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: