Stress, even short-term, appears to play a role in who we judge as a good potential partner, according to a new study published today (August 9) in PLoS ONE. The authors had previously shown that people living in more stressful environments express preference for a greater range of body types, but this is the first study to show the effect can be stimulated by situational stress.

"There's a lot of literature suggesting that our BMI (body mass index) preferences are hard-wired, but that's probably not true," coauthor Dr Martin Tovee, from Newcastle University, told BBC News.

Tovee and colleague Viren Swami asked two groups of men to rate the attractiveness of a range of women, from emaciated to obese. One group sat quietly before the ratings, while the other was given math and public speaking tasks to induce stress. Between the two groups, the men were controlled for...

Within the same spectrum of weights, the stressed men rated heavier women as more attractive than the non-stressed men. Additionally, the stressed men extend their preferences into a wider spectrum of body sizes, rating heavier women as attractive. The authors think stress draws men to heavier women because they appear more capable of enduring environmental stress.

"If you look at environments where food is scarce, people's preferences for body size in a potential partner are shifted," Tovee told BBC News. "[The preference] appears to be much heavier compared to environments where there's plenty of food and a much more relaxed atmosphere."

While the study shows lifestyle may have an impact on who people find attractive, the authors also point to fluctuating environmental conditions as drivers of preference.

"There's a continual pushing down of the ideal, but this preference is flexible. Changing the media, changing your lifestyle, all these things can change what you think is the ideal body size," Tovee said.

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