Let me count the theories:
1. Freudian (breasts remind men of their moms and the nurturing of childhood)
2. Evolutionary (breasts resemble buttocks, and prehuman ancestors always mounted from behind)
3. Reproductive (breasts are an indicator of age, and big breasts in particular are a marker of high estrogen levels, associated with fertility).
Do these reasons sufficiently explain why breasts are beloved — even in cultures that don’t eroticize them any more than the face?
If not, here’s another:
Breasts facilitate “pair-bonding” between couples. Men evolved to love breasts because women are likelier to have sex with — and/or become attached to — lovers who handle their breasts.
This idea came up in New York Times journalist John Tierney’s interview with Larry Young, a neuroscientist famous for his research on monogamy. According to Young, “[M]ore attention to breasts could help build long-term bonds through a ‘cocktail of ancient neuropeptides,’ like the oxytocin released during foreplay or orgasm.”
The same oxytocin circuit, he notes, is activated when a woman nurses her infant.
When women’s breasts are suckled, as they are during breastfeeding, the hormone oxytocin is released. Oxytocin makes the mother feel good and helps her bond with her baby. She feels loving and attached. The same reaction might happen if a man sucks and caresses a woman’s breasts during foreplay. In our ancestral past, the most titillated men may have been the ones to attract and retain mates and pass on their genes.
The “boobs-help-bonding” theory may not be the strongest explanation of why men love breasts, but it’s worth introducing to the debate. That said, there are many ladies out there for whom a lover’s suckling does nothing — and there are many breast-ogling boobs who know nothing of foreplay.
Thank goodness Victoria University’s $60,000 “Eyelink 1000” eye-tracking device was available recently to psychology PhD student Barnaby Dixson, for now we have more clarity on what, exactly, men think of women’s breasts.
Dixson recruited men to look at images of naked images of women that were digitally altered to increase or decrease the size of her bust and the color of her areola (the ring around the nipples). In keeping with evolutionary theory and previous experiments on men’s breast size preferences, Dixson hypothesized that guys would gaze longer at larger breasts and prefer light areolae. Fair to light pigmented areolae and nipples would be considered sexier, he reasoned, because these hormonally-sensitive features darken with pregnancy and with age. He also asked the guys to rate the attractiveness of each photo.
But the results weren’t exactly as expected.
Turns out that men did indeed rate women with medium-sized and large breasts as more attractive than women with small breasts. But variation in breast size did not affect their eye movements — they were just as likely to fixate on small breasts as large ones, and for the same number of times.
And the nipple data was even more shocking. The first thing men fixed their gaze on was women’s areolae. And while they fixed their gaze just as often and as long on pale nipples as dark ones, the majority expressed a distinct preference for dark areolae. Dark nipples appear to play a significant role in men’s judgments of women’s attractiveness.
Like large breasts, Dixson reasoned, dark areolae suggest sexual maturity. Yes, older and pregnant women have darker nipples than younger women, but those pigment changes also come from hormones that suggest fertility — high levels of estrogen and progesterone.
Is a successful line of nipple and areolae blush in this PhD student’s future?
Do pretty waitresses get higher tips? Researchers at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration want to know. Why? Because it may affect hiring decisions. The researchers claim in their recent study that evolutionary theory suggests that attractive women should receive higher tips than less attractive women.
To test this theory, the researcher recruited more than 400 restaurant waitresses to complete an online survey, asking them to rate their physical attractiveness, sexiness, age, bra size, hair color, waist size, weight, and average tip percentage.
The findings (or how to increase your tips if you’re a waitress):
1.) Blondes reported receiving larger percentage tips than did waitresses with other hair colors, as expected. However, the blond waitresses in this study did not perceive themselves to be more attractive than the waitresses with other hair colors.
2.) Women with large breasts and/or slender bodies received larger average tips than their counterparts without these characteristics.
3.) Tips increased with age with the largest tips going to women in their thirties.
The author’s analysis:
Perhaps the male restaurant customers were most attracted to the waitresses in their late teens and early twenties as expected, but tipped the waitresses who were in their thirties more than those who were younger because they thought they had a better chance of picking-up the older waitresses. Alternatively, the majority of the male customers in this study, whose average age was probably greater than 35 years old, may have been most attracted to waitresses in their thirties.as men age, they prefer women increasing younger than themselves, but nonetheless prefer increasingly older women in an absolute sense….. Given that the median age in the U.S. is 35 years old and that median age of paying restaurant customers is almost certainly even older,….most of the men is this study may have preferred women in their thirties, which is the age group among waitresses that received the largest tips.
4.) WHR (waist-to-hip ratio) was unrelated to tips in this study. Thick-waisted women were just as likely to get big tips.
Perhaps the effects of WHR on perceptions of physical attractiveness are too small to affect more overt behaviors… Alternatively, the failure to find a WHR effect on tipping may be due to the possibility that the waitresses’ clothing obscured their WHRs to their tipping customers.
The study has several weaknesses. First, it relies on women’s self-reports of their attractiveness, which is always tricky. More importantly, the study didn’t attempt to assess is a waitress’s effectiveness at doing her job. One would think competence and friendliness would would be stronger factors. (Which is most important — competence, friendliness, or looks? Fodder for another study?) Nor did it take into account other variables: venue, uniforms, and customer base. Did the study consider the fact that many customers may be (straight) women?
I, for one, don’t care if my waitress has big breasts or blond hair. I just want my food.
In BLONDES I mention that, for many women, the left breast is slightly — about 4 percent — larger than the right. The factoid was buried in a discussion about sexual selection, the upshot of which is that breasts are a factor even in cultures that don’t eroticize the chest any more than the face. Breast symmetry is one cue of developmental stability, and large and symmetrical breasts suggest “good genes.” That said, yes, it’s normal to have one breast that is slightly larger than the other. The larger your breasts, the more obvious the asymmetry. For about 65 percent of us, the more voluminous one is the left.
Breast asymmetry is associated with rapid growth spurts prior to and during puberty. It’s normal for one breast to respond more to surging estrogen levels. Hormonal disruptions and other development problems accentuate the asymmetry. But why the left? No one knows for sure, but there are interesting theories:
* The immune system is known to be functionally asymmetrical, and immune hypersensitivity is higher on the left side of the body. It’s possible that enhanced immunosensitivity has an effect on tissue-plumping growth hormones such as estrogen. The immune system may send to the brain information that is asymmetrically expressed. Immune system asymmetry may also explain why cancers occur 5-10 percent more often in the left breast and inflammation associated with herpes zoster affects the left side more than the right.
* Nursing infants may make the left breast even larger. Although studies have not found a link between a larger left breast and handedness, many women report that they prefer having their dominant right hand free while breastfeeding, which means infants more often nurse on the left breast. Favoring the left breast makes it larger.
Personally, I prefer the explanation my friend gave her curious eight-year-old daughter when she saw that Mom’s left boob was bigger: It’s because I have a really big heart under it.
In BLONDES I discuss how tall, super-skinny hipless bodies aren’t as desirable to most men as many women think. The average catwalk strutter has a body mass index of 16.5 — skinny enough to be subfertile. Among other reasons why fashion models are long and wispy is that clothes appear more striking on them than on shorter, curvy women. The industry also happens to be dominated by gay men. Fair enough. But what about porn models? Wouldn’t those gals represent the male ideal of the female form?
The answer is not really, according to Eric Holland in the latest issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior. Responding to an earlier study on the measurements of successful porn actresses, Holland, who has become a public voice for the “red-blooded” straight male, made the following points:
1. Porn stars didn’t achieve success in their profession because they have optimal bodies. Holland points out that it’s wrong to assume that just because a woman represents the feminine “ideal” just because she has made it to the top as a porn actress. Her success is attributed to more than looks alone. It may be that those who make it to the top are willing to partake in more extreme acts with more enthusiasm.
2. Women who have many sex partners, or high sociosexuality, tend to have higher testosterone levels. [*] According to Holland, many porn stars have high-testosterone “masculinized” features, e.g. a higher waist-to-hip ratio (more tubular shape), flatter backside, and stronger and more prominent jawline. Men prefer a more feminine body type, says Holland. Breast implants, airbrushing, posing, and fancy filtered lights confuse the eye because they feminize an otherwise high-testosterone look. Holland claims many top porn stars have body types that, if seen pre-op and without light tricks, would strike us as surprisingly masculine. (Focusing on stars, he fails to address the legions of poorly-paid no-name actors with unambiguously feminine body types.)
3. Playboy centerfolds are more masculine because they’re picked by a man thought to be bisexual. Hugh Hefner, the magazine’s editor-in-chief (who has a strong role in the selection process) tends to choose women with more masculine features, especially stronger jawlines. (Hefner, in his bio, has admitted to having had gay sex.) Holland claims that Hefner’s tastes aren’t necessarily those of most straight men. Holland’s photo gallery of popular “masculinized” centerfold models is here.
4. Porn actress measurements are often unreliable anyway. The stats indicate that the median BMI of popular porn stars is 18.3, which is below the threshold of a healthy body weight, whereas some studies have found that men in western societies actually prefer a BMI more like 19.5-20.5 or higher. That said, Holland claims the measurements that accompany a centerfold’s photo might not always be a true reflection of her weight. Sizing up the centerfolds’ bodies, it appears they are heavier than reported. (I describe women’s WHR and BMI in some depth in the book.)
The interesting questions, some unanswerable: Do straight men agree with Holland? To what degree are men’s tastes influenced by porn? Would a guy subtly shift his sensibilities after seeing an erotization of androgenization? Are preferences context-specific — e.g., in porn, are hard tubular bodies and fake oversized breasts hot, whereas in wives they’re not? To what extent does race matter? What does it take to be a porn star, and is there really an implicit selection process that favors more “masculinized women”? Given the range of men’s erotic tastes, which surely involve more than beauty, is Holland’s hypothesis even testable?
Only one thing is clear here: When it comes to women’s bodies, many have much to say, but there’s no clear arbiter of taste. Nor should there be.
* A reader wrote to ask for a study that supports Holland’s assertion that high testosterone in women is associated with having more sex partners. Here’s one (sorry, full-text version for subscribers only).
Straight guys: Do you agree with Holland’s points?
Of her mammoth mammaries Dolly Parton once said, “I don’t know if I’m supporting them, or they’re supporting me.” The price of surgical enhancement: about $10,000. But do big-breasted women really attract more male attention ? To answer the question, psychologist Nicolas Gurguen — who has studied the sexual benefits of makeup, dog ownership, and other social cues– has now added cup size to his repertoire.
Gurguen knew that previous studies found that guys rate large breasts as more physically attractive than average breasts. But does that affect men’s behavior in real-life situations? To find the answer, he created a variety of studies involving young women and an assortment of padded bras. In one experiment, young women were instructed to sit in a nightclub for several nights — sometimes unpadded, sometimes lightly padded, and sometimes heavily padded under a snug shirt — while the researchers counted the number of men who approached them. Unsurprisingly, the bigger a woman’s breasts appeared, the more men approached her.
But here’s the nagging question: Does having big breasts simply boost a woman’s confidence, encouraging her to unconsciously display more seductive body language? Could it be the attitude rather than the boobs that actually attracts guys? Addressing this technicality in a second experiment, Gurguen recruited a twenty-year-old flat-chested woman and gave her his stash of trick bras. Put on a bra under a tight shirt, he said, stand on the side of the road like a hitchhiker, and stick out your thumb to catch a ride. Cars sped by quickly; motorists had time to see the woman’s silhouette but not her expression or any other subtle body language. The woman alternated between wearing unpadded (A-cup), lightly padded (B-cup equivalent), and heavily padded (C-cup equivalent) bras. The results? Size, it turns out, really does make a difference. Significantly more male drivers pulled over when the woman was wearing the C-cup bra than the A-cup bra. (Important: Although more cars stopped for the woman with a C-cup than B-cup silhouette, the difference was not statistically significant.) Female drivers, meanwhile, were no more compelled to stop for a bosomy hitchhiker.
Why are men so attracted to breasts? Do they signal receptivity, fertility, nurture? In BLONDES I address the question from a scientific standpoint — there are several fascinating psychological and evolutionary theories, including a new one from neuroscientist Larry Young that I blogged about earlier this week. Breasts are a hot research topic in these troubled times. Perhaps Gurguen will investigate a link between recessions and breast size. To what extent are women really still willing to pump and pad themselves? How much is a little lift really worth?
Why do men love breasts? In BLONDES I describe the most interesting and promising theories — from the Freudian (breasts remind men of Mom) to the evolutionary (breasts resemble buttocks and prehuman ancestors mounted from behind), and the reproductive (breasts are an indicator of age and big breasts are a marker of high estrogen levels). These are some of the most likely reasons why breasts are beloved even in cultures that don’t eroticize them any more than the face.
A new spin on the male fascination with breasts came up this week in John Tierney’s interview with neuroscientist Larry Young on love blockers. According to Young, “more frequent sex and more attention to breasts could help build long-term bonds through a ‘cocktail of ancient neuropeptides,’ like the oxytocin released during foreplay or orgasm.” The same oxytocin circuit, he notes, is activated when a woman nurses her infant.
The article doesn’t connect all the dots, but the suggestion is as follows: The hormone oxytocin is released when breastfeeding, making the mother feel good and helping her bond with baby. Sucking and caressing a woman’s breasts during foreplay may also trigger oxytocin release. When oxytocin hits the brain, women become more trusting and attached. Men evolved to pay attention to breasts as a means of attracting and retaining lovers.
The “boobs help bonding” theory may not be the strongest explanation of why men love breasts, but it’s worth introducing to the debate. That said, I strongly suspect that there are many women out there for whom a lover’s suckling does nothing — and there are many breast-ogling guys who know nothing of foreplay.