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Stressed Men Prefer Heavier Women, Study Suggests

Hemera/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- Gentlemen may prefer blondes, but stressed men prefer heavier women -- at least according to a new study.

In the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers at the University of Westminster in London subjected 41 men to a stress-inducing task.  After this task, the researchers asked the men to rate the attractiveness of female bodies ranging from emaciated to obese.

Compared to a control group of 40 men who did not undergo the stress task, the stressed men rated a significantly heavier female body size as the most attractive, and they rated heavier female bodies as more attractive in general.

"Our body size preferences are flexible and can be changed by environment and circumstance," explains Martin Tovee, one of the study's authors.  "We need to understand the factors shaping body preferences."

In this case, it appears that stress alters the classic stereotype that men prefer thin women in general.

Researchers not directly involved with the study said the finding is consistent with what past work has shown regarding the way stress influences our perceptions.

"Stress, both acute and chronic, has profound effect on how we process new information both cognitively and emotionally," explains Dr. Igor Galynker, associate chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Beth Israel Medical Center.

In fact, earlier research has shown that men also prefer heavier body sizes when resources are unpredictable or unavailable.  Certain evolutionary theories suggest this may be because when times are tough, a thin woman may be ill, have irregular periods, and may be unable to support pregnancy.

"If you live in an environment where food is scarce, being heavier means that you have fat stored up as a buffer and that you must be higher social status to afford the food in the first place," Tovee explains.  "Both of these are attractive qualities in a partner in those circumstances."

The study also found that the stressed men gave higher ratings to a wider range of female figures than did their unstressed counterparts.  This may have implications about how we choose the people to date and marry.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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