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Male body hair a turn off for fertile women

The menstrual cycle determines the kind of male body that women find attractive. The more likely a woman is to have children in the short term, the less she's likely to be turned on by male body hair, according to the results of a study in which 299 women participated. The study will be published soon in Behavioral Ecology.

In many cultures body hair is regarded as a sign of virility. Psychologists refer to textbooks on endocrinology for an explanation: body hair is the result of testosterone, so the amount of body hair says something about the amount of testosterone in a man's body. Therefore body hair is a signal to women – still going by the text books – that men are fertile, sexually mature and strong. If you believe in evolution, and believe therefore that women will choose men who can provide strong offspring, then you'd expect fertile women to go for men with hairy bodies.

But if you look at magazines, films and TV programmes aimed at young women, the male bodies shown are hardly ever hairy. Which would suggest that women actually prefer men without body hair. So which way does it cut?

Finnish psychologists at the University of Turku decided to study the matter. They took photos of the torsos of 20 men (average age 25) with body hair, then shaved the hair and took new photos of the men’s upper bodies. The researchers then got 299 women to score the photos for attractiveness.

Male body hair a turn off for fertile women Male body hair a turn off for fertile women

The researchers used the results to calculate how attractive women find men with body hair. They discovered that young women in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle found body hair the least attractive. Young women who were pregnant or in a non-fertile phase of their cycle found body hair more attractive. And women who were in the menopause, and could no longer become pregnant, had even less problem with body hair.

Male body hair a turn off for fertile women

So psychologists who use endocrinology to explain women's preferences are on the wrong track. One theory that the Finns propose is that fertile women don't so much look at body hair, but are more interested in looking at a man's muscles to work out whether he's got good genes. And you see muscles better on a hairless body.

The Finns take their speculation further by citing recent studies that suggest that body hair has less to do with testosterone and more to do with estradiol. When men become fathers, the concentration of estradiol in their body increases. This changes their character slightly, making them better able to take care of their children. So body hair may tell women something about a man's caring potential. That would explain why women who are not, or no longer, going to have children have no problem with hairy male bodies – or even prefer hairy men.

Behavioral Ecology 2010 21(2): 419-423.

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