifestyles, in ethics), can be caused by and lead to depression and lack of ambition. Men (and all of us) should be reaching for our ideals, though not to such high ideals that we never achieve them.

My sense is that stress is causing men to regress into their more primal past and thus to carry out the dictates of evolution as opposed to culture. They are looking to women who display signs of health and wealth and fertility, which is often a plumper woman, and has been so at other times in history. Today, the skinnier woman is the beauty ideal because she is seen as having the leisure time and the drive to achieve physical fitness. But this is also a very culturally determined ideal. Men who feel burned by the culture because they can’t get a job might be unconsciously turning away from the cultural ideal in a gesture of resentment.
Another thing that this study calls up is also seen among men in my practice. They report that when their wives or girlfriends aren’t feeling positive about their bodies, they seem to want to visit stress upon their man. Clearly, there’s a reason for this, and it’s because a stressed out man is more likely to find them attractive. But clearly there are also better ways for women to go about this, like doing what it takes to feel better about their bodies.

In the end, we see that stress is a very powerful determiner of our choices, and that it has deep ramifications in our lives. It has been called “the modern killer,” and that is definitely true. I find it fascinating that the researchers were able to create stress in their subjects by having them do a mock job interview and a complex math problem. Ultimately, none of us should be accepting or supporting the kinds of stress that make us lessen our ideals or make us feel depressed. Nothing matters all that much. We should just chill and look for love, in whatever shape it takes.

See me chat with Tom Sullivan on Fox Business News on this topic:


  1. Hey Sarah,

    It makes sense: the more stressed a guy is feeling, the lower his standards would be.

    Speaking of “stress and beauty,” this blog reminded me of a study I’d read about from the University of Valencia a couple of years ago. In it, the researchers addressed the male physiological response to beautiful women. One at a time, those conducting the study brought 84 male subjects to a room and sat them across a table from a young sexy girl (who was an actor which the subjects presumed to be another student) with whom to solve a Sudoku puzzle. Each time, the researcher would leave the room—presumably to get another puzzle—leaving the two alone. What they then observed in the subjects were skyrocketing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol; the levels were so high they were compared to those experienced when jumping out of an airplane! I think it’s interesting: a couple of years after reading about a study suggesting that beauty increases my stress, I’m now here reading about a study suggesting that stress would alter what I’d find beautiful.

    …Also, you know, deterioration in the subjects’ ability to solve the puzzles was noted. So, judging by the anxiety apparent in his transition to his next segment, I’d say you definitely elevated the cortisol levels of Tom Sullivan.

  2. Aren’t there some men who just like ‘plumper’ women period.

  3. I have somewhat similar observations in the past. Scarcity of resources often favors the packing on a few pounds for leaner times. This maybe especially true for women who are wired to carry some extra fat to be fertile. The stressed guys might be looking for some extra fertile insurance at the biological level.

  4. I saw you on tv talking about why men prefer a fuller woman. I cant agree with the premise its the
    man who chooses the fuller woman, rather a chemistry from both. The man may be looking for mom, wealth, health but more importantly looking for that someone who is less likely to give him grief but more importantly that woman that will be lease likely to compete for her place in the life circle………she will give all, all the time….this interests the male. He may be willing retreat from the concept myth that he has to woo her and more importantly interested in conveying pure love, quickly accepted by the female thus moving from the competition arena, (exchange from thin to heavier or fatter}. Anyway it is beautiful to watch or engage in. We humans are an interesting breed………………..
    An ol hand. Thanks for letting me say my piece.

  5. Saw you on TV tonight, thank you you allowing people to discuss their issues in a warm, relaxing, and unencumbered setting.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. That study from the University of Valencia is fascinating. Thanks so much for bringing that to my attention. I think that the relationship between stress and women in general for men is a very interesting one, and one that deserves specific attention. “Nervous around women” is a phrase I hear a lot from my clients, as, I’m sure, do most other therapists who work with men. It’s all so wrapped up in primal reactions to the opposite sex, status issues, genetic urges, etc. How men go about choosing what kind of woman they pursue is so dependent on the context, and today the context is so vast (the Internet, for instance) that men are not only dealing with old, hard-wired feelings, but they’re also dealing with new “wifi”-red feelings as well! It all seems so wrapped up with the goal of wanting what you can have, not wanting what you can’t have, and being happy with how that difference plays out in your life. And I’m just glad to be able to help men do that, and to hear from some of them thru this forum. So thanks!