updated 8/8/2012 5:30:19 PM ET 2012-08-08T21:30:19

The tanking economy may have been bad news for most, but for plus-sized women the tough financial times may come with a perk. When men are stressed, they seem to be attracted to chubbier women, a new study shows.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

To look at the impact of stress on men’s sexual preferences, researchers from the University of Westminster in London, led by Viren Swami, rounded up 81 young men whose ages ranged from 18 to 42, according to the report published today in PLOS ONE.

“Our results showed that men who were stressed rated female body sizes at higher BMI categories as more attractive than their control group counterparts," the Swami and his co-author concluded. “That is, men in the [stressed] condition rated women of normal weight, overweight, and partially, at least, obese BMI categories as more attractive than the control group.”

Who knew a tortured economy could bring the Rubenesque shape back into style?

Swami and his co-author raised the stress levels of 41 of the men by having them do some tough math and to participate in a simulated job interview -- a situation that has been proven to significantly increase tension and anxiety.

For the job-interview simulation, the men were told to stand at a microphone and give a five-minute oral presentation to four people who played the role of a company’s selection committee. After the presentation, the men were asked to count backwards by 13s starting with number 1,022. They were told to do their subtractions as quickly and accurately as possible.

The other 40 men relaxed in a quiet room while their counterparts were doing the simulated interviews and subtractions.

Afterwards, all 81 were shown 10 photos of women whose weight ranged from emaciated to obese. They were then asked to rate the attractiveness of the women on a scale of 1 to 10.

As a group, the stressed-out men gave their highest ratings to a plumper woman compared to the men who were relaxed. In fact, stress appeared to bump up the ratings of all the larger women in the series of photos, even the most obese.

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher says what we’re seeing in the study is the result of man’s early struggles to survive.

“It certainly would have been adaptive for ancestral man to have a chubby wife during stressful times of famine,” says Fisher, a research professor and member of the Center for Human Evolution Studies in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University. “Not only would she have had more calories to burn, and thus more energy and endurance, but since fat stores estrogen, she would have remained fertile for longer.”

Apparently, men are still listening to messages stored in their DNA eons ago. And, says Fisher, that means “there’s a perk for being chubby in economically lean times.”


Discussion comments