By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 2 February 2012)
Do threatening socioeconomic conditions make some women more beautiful and others less attractive to men? The answer is yes, according to the findings of a 2004 study.
Examining the facial features and body types of Playboy Playmates of the Year (which are chosen by male voters) between 1960 and 2000, Pettijohn II & Jungeberg (2004) discovered that the female aesthetic ideal fluctuated along with economic and social conditions. During difficult economic and social times, men preferred women who were taller, heavier (in relation to other selected Playmates, not the general population), and older (within the Playmate age range of 18-33 years), with smaller eyes, thicker waists, and smaller breasts (in relation to their waistlines). By contrast, when the economy was strong, younger, lighter, curvier, larger-eyed women with more pronounced waist-hip ratios and bigger breasts were preferred. Essentially, when conditions are rough, men like women who look a little more mature and stronger; when the economy is robust, men seek more youthful partners.
The authors note that “baby faces are seen as relatively more warm, kind, naïve, honest, agreeable, sociable, trustworthy, and physically weak,” whereas “mature faces are perceived as more powerful, dominant, strong, expert, competent, independent, shrewd, and mature”; furthermore, individuals with mature faces are perceived as possessing “a higher level of social status and are seen as more important, more influential, more in control, and physically stronger” (p. 1188). When the economy is strong and the social situation stable, men are more likely to choose young-looking women whose physiology suggests that they have many reproductive years ahead of them. However, when times are tough, it’s in a man’s best interests to choose a woman who might produce fewer offspring but be better able to acquire resources due to her greater strength and experience.
The Playboy Playmate findings are in keeping with the results of Pettijohn’s and Tesser’s (1999) study of American actresses spanning 1932 to 1995. The researchers found that actresses with larger chins, smaller eyes, and thinner faces (all characteristics of older faces) were favoured during difficult socio-economic times. It’s worth noting that another study did not yield the same effect for male actors, which suggests that female preferences for male characteristics don’t fluctuate in response to social and economic conditions (Pettijohn & Tesser, 2003).
Interesting, Pettijohn and Tesser (2005) found that men subjected to a threatening condition within the laboratory were more likely to prefer working with a smaller-eyed (more mature-looking) female partner than one with large eyes (a sign of youth). This provides further support for the conclusion that men seek women deemed more capable and strong when a situation is in some way threatening.
Webster (2008), testing the same hypothesis (that threat could trigger a preference for more mature women) did not find the same effect as Pettijohn and Jungeberg in relation to the economy, but did find that under life-threatening conditions, men found more mature-looking women more attractive than they did during calmer times. In this case, the threat measure was the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic Cold War-era device which supposedly indicated how close the world was to nuclear annihilation.
- Pettijohn II, T.F., & Tesser, A. (1999). “Popularity in Environmental Context: Facial Feature Assessment of American Movie Actresses.” Media Psychology, 1, pp. 229-247.
- Pettijohn II, T.F., & Tesser, A. (2003). “History and Facial Features: The Eyes Have It for Actresses But Not for Actors.” North American Journal of Psychology, 5(3), 335-344.
- Pettijohn, T.F. II, & Jungeberg, B. (2004). “Playboy Playmate Curves: Changes in Facial and Body Feature Preferences Across U.S. Social And Economic Conditions.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), pp. 1186-1197.
- Pettijohn, T.F. II, & Tesser, A. (2005). “Threat and Social Choice: When Eye Size Matters.” Journal of Social Psychology, 145(5), pp. 547-570.
- Webster, G.D. (2008). “Playboy Playmates, the Dow Jones, Consumer Sentiment, 9/11, and the Doomsday Clock: A Critical Examination of the Environmental Security Hypothesis.” Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(2), pp. 23-41.