Playing the Mating Game

What do women want, anyway? If you interpret Freud's question as asking about women's taste in men, then the answer is... it depends on when you ask them. In the latest salvo in the scientific battle over how much of sexual behavior is shaped by genes and how much by culture, researchers in Scotland and Japan have concluded that a woman's fertility status determines whether she goes for studly hunks with jutting jaws or the guy with the softer, more feminine face.

In the study, the scientists showed composite photos of men to 39 Japanese women. During the one week of their menstrual cycle when the women could conceive, they preferred men with rugged, stereotypically masculine features, the team reports in the current issue of the journal Nature. The other three weeks of the month, when the odds of getting pregnant are low, the women went for rounder, more "feminine" faces. The explanation, suggests psychologist David Perrett of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is that a woman able to conceive prefers (unconsciously) the guy whose macho looks advertise good health and thus good genes for any kids he sires. A woman who cannot get pregnant, however, wants a relationship with the guy whose looks scream "good provider; stable guy"--perhaps figuring that he's worth keeping around for husband duty. In other words, a woman's best evolutionary strategy is to secretly mate with the hunk with good genes while keeping the kindly guy around for long-term support and parenting.

That's not the only reason the scientists' conclusions are controversial. The link between attractiveness and good-health genes has inspired headlines and books for several years now. The idea is that we subconsciously prefer beautiful people not because Madison Avenue tells us to but because beauty is an honest advertisement of both health--and thus the potential to have healthy offspring--and fertility in men as well as women. That's the kind of mate our genes tell us to fall for, according to evolutionary psychologists. But a study last year led by psychologist S. Michael Kalick of the University of Massachusetts found that men and women whose faces are rated very attractive are no healthier as adolescents or adults than people rated, well, homely. Attractiveness wasn't even related to the number of children the person had, casting doubt on whether beauty is a marker for fertility, as the theory claims. Even the most notorious preference in female beauty--for an hourglass figure--is now looking less like a biological imperative than a response to Barbie and Vogue: culturally isolated tribes do not prefer curvaceous women, scientists reported last year. Similarly, simple lust--not an unconscious calculation of who would make a good stud and who a good husband--may determine what kind of man turns a woman on when. A woman is most libidinous in one phase of her cycle. As every Calvin Klein ad teaches, the guy with chiseled good looks is more likely to give her what she wants.