November 30, 2011

The Science Of Attraction, Or, What Is My Body Not Telling Me?

Guest Blogger Alia Wilhelm Wonders What's Behind Attraction And If We Are Really In Control Of Our Behavior

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When I first meet Alex, I am surprised that I don’t find him particularly attractive. His face, flanked by a disordered mass of curly brown hair, is strong and defined. He has the whole “chiseled jaw” thing going on and he’s tall and well built. You’d think that would do it for me, but for some reason his good looks are lost on me.

That changes two weeks later. This time the furrowed brow and the look of eternal confusion seem somewhat mysterious and… well, appealing. Instead of blending in with his other friends, he stands out as more rugged and brawny. Suddenly, I note how handsome he is.

So why is it that the second time I run into Alex he seems so much better looking? Well, as it turns out, it’s really my vagina that’s making the decisions.

It’s that time of the month

The menstrual cycle plays a much larger role in the perception of attractiveness than we think. During ovulation, women tend to be strongly captivated by masculine males: a strong jaw, muscular arms, and broad shoulders. But at all other times in their menstrual cycle, women are not nearly as turned on by these characteristics.

And that’s not the only way menstruating influences women either. During ovulation, which is the peak of fertility, they are much more flirtatious than they would be if they were on their periods, and this is regardless of whether or not they are in a committed romantic relationship.

On the surface, it may not exactly make sense. A woman’s taste in men (assuming she’s heterosexual) should stay constant, regardless of the state of her uterine lining. And her behavior towards the opposite sex should also not be subject to change. She’s the same person when she’s menstruating and when she’s not ovulating, so why the big change in behavior?

Although experts may not yet have all of the answers, evolutionary psychologists are certainly making an effort to find explanations for this strange phenomenon. It actually makes sense, they say, for a woman to risk infidelity when she hits the fertility peak. For her, this is when she has the highest chance of becoming pregnant with a ravishing male.

But then why does she suddenly find masculine men more attractive? Because masculinity is often an indicator of better genes. Similarly, people who are better-looking are also speculated to possess DNA with less mutations. As a result, a gorgeous guy is someone a woman would risk pregnancy for because he will pass on “good genes” that will enable his offspring to survive more easily.

It isn’t only a woman’s perceptions that get tangled up and experience a transformation in relation to the ebb and flow of her menstrual cycle: it’s also her appearance. The physical changes are very subtle, but a woman who is ovulating is thought by single men to be more attractive than when she is menstruating, although men who have girlfriends or wives will actually rate her less attractive.

A female lap dancer who has hit her fertility peak gets better tips. She smells better and the pitch of her voice gets higher. She craves partying and dancing more. Men respond to her body with increased testosterone.

It is easy to miss all of the minuscule ways in which a woman is affected by her menstrual cycle, particularly because the changes are often almost unnoticeable. But the vagina plays an undeniable role in the perception of beauty. In some ways, it controls who we fall for and when we fall for someone. How fertile we are at any given moment is unmistakably important in guiding behavior and decisions.

So maybe next time I see Alex, depending on what point of the menstrual cycle I’m at, he’ll seem even better-looking to me. Who knows? I don’t, but maybe my vagina does.

Alia Wilhelm is a student at Northwestern University where she studies Journalism and Psychology.


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