October 09, 2009
By Nicole Baute
Move over, Sean Connery, with your gravelly voice and plentiful testosterone. Those birth control pills popped daily by women around the world might leave husky, masculine types like you by the wayside, neglected for feminine, boyish sorts like Zac Efron, Leonardo DiCaprio or the Jonas brothers.
A new study published in the British journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution suggests that women who take the pill may be attracted to more feminine men than women who do not.
“When you’re on the pill, you don’t show the cyclicity in mate preferences,” says Alexandra Alvergne of the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, one of the study’s co-authors.
Normally women are attracted to different types of men at different points in their cycle, Alvergne says. When women ovulate, they prefer masculine men with symmetrical faces who are “genetically dissimilar” to them — in other words, their animal instincts crave someone who will father strong, healthy offspring.
During the rest of the month, women are looking for something different: men for the long haul, who seem caring, feminine and more similar to them genetically.
“In the long run, you’re looking for a parental investment, but for the genetic quality of the child, you’re looking for good genes in the man,” Alvergne says. “And you can’t always have it all.”
The birth control pill was introduced in the early 1960s, giving women unprecedented control over their bodies. It is now used by 100 million women worldwide, including 50 per cent of Western European women and 20 per cent of North American women.
Daily use of the pill increases and “smoothens” women’s levels of estrogen and progesterone by mimicking the hormonal state of pregnancy. Alvergne and colleague Virpi Lummaa reviewed seven recent studies and found that the hormonal changes may alter what women find attractive.
But there are also cultural reasons that might explain a woman’s desire for a boyish mate.
Marc Ouellette, a professor of cultural studies at McMaster University, says society is obsessed with youthfulness, in part because the baby boomers are getting old and wishing they looked young.
“Ageism is unfortunately rampant,” he says. “We fear getting old.”
For a quick overview of how the male ideal has changed since the 1960s, Ouellette says we need only to look at James Bond, who has gone from a “very hairy” Sean Connery to a hairless, boyish, chiselled Daniel Craig.
Christine Hitchcock, a research associate at the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research at the University of British Columbia, says that while the pill can be a good option for women, it is used too readily and for far too many purposes, such as regulating a women’s menstrual cycle.
“This is another revelation of one of the ways in which menstrual cycles organize women’s lives in physiology, that we didn’t previously understand,” she says.
Hitchcock says the physiological cues people use to select mates are really what many people would refer to as “chemistry.”
If the effect of the pill is strong enough to modify actual mate choice — which remains unknown — there could be disconcerting consequences.
When parents are too genetically similar their offspring may be genetically weak, or it could be difficult for them to reproduce at all, which means there could be evolutionary implications.
And if a woman meets a man while on the pill and then goes off it, it is possible that she could become less attracted to her partner.
The pill might change the game on both sides, as men may be more attracted to fertile women, the co-authors wrote. In a study of lap dancers, the ovulating dancers earned $20 more per hour on average.
Ovulation induces changes in the physical properties of women that men pick up on, including changes in facial appearance, odour or voice pitch. When they are ovulating women may also dress more provocatively, be more interested in sex and perceive themselves as more attractive.
“For the same woman, if she takes the pill throughout all her cycles she’s going to be less attractive on average than if she was off the pill,” Alvergne says.
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