Men Look at Women's Bodies: Is Evolution at Work?

The Beauty Advantage: A special report

Women seeking a one-night stand might consider wearing a push-up bra and high heels to a bar, but those searching for a spouse might want to focus on applying eyeliner and lipstick. At least, that seems to be part of the takeaway from a new study that found that men look for good bodies in short-term mates but pretty faces in long-term partners. As for men, maybe weightlifting shouldn't be a priority. According to the study, women care more about faces than bodies for both short- and long-term relationships.

The fact that men (and, in this particular study, college men) were more interested in seeing a woman's body for a one-time hookup isn't too shocking. The question is whether natural selection really shaped that preference, as the study claims. According to the psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin who conducted the study, a woman's body generally provides information about her current state of fertility. "There are some cues that can only be conveyed by a woman's body, like her pregnancy status," says Jaime Confer, who coauthored the study with graduate student Carin Perilloux and Prof. David Buss. "Men's psychology is designed to attend to that." In other words, men are wired to choose to view a woman's body for a one-night stand because, back in the Stone Age, they needed to make sure that a potential sex partner didn't already have a bump in her belly.

The study may provide new insight into people's romantic preferences today, but critics say the findings may tell us more about Western values than about human biology—which may often be the case with research that attempts to assign evolutionary motives to modern behavior. Indeed, the study looked only at 375 college students on one campus, the University of Texas at Austin. Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist and philosopher at Lehman College of the City University of New York, says that further research across cultures and time would be needed to make a compelling case for evolution's role in the results. Moreover, Pigliucci suspects that some cultural forces are at work. "We live in a society where it's OK for a man to look at a body, but for a woman it's considered a little beneath her to be interested in physical appearance," he says. "I would be surprised if that were true in a culture where there are no TV ads and where people go around naked on a regular basis."

Why might men be more interested in seeing a woman's face when marriage is an option? While 49 percent of men chose to look at a woman's face for a one-night stand, 75 percent opted to view her face for a long-term relationship. "One possibility is that we judge people's characters from their faces—whether they are honest, kind, and smart," says Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard. "These matter a lot more when you're married to someone than if you're just having a one-night stand."

While participants in the study had the option of looking only at either head or body—but not both—the real world offers us a more complete picture of people, of course. The bottom line? "Don't neglect your face or your body," Confer says. "It all still matters." Being nice probably won't hurt either.