If there’s one good thing 2017 will be remembered for, it’ll be the long-overdue upheavals in the dynamics between men and women. This year, by speaking out publicly about sexual harassment and other insidious forms of abuse, women everywhere began to upend the obstinate, male-favoring cultural norms that led some prominent men to commit crimes against women and get away with it.
There’s no doubt the new year will usher in even more change, but a controversial study published Wednesday hints at the sort of resistance women will come up against.
In Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, a trio of male researchers reported that women, because of the quirks of their evolution, still unanimously consider strong-looking men — those who look like they can enter a fight and win it — to be the most attractive. All that attractiveness, the researchers conclude in this strictly cis-gendered study, is presented in a man’s upper body.
This preference for jacked, top-heavy dudes, they argue, likely developed over millennia of human evolution and is rooted in our genes. In this view, there’s no changing this fundamental element of the male-female dynamic, making it a mindset that could seriously hinder the progress that’s been made this year.
“Among our ancestors, one variable that predicted both a man’s genetic quality and his ability to invest was the man’s formidability,” said Aaron Sell, Ph.D., of Griffith University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice in a statement. “Therefore, modern women should still have mate choice mechanisms that respond to cues of a man’s fighting ability.”
The study rests on the assumption that human attraction is still, at least in part, about sizing up a potential mate. This assumption is supported by previous studies to a certain degree. Wide hips and large breasts on females, for example, are thought to be linked to a high level of fertility, and a male’s strength, height, and amount of body fat is linked to his ability to protect and defend. The general thinking is that our ancestors selected mates according to these qualities because they signified “good genes,” and eventually those qualities came to represent what we consider “attractive.”
In this study, the scientists wanted to focus on one attractive quality in particular: the appearance of strength in the upper body, which, they write is “one crucial component of a man’s ability to fight.” They also took into account two other variables, the height and weight of the men.
So, Sell and his team showed a bunch of photos of shirtless men to women and asked them to estimate how strong the men looked and rate their attractiveness. The photos they used came from two existing data sets containing pictures of shirtless University of Santa Barbara dudes and measurements of their actual strength, as measured by various strength tests. One data set covered 61 guys with gym access and an average age of 21.1, and the other focused on 131 psychology students with an average age of 18.9. The female raters were college students from Griffith University in Australia (151 women, average age 21.5) and from Oklahoma State University (68 women, average age 22).
Comparing how the women rated the physical attractiveness and estimated the physical strength of each man, the researchers concluded that over 70 percent of a man’s bodily attractiveness is determined by how physically strong he looks. Women also seemed to prefer tallness and leanness, which, when combined with their estimates of physical strength, made up for 80 percent of a man’s attractiveness. Overall, the researchers write, the strongest-looking men were consistently considered the most attractive.
Women, they conclude, must on some level be hardwired to seek out strong men because strong men are good at fighting and protecting, which historically was necessary for a woman’s safety. “The effect of height and weight on attractiveness may indicate that women are responding to cues of health or to the benefits that height and lean bodies have in protracted aggression, hunting and other aspects of fighting ability,” said Sells.
This certainly may have been true for our female ancestors, but it’s not clear to what extent women’s present-day preference for beefy guys has to do with the way they’re hardwired. After all, female survival is no longer contingent on male strength.
While this study does present compelling evidence that women consistently consider fit-looking men attractive, concluding that they do so for only biological reasons fails to acknowledge one crucial point: that modern women have the agency to make choices outside what their biology dictates.
Just because a woman finds Channing Tatum’s fight-ready body attractive doesn’t mean it’s because she latently hopes he’ll strangle a pack of wolves with his bare hands to save his helpless family. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but she may just as well appreciate him for simply aesthetic purposes. For that matter, some women prefer a less muscular man (hey, Eddie Redmayne!) or don’t prefer men at all.
In addition to human biology, a variety of social and cultural elements shape what women now find attractive, just as changes in gender dynamics over the years have shaped a woman’s ability to decide what is attractive. Furthermore, conclusions like these can be damaging for men too: as a commentary on this study in the Guardian pointed out, men who don’t have fighter bodies are not necessarily unattractive.
To their credit, the researchers acknowledge at the end of their article that a woman’s estimation of a man’s strength, based on how his upper body looks, is “only one of many variables that women would need to assess to predict men’s investment potential.” The events of 2017 have brought to light so many egregious abuses men inflict on women that men may be lucky if women bother to continue assessing them at all.