Popular media is replete with images of muscular men with six-pack abs and a well-defined V-shaped upper body. But how relevant are these images to what women actually desire? Here is a lowdown on the sexual appeal of muscular men and body builders and whether women truly find them attractive.
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The ideal male body image as evident from representations in the media, both print and electronic, seems to be a mesomorphic body type with large defined muscles and low body fat. Macho-looking men from Hollywood like Denzel Washington or across the Atlantic like Christian Bale of “The Dark Knight” fame can send women week on their knees. As do the chiseled male bodies modeling for Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, DKNY and a host of other international brands.
The primary reason why women may find muscular men attractive is because the physical characteristics indicate strength and virility, qualities which must have mattered a lot in the process of evolution. Limited availability of food and the necessity for successful reproduction in primitive times were the prime concerns of human tribes. Thus when it came to choosing partners, women realized that their best chances lay in men who were strong and healthy enough to hunt for food as well keep their partners and children safe from enemies. Long years of this conditioning have led to almost a genetic predisposition among women which makes them partial towards men with muscles and a great physique. It is almost a visceral response evident in the way a group of women will immediately turn to look at a well-built man when he walks through the door in a pub.
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Evidence of women’s partiality towards the body-builder type of men was put forward by a 2007 study carried out by researchers of University of California, Los Angeles. In the study ninety-nine male undergraduates were interviewed about their sexual histories. It was found that the muscular subjects were twice as likely to have three or more sexual partners than their less-chiseled peers. Lead author of the study, David Frederick of UCLA explained the results by likening muscles in men to elaborate tail feathers in male peacocks, the chief purpose of both being to attract the female sex by displaying signs of virility. The study, the results of which were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, was important in highlighting the significance of physical traits in men which made them attractive to women. According to Frederick hitherto most research has been limited to what men found physically attractive in women or how the earning potential of men influenced their desirability among women. However this study proved that physical traits in men were equally if not more important when it came to attracting partners from the opposite sex.
However since humans started living in organized social structures, the link between a muscular body type and high quality of life no longer remained so simple. With every stage of evolution, it was a person’s control over economic resources that determined his ability to look after a partner and offspring. This eventually resulted in a man’s financial status as the prime attraction when it came to women looking for a mate. But now with growing economic empowerment of women, other factors like level of commitment and emotional intelligence have assumed equal importance in the choice of partners. Women no longer need a man to provide for her and thus settling for a partner now is more about mutual compatibility and emotional support rather than muscles and money.
The shifting priorities in what attracts women most has also been documented in recent research. A study carried out by the researchers of University of West England this year found that women were equally attracted to men of average build as to muscular male models. During the research women subjects were shown a selection of differently-shaped men in a series of mock ‘ads’ and then asked to rate their preferences. The results showed that the average male build was found as desirable by the female subjects as the Greek God image with the six pack abs. According to research chief Phillipa Diedrichs, the findings of the study raised questions about the efficacy of using “ultra-muscular men” in ad campaigns. Results of the study, which is part of the research on “unrealistic body types” in advertising have been published in the journal Body Image.
The ambiguity in women’s response to the muscular male body is also evident in studies which have confirmed their attractiveness to the well-built body type. In the earlier mentioned study carried out by researchers of UCLA, while muscular men were found to have more sexual partners than men of average build, sexual preferences of women subjects were not as simple. Lead researcher David Frederick and his colleagues asked 141 female college students to look at six standardized silhouettes of men ranging from the slender to the muscular and rate their preferences. The majority of women subjects went for a toned silhouette which indicated health and fitness but not exactly the body builder type.
There are many reasons why muscle bound men may not rank at the top when it comes to women looking for long term relationships. In the context of the UCLA study, Frederick explained that while women find muscular men sexy, the particular body type is also associated with other “cave-men” characteristics like violence, aggression and a dominating personality. At the same time such men are also less likely to be entirely committed to a single partner, as the results of the study revealed. So when seeking a long term partner, women were more likely to steer away from muscular men and instead look for qualities like commitment, financial security and emotional compatibility which is why perhaps average looking guys stand an equal chance to win female hearts.
What attracts women most is a question as old as the hills. The reason why there can be no single definite answer to this is not only because women vary in their personal preferences but also because sexuality is a product of cultural, social and historical conditioning.