Written All Over Your Face: Stress and Your Fertility
Finnish researchers suggest the laws of attraction may be less about looks and more about your stress levels
When it comes to what society views as a “pretty face,” a new study suggests that a woman’s attractiveness may be less about wide-set eyes or perfect lips and more about what the face reveals about our stress levels. And because stress can interfere with fertility, researchers believe that men may be biologically driven to feel attracted to women with “low stress” faces.
In the study, out of Finland, 52 women were asked to wait until one of the most fertile days of their menstrual cycle and then snap a photo showing only their face. A month before and after taking the selfies, researchers took blood samples that measured the level of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. They also measured women’s body fat percentages, among other factors.
Next, researchers had a group of men rate the photos of the women’s faces for attractiveness on a scale of 0 to 11. The results? Women with the lowest levels of the stress hormone cortisol were consistently ranked as prettier.
“Stress can suppress fertility,” study researcher Markus Rantala, a professor of biology at the University of Turku in Finland, tells LiveScience. Thus, as Rantala explains, men may view women with “chilled out” faces as prettier because “the evolutionary drive to reproduce likely pushes people toward looks that indicate health and fertility.”
Researchers also found that body fat was linked to perceptions of attractiveness, with the thinnest and heaviest women rated by men as being less attractive. As with stress, both obesity and being underweight can cause fertility problems, Rantala points out.
If all this sounds a little sexist, consider this: Women go for low-stress guys, too. According to a 2010 study with a similar set-up, females rated photos of a group of men for attractiveness, masculinity and health. They, too, tended to view as the most handsome guys whose test results showed the lowest cortisol levels. And yes, stress can also affect fertility in men.
So, what does it all mean? If you’re looking to start a family, should you stop fretting about new clothes and make-up… and just book a massage instead?
Emily Barns, a 34-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee, who re-entered the dating scene last year after a divorce, thinks this study may explain why she had a relatively easy time getting a date—she met her new boyfriend in yoga class!
“Now I know why he came up to me to chat after class,” she jokes. “I must have looked ravishingly calm and fertile. But now I’m worried. What’s going to happen if we hit traffic on our next date!”
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