When it comes to their sexual partners, female college students now appear to value physical attractiveness just as much as male students, according to research published in Evolutionary Psychological Science that examined the relationship between exercise habits and mate value. The finding provides a preliminary indication that women’s preferences in the opposite-sex might be shifting in response to societal changes.
“Physical appearance dominates the world in which we live, from advertising to our choices in sexual partners (mates) — and attractiveness (broadly defined) is a powerful indicator of social class and many socio-economic and health outcomes,” explained lead researcher Urska Dobersek, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Indiana.
“Thus, while the question of ‘what makes me attractive?’ is an integral part of everyone’s identity, the idiosyncratic (subjective and ephemeral) nature of ‘attractiveness’ makes it an engaging and productive research path.”
“Given the dramatic surge in obesity, body-image issues, and mental illness over the past two decades, an observational study examining the relations between exercise and mate value was a logical first step. Our second step (well underway) is examining this relation in non-binary populations,” Dobersek said.
In the study, 265 undergraduate students reported their exercise frequency and the length of their typical exercise bouts. They also completed the Mate Value Inventory, in which they were shown a number of characteristics (such as ambitious, attractive body, generous, good sense of humor, intelligent) and asked to indicate how well the traits described them. The participants also indicated which characteristics they desired in their “ideal” sexual partner.
The researchers found that students who exercised four or more times per week tended to have higher self-perceived mate value compared with individuals who exercised less frequently. In other words, frequent exercisers were more likely to view themselves as more desirable partners with better traits. Those who viewed themselves as having a higher mate value, in turn, desired partners with higher mate values.
The findings indicate that people should exercise on a regular basis — for both their own health and their attractiveness, Dobersek told PsyPost. “Please note that I did not say ‘exercise for appearance’ because attractiveness is founded upon much more than ‘looks.'”
Dobersek and her colleagues also found that female students valued independence and generosity in their ideal mates more than male students. Surprisingly, male students did not prefer physical attractiveness more than female students.
“We found that both males and females desire mates that are physically attractive. And given that exercise can alter our body, our body image (and concomitantly our confidence), it is worth exercising on a regular basis for reasons that extend well beyond health — especially if we are single,” Dobersek explained.
“For example, we found that people who exercise more frequently value themselves more as partners/mates compared to people who exercise less frequently. And as trite as it may sound, if we do not value ourselves, it will be difficult for others to do so.”
The study includes three main caveats.
“First, our study was observational. As such, our findings do not imply causality (e.g., exercise leads to an increased mate value). Nevertheless, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that bolsters our conclusions,” Dobersek said.
“Second, as stated above, there are many other factors that make us attractive (physically or otherwise) which we did not or could not examine nor control. Third, our findings can only generalize to the sample we collected (college-age, white, primary heterosexual population). Our more recent work examines whether similar patterns can be observed in LGBTQ+ communities. Nevertheless, more rigorous research is needed.”
The fact that the researchers found no significant differences between men and women in their preference for their mates’ physical appearance is interesting, given that it conflicts with prior research. Dobersek and her colleagues had expected that male students would value physical attractiveness more than their female counterparts.
But women’s growing financial independence and exposure to media images of extreme male physiques may be causing a shift in young women’s preferences, the researchers said.
“A great deal of what ‘we’ (the scientific community) know (or think we know) is based on data from decades ago,” Dobersek explained. “These data, however interesting and valuable, may no longer apply to current and future generations given how the internet, the #MeToo and LGBTQ+ movements and other recent developments have altered how men, women, and everyone in-between views themselves and potential mates and partners. Please note that I make the distinction between ‘mate’ and ‘partner’ because a growing number of people appear to be interested in non-sexual relationships.”
The study, “Does Exercise Make Me More Attractive? Exploring the Relations Between Exercise and Mate Value“, was authored by Urska Dobersek, Bridget Stallings, Gabrielle C. Wy, Charleen R. Case, and Jon K. Maner.