In the November/December 1993 issue, we asked readers to help identify how contemporary men and women perceive and value male appearance. Over 1,500 responded with completed questionnaires and comments. Sixty-four percent were women. The average age for men was 37; for women, 34. The overwhelming majority were white. Occupations varied from businessmen and women to nurses, students, salespeople, secretaries, and homemakers. Most respondents were college educated and 87 percent were exclusively heterosexual. Nearly half had never been married.
Although far from a random sample, our respondents' answers suggested some intriguing trends. Men assumed that male appearance had a greater impact on heterosexual relations than women acknowledged. Yet although most women played down male appearance, there was an identifiable sub-group of women who placed high value on male physical features and sexual attributes. These women were on average slightly older, more financially independent, and rated themselves more physically attractive. But even when women indicated definite preferences for particular physical characteristics, they often seemed to adapt these preferences to the realities of their partner.
One of our main concerns was the extent to which women considered male appearance in choosing partners. Women were asked to rank eight factors in selecting a man for a romantic relationship: four personality variables and four physical variables. We asked men to estimate how women would rank these same factors.
Personality won hands down. Both men and women rated intelligence and sense of humor as most important, sexual performance and physical strength as least important. This suggests that despite escalating cultural emphasis on male looks, both sexes still believe that women choose men more by character than appearance.
Men nonetheless overestimated the importance women place on certain male physical characteristics. They thought an attractive face was more important to women than empathy and the ability to talk about feelings. They also assumed that body build had greater significance than women indicated.
One surprising finding was the importance of cleanliness. We didn't think to formally inquire about such basics as soap, shampoo, and toothpaste. But the most frequent written comments -- all from women -- related to male hygiene. A 44-year-old stated, "While I am not as concerned with the physical appearance of a male partner, cleanliness ranks as number one on my list." Another wrote, "What is the biggest turnoff? Poor grooming. A man who needs a shower, has dirty hands, wears soiled clothes, or needs to brush his teeth is a complete turnoff." Dental hygiene was a particular concern.
Both sexes assumed that a trimmer, taller male would be judged more attractive. Women definitely favored taller males, the majority endorsing the statement that being with a tall man made them feel more feminine. Most women indicated they wouldn't date a shorter man. Almost a third insisted the man be taller than the woman and another third would date a man of their own height but no shorter.
Two groups particularly valued height, taller women and women rating themselves more attractive. But height preference often gave way to practicality: taller women were much more likely to accept a date from a shorter male. As one 5'10" women confessed, "My husband is six inches shorter than I. Initially, I refused to even consider him for this reason. In reality, I was able to train myself to accept something else."
Weight worked much the same way. Overweight men were clearly less desirable to women. Thirty percent of female respondents found men more than 10 pounds overweight unacceptable as dates; 70 percent found more than 20 pounds overweight unacceptable; and at 40 pounds or more overweight, men were unacceptable to 90 percent of respondents.
Male participants were moderately concerned about their weight. About 63 percent would like to lose some weight; approximately half of them would be pleased with a 6-to-15 pound loss. Weight gain was an issue for another 19 percent, who wanted additional muscle mass.
Women, however, tended to be less critical of their partner's weight. Only 44 percent wanted their partner to lose weight, and half of these women would be happy with a modest 6-to-15 pound reduction. Thinner women tended to express more desire for their partners to trim down.
When respondents judged their own attractiveness, there was a major difference in how men and women viewed extra weight. Twenty-five percent of the men who rated themselves "very attractive" were overweight. But even modestly overweight women excluded themselves from this category: only 6 percent of very attractive women said they were too heavy.
Men and women also parted company in the domain of male muscle mass. Men value muscle mass, while women are less interested in oversized biceps and pecs. In ranking male body types, women gave first place to "medium with moderate muscle mass," while "medium with competition muscle mass" came in a lowly fourth. When men estimated women's preferences, however, competition body build narrowly missed second place.
We asked women directly, "how important it is for you that [a man] have noticeable muscles," and we asked men how important muscles were to them. The differences were striking: twice as many women as men said that male muscles did not matter at all.
Male fascination with muscles may have more to do with other men than with women. Men were aware that massive muscles were no major attraction to women. Only 27 percent agreed with the statement, "Men pictured in body-building magazines are attractive to most women." In fact, just 20 percent of women acknowledged finding body builders attractive.