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Why Don't Women Know What Men Find Attractive?

Considering how much time we spend thinking about the opposite sex and their desires, we stink at predicting them.

Photo Credit: Studio10Artur/


My husband likes to squeeze onto what I’ve been taught to call my “muffin top,” the bit of “extra” flesh just above my hips. Recently, he planted a hand on it, squeezed and made a desirous grunting noise that made me think he might eat me alive. “Baby, no!” I protested, batting his hand away. “Don’t squeeze my fat.” His face softened. “But I love it. I love this juicy little oyster,” he said, referencing the  tender, most delicious part of a chicken. “It’s the best.”

Funny, I thought it was the worst.

This isn’t just a case of my particular insecurities and my husband’s sexual idiosyncrasies. Studies have shown that straight women overestimate the importance of thinness in heterosexual men’s perception of female beauty. That is to say, women think men prefer ladies much thinner — and “oyster”-less — than they actually do.

It started with a  study in 1985, which had men and women use a set of figure drawings to indicate “their current figure, their ideal figure, the figure that they felt would be most attractive to the opposite sex, and the opposite sex figure to which they would be most attracted.” They found that “women thought men would like women thinner than men reported they like.” Similarly, men “thought women would like a heavier stature [in men] than females reported they like.” In other words, both sexes were wrong about what was attractive to the opposite sex — but this misperception only hurt women. That’s because men, unlike women, chose “current, ideal and most attractive” figures that were “almost identical.” The researchers wrote, ”Overall, men’s perceptions serve to keep them satisfied with their figures, whereas women’s perceptions place pressure on them to lose weight.”

Three years later, the same research team  found that “mothers and daughters believed that men (of their own generation) prefer much thinner women than these men actually prefer.”

This discrepancy has also attracted the attention of pseudo-scientific surveys. A recent headline in the Daily Mail  read, “Men love Kim Kardashian’s curves while women want Emma Watson’s slim hips: Infographic shows the sexes have VERY different ideas about the body beautiful.” The emphasis isn’t always on the figure. Last year, the media went nuts over a  study commissioned by a beauty retailer (ehem), which found differences between men’s and women’s perceptions of the ideal female face.

These findings make headlines because they’re surprising: Given the enormous industry around self-improvement, shouldn’t we have an accurate sense of what the opposite sex wants? It also seems to go against what evolutionary psychologists like to call “mate selection theory,” which suggests that women should have an accurate perception of what men find attractive, so as to judge their relative “mate value” (which is such a depressingly dehumanizing term, isn’t it?).

Psychologist David Buss, author of  “The Evolution of Desire,” tells me, ”Why women are a bit off in what they think men want is a weird modern phenomenon,” he told me. “My speculation is that it is distorted by media images of repeated exposure to ultra-thin female models that have even been photoshopped to make them look thinner than they really are.”

It is possible to explain in evolutionary terms, though. “One ‘input’ into women’s mating psychology is rival women in their ‘social environment,’” he said. “Ancestrally, of course, women would not have been exposed to hundreds of images of these ultra-thin women; small-group living meant that women had perhaps a dozen or two other women of reproductive age that would have effective same-sex mating rivals.” He speculates that “the thinness oddity” began with “the notion that clothes on models ‘hang better’ if the models are thin.” He explains, “Once the models started to get thin, this provided weird, modern, novel input that hijacked women’s sense of who their effective mating rivals were.”

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