Different people want different things. In the intricate tapestry of human attraction, a myriad of features and qualities come together to shape our preferences. There's a biological part, a cultural part, and something from our own experience. There's something for everyone out there, or so they say -- but do women like hairy men? Here's what the science says.
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Do women like hairy men? Hormones may play a role
The current western ideal for masculine beauty often revolves around hairlessness. Most women in western countries report they prefer to date men with little or no body hair. But these surveys are typically small and can carry biases. Also, simple surveys don't compensate for relevant aspects -- like hormones.
A study in Finland that did look at hormonal cycles made an intriguing find. The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Turku and Åbo Academy and found that women's preference for hairy men may have a biological basis after all.
The researchers asked 20 male volunteers, aged 20-32 years, to shave their torso hair. Photos were taken before and after and for their trouble, each male participant was awarded a 0.33l bottle of vodka -- a fitting reward.
These photos were then shown to women who were asked to rate how attractive they found each of the photos. Prior to this, the women volunteers were polled regarding their menstrual cycle and how much hair did their current partners and fathers, have.
The findings suggest that women generally prefer men's body hair levels resembling those of their current partners and fathers. During ovulation, however, women prefer less hairy men.
This suggests that biology plays a major role in what women like. The hormonal cycle seems to alter the direction and strength of female preference for attractive traits. What's more interesting, however, is that the study suggests that Finish women prefer men with body hair levels close to their fathers, hinting that this preference is heritable.
"We found that the women’s preferences correlated strongly with the hairiness of their current partners, suggesting that body hair may play a role in actual mate choice. We also found that when the women’s fertility was at its highest, they preferred males with less body hair and that postmenopausal women demonstrated stronger preferences relating to male body hair than did premenopausal women," the researchers suggest in the study.
"This suggests that women’s preferences as to male hairiness may be partly the result of sexual imprinting on paternal body hair and/or that this preference is heritable," the scientists add.
But this is far from the end of the story -- as evolutionary psychologists have shown time and time again, attraction and sexual preferences are rarely straightforward.
Hairy men in different studies
Although this survey was controlled and had a few extra dimensions, it's still a relatively small study, and performed on Finnish women. The preference of Finnish women may not be representative for other regions.
Another study carried out by researchers in Australia compared how attractive women find hairy men, accounting for the women's fertility. The study didn't only look at body hair, it also looked at beards.
"We also tested whether women’s fertility influenced their preferences for beards and body hair by comparing preferences among heterosexual women grouped according their fertility (high fertility, low fertility, and contraceptive use). Results showed that men with more evenly and continuously distributed facial hair from the lower jaw connecting to the mustache and covering the cheeks were judged as more sexually attractive than individuals with more patchy facial hair," the researchers mention.
The study found some pretty interesting things. In general, women saw hairy men as less attractive than those clean shaven. However, there were some exceptions: women liked hair around the areolae, pectoral area, and sternum. Remarkably, there was no effect of fertility on women’s preferences for men’s beard or body hair distribution.
It should be said that two large meta-analyses (studies of studies) found that female fertility doesn't really have an impact on what type of men they perceive as attractive. The only exception is in some instances, for short-term relationships. But overall, it seems that if women like hairy men, they consistently like them.
"Our study provided evidence that the patterned distribution of male facial hair and chest hair affects women’s judgments of men’s physical attractiveness, but such patterns in preferences may not to vary with women’s fertility," the researchers concluded.
But yet again, this isn't the end of the story.
Changing body images and attractiveness
The cultural influences on beauty standards are undeniable. Media and art also are also very influential. Our ideas of masculinity and attractiveness are changing, and you could probably argue that they always have. But when it comes to men and hair, two ideas are in contradiction, one study explains: the idea that men's hair is natural and the idea that men's hair is unattractive.
A third idea could help explain this apparent paradox: women don't like excessive hair. But 'excessive' is once again vague and hard to pin down. If women prefer hairy men, this only works with the 'right' amount of hair, but there's no one 'right' amount, apparently.
However, there is a growing pressure on men to remove what 'extra' hair, even as it's unclear what 'extra' means. Documenting this issue, two researchers from New Zealand comment:
"Although there appears to be increased media-driven expectation toward ‘manscaping’ through removal or reduction in hair from male bodies, it does not appear to be as simple as male hair removal is good, while hair retention is not . In other words, as we have argued in an earlier paper, many Western cultures seem to be in a state of flux with regard to men's hair removal practices, and this could be a trend that follows women's, or potentially shifts in other directions."
However, men still have way more flexibility and choice than women when it comes to hair acceptability. Whether or not women like hairy men is less clear, but men almost always don't prefer hairless women.
"Although the absence of many forms of hair on men's bodies is becoming less commented upon, its presence is still a long way from being treated with the disgust and eradication that women's hair is," the researchers comment in a study aptly called “I think gorilla-like back effusions of hair are rather a turn-off”: ‘Excessive hair’ and male body hair (removal) discourse.
Removing hair is sometimes (but not always) a good idea
Men who feel they have extra hair often feel compelled to groom or eliminate it somehow. But this doesn't always have a happy ending. Hairless men are perceived both as a attractive and as non-masculine, depending on the context (and on who you ask). But this comes and goes with cultural trends and even media trends.
Traditionally, hairy men were perceived as masculine. Male depilation was essentially unheard of. Then, at some point, the ideal male body shifted, influencing many men to reduce and even remove their body hair. Most depictions of the male body feature nowadays tend to feature a little bit of body hair -- but rarely (if ever) excessive body hair.
Remarkably, both gay and straight men were found to be keenly aware their bodily hair. Many men remove their back, buttock, and public hair regularly, and they do so to improve their appearance. In fact, studies suggest that gay and heterosexual men exhibit similar body image concerns.
However, whether or not women prefer hairy men seems to be very cultural.
In China, women consistently rated male figures with little or no trunk hair as more attractive. In the UK, women rated pronounced trunk hair as highly attractive by women in one study. For women in Cameroon, the relationship seems to be more complex.
All in all, no matter how you look at it, there are large cultural variations.
"The occurrence of trunk hair varies tremendously in men and currently there is no cross-cultural evidence that this trait is attractive in a global sense," writes B. J. W. Dixson, who has studied attractiveness.
Body hair is not the be-all-end-all of attractiveness
In many species, male secondary sexual traits (like body hair) have evolved via female choice as they confer benefits in attractiveness. This is partly true in humans, but it seems to be overcome to a large extent by cultural aspects. In fact, there's such a wide variety in responses that it's hard to draw clear conclusions.
Ultimately, attractiveness and the human psychology are very complex and multifaceted. Some women like hairy men, some women don't. For many women, this is almost definitely not an important aspect. However, as a general rule, less hair is often, but not necessarily always, more preferable.
But at the end of the day, neither being hirsute nor hairless is a universal guarantee of attractiveness.
The crux of the hairy debate is that there's no universal answer. Attractiveness, influenced by an intricate blend of cultural, biological, and personal factors, is a deeply subjective concept. What's clear is that the allure of men's body hair goes beyond simple aesthetics. It intertwines with perceptions of masculinity, health, maturity, and a myriad other aspects.