Will sculpting your body to perfection help you to find a romantic partner? Perhaps, but it may not be as important as another part of your anatomy (no, not that part; get your mind out of the gutter!). A recent study suggests that both men and women actually pay more attention to faces than they do to bodies when looking for a long-term lover. When it comes to one-night stands, however, women still focus on the face, whereas men shift their priority to the body.1
In this study, heterosexual college students had to select whether they would rather see a photograph of the face or body of an opposite-sex individual, but they could not see both. Half of the time, this person was described as a potential short-term partner (i.e., a one-night stand); the other half of the time the person was described as a potential long-term partner (i.e., marriage material).
Results indicated that women showed a strong preference for seeing faces rather than bodies, regardless of how the partner was described. In comparison, men were more interested in seeing the body instead of the face for the short-term partner, but for the long-term mate, men wanted to see the face rather than the body.
How do we explain these results? We don’t know for certain why participants showed the preferences they did, but the authors of the study speculated that it may have its basis in evolutionary theory. If you’ll recall from previous articles, this theory proposes that we are motivated to produce as many offspring as possible and that we have evolved certain mating tendencies that help us to do so. The authors argue that a woman’s body is a better cue to her current fertility status (i.e., her ability to successfully conceive children) than her face. For example, men can look at a woman’s waist-to-hip ratio and judge whether she is likely to have an easier time birthing babies. It’s a biological fact that women who have hips bigger than their waists have fewer complications during childbirth. It’s thought that our male ancestors picked up on this, which laid the basis for modern man’s preference for “hourglass” shaped women. Thus, a woman’s body may be a more adaptive consideration when selecting a short-term mating partner–or at least it was for our ancestors, who didn’t have access to highly-skilled doctors and C-sections.
In contrast, a woman’s face is a better symbol of her overall reproductive value because the face conveys more information about her age and health. Younger women have more reproductive value because they will be fertile for a longer period of time. So, for a long-term relationship, it makes sense for men to pay closer attention to a woman’s face because it’s more likely to clue them into the length of her fertility window. Again, this was more adaptive for our ancestors, who existed before the inventions of makeup and plastic surgery, which can effectively conceal a person’s true age.
As for men’s bodies, the authors argue that they aren’t necessarily a better indicator of fertility status than the face (because men are pretty much always fertile), so there is no benefit to women assigning the body greater priority in a short-term encounter. In fact, it may be more adaptive for women to always focus on the face because faces provide signs of health and genetic fitness, in addition to important social cues, such as how interested he is in her.
All in all, when it comes to finding true love, science suggests that a good face may be more important than a rocking body.
1Confer, J. C., Perilloux, C., & Buss, D. M. (2010). More than just a pretty face: Men’s priority shifts toward bodily attractiveness in short-term versus long-term mating contexts. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 348-353.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller’s research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.