The economy alters our notion of attractiveness

Emma Thompson
Research shows that thinner faces and smaller eyes are perceived as more attractive during times of recession. Emma Thompson, shown here in the 1992 movie Howard's End, had one of most popular faces of the early 1990s, when the U.S. economy was down.
Photo rights: Merchant Ivory Productions

It's said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But, as it turns out, the state of the economy has a way of altering our vision.

"When socioeconomic times change so can our preferences for what we find attractive and what we prefer," said Terry Pettijohn, a psychology professor at Coastal Carolina University. "Those can change as well."

Pettijohn never bought into the idea that beauty is a set standard. Just looking at the covers of fashion magazines, he could see that what society considers attractive is constantly in flux. One year, women with pouty lips are all the rage; the next, high cheek bones are the key to good looks.

Pettijohn was curious about the role the economy plays in these shifting preferences of prettiness. So, he set up a study.

"We went back in history from 1932 to 1995," Pettijohn said. "We collected the most popular American movie actresses and we looked at their facial features. We found when socioeconomic times were more threatening and more challenging, movie actresses with more mature kinds of features tended to be more popular during those years.

"And when times were better, individuals with more baby-face types of features, such as larger eyes and rounder faces, were the ones that were selected as the most popular during those times."

In the early 1980s, for example, the country was emerging from a recession. Things were looking up. That's when women like Sissy Spacek and Sally Field really made it big on the big screen. Both actresses, says Pettijohn, had young, almost cherubic features. The same could be said for a young Bette Davis, who had one of the most popular faces during the 1940s, another era where prosperity was on the rise.

The early 1990s, on the other hand, were a time of economic struggle. During those years, Emma Thompson and Sharon Stone were among the most celebrated actresses. Both had strong bone structures, smaller eyes and more mature-looking faces.

Pettijohn's study concluded that our perception of what makes a women's face attractive changes as the economy changes. He then decided to take his theory one step further. Instead of simply studying facial features, he started to examine popular body types as well. His research led him to Playboy Playmates.

"We found a sample of individuals that society finds highly attractive," Pettijohn said. "Then we looked at them historically to see if we could find the same type of relationships."

He compared 40 years of the magazine's models to the annual economic data.

"We found that when times were more difficult, Playmates of the Year tended to be relatively taller, relatively heavier and older," he said.

And vice versa. During the country's economic ups, younger, thinner, shorter women were more likely to make the pages of the magazine.

Economically-stable 1964 brought the thinnest Playmate, while turbulent 1993 saw the tallest and the heaviest.

Pettijohn said there's a psychological reason for all of this.

"In different environmental situations we have a greater need for certain kinds of qualities in other individuals," Pettijohn said. "When times are more difficult and challenging, we'd be more interested in individuals that have more independence and more strength. And when times are better, that becomes less necessary and therefore we aren't selecting based on those preferences."

Simply put, the worse the economy gets, the more attractive maturity -- at least the appearance of maturity -- becomes.

"But," added Pettijohn, "it's not something we're constantly sitting there thinking, 'You know, it's a tough time so therefore I need to select someone like this.' It's much more subtle."

It's more of a subconscious desire, explained Pettijohn, a desire to surround ourselves with women who look dependable and capable, women who would look like they could take care of us and make everything better. And in difficult times, that's pretty attractive.

By the way, while Pettijohn found society's tastes in females changed along with the economy, he didn't see any changes in what's considered attractive in men.

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