Learning that straight women in Western countries prefer the appearance of more feminine-looking men might explain the Twlight craze. But what’s it say about masculinity?
We won’t get into the details of the experiment done through Faceresearch.org, but women from all over the world identified men who they were more attracted to after seeing images like the one above — where side-by-side photos of different version of the same guy were displayed. Researchers, then, “could predict how masculine a woman likes her men based on her nation’s World Health Organization statistics for mortality rates, life expectancy and the impact of communicable disease,” reports WSJ. “In countries where poor health is particularly a threat to survival, women leaned toward “manlier” men. That is, they preferred their males to have shorter, broader faces and stronger eyebrows, cheekbones and jaw lines.”
To a person unfamiliar with the field of evolutionary psychology, this may sound a little far-fetched. How is it even possible to link a woman’s masculinity preferences to the health of her nation? The answer begins with the theory of sexual selection. It goes that women are the choosier sex because they take on most of the risk and burden of reproduction and child rearing. While a man can sleep around with 100 women in a year’s time and have 100 kids, a woman who sleeps with 100 men in a year will only have one baby (barring multiples). She has more at stake in each pregnancy. Therefore, it is in her best interest to at least choose a high-quality mate. And one of the hallmarks of a quality male is good health.
But what does health have to do with masculinity? The link is testosterone, the hormone behind manly muscles, strong jaws, prominent eyebrow ridges, facial hair and deep voices. Testosterone is immunosuppressive. This means a man must be healthy and in good condition to withstand its effects on his development. Testosterone is also linked to other traits related to strength: fitness, fertility and dominance. From an evolutionary perspective, masculinity is basically man’s way of advertising good genes, dominance and likelihood to father healthier kids. When disease is a real threat, as it had been—and arguably still is—heritable health is invaluable.
Masculinity, however, can come at a high price. Women often think of high-testosterone types as uncooperative, unsympathetic, philandering, aggressive and disinterested in parenting. In fact, there is evidence that they really do have more relationship problems than other men. In a small study led by psychologist James Roney at the University of Santa Barbara, 29 women were asked to look at photos of men and rate their masculinity and fondness for infants. (The men had already been tested for child-friendliness and testosterone levels.) The men who were rated as the most masculine generally had higher testosterone levels; the women also were generally accurate in assessing child-friendliness.
Indeed, women from poorer, less healthy countries preferred more masculine-looking men. But as we make a global effort to eradicate poverty and increase life-span, are we also eradicating the appeal of guys who say things like Hey, brah?
And what does any of this mean for gay men who prefer masculine or feminine guys? Or lesbian women? Without the conclusion that attractiveness is based on reproductive need — something gay men and women don’t seek out partners to do biologically — where’s the scientific explanation for why one of our male writers loves himself some twinks, while another has dated three cromagnon types in a row? (Sorry, Scott!)