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The strange research of Pettijohn and Tesser on movie actresses, Miss Americas and Playboy Playmates

Terry Pettijohn and Abraham Tesser have published a series of papers on variation in the physical features – mostly facial features – of American movie actresses and actors, Miss Americas and Playboy Playmates of the Year as a function of social and economic conditions from the 1930s to the 1990s.

They found that when social and economic conditions became worse in the U.S.:

  • Actresses with smaller eyes, thinner cheeks and larger chins were more popular.(1, pdf)
  • There was no apparent change in the facial features of popular male actors.(2, pdf)
  • Miss Americas weighed less, and tended toward having wider waists and lower waist-to-hip ratios (WHRs), but there was no change in facial measurements.(pdf)
  • Playboy Playmates of the Year (PMOYs, 1960–2000) became taller, older, smaller eyed, thicker waisted and with a lower WHR, and weighed less, but there was no change in chin dimensions.(3, pdf)

Pettijohn and Tesser argue that these finds lend some support to the environmental security hypothesis, which states that during social and economic hardship, people will prefer more mature facial features since they imply strength, determination and independence, but during prosperous socioeconomic times they will prefer more “neotenous features” such as wider cheekbones, larger eyes and smaller chins because they suggest a more playful, fun and youthful nature.  They have another article on this hypothesis, addressing movie preferences.

Problems with their approach are discussed below:

The preference for “neotenous features” in women is actually a preference for sexually mature feminine features in women.  

Pettijohn and Tesser computed a general hard times measure by taking into account the following variables:

  • Unemployment rate.
  • Change in disposable personal income.
  • Change in consumer price index.
  • Death rate, birth rate.
  • Marriage rate, divorce rate.
  • Suicide rate, homicide rate.

The problem is that for a long time the unemployment rate and the consumer price index have been cooked by the government and bankers.

The facial measurements are problematic, especially for Miss Americas and PMOYs since it is unlikely that they found straight-on face pictures of all these women.

Since features conveying strength, determination and independence would be more reassuring during socioeconomic hardship, this should be observable in the features of popular male actors, but this was not found.

Hollywood executives have a lot of say in who becomes a big star.  The public picks its favorites among those the Hollywood executives have preselected for them.  So the actors assessment isn’t very good.

Playboy Playmates of the Year (PMOYs) are not a good source for assessing men’s preferences:

Hugh Hefner has ultimate say in who appears as a Playmate and who becomes PMOY, but Hefner is not a heterosexual man and likes masculinized women, as evident from the large number of masculinized Playmates.  One needs to seriously consider that Jill Spaulding is right in her allegation that Hefner would make a Playmate a PMOY only after she has sex with him.  Whereas Pettijohn and Tesser make much of Playboy’s circulation in the millions, this is not evidence that it owes its success to its models widely appealing to heterosexual men.  One should not forget that Playboy was a pioneering publication and hit it big, i.e., built brand name recognition, with little to no competition.  Similar publications in recent years would find it difficult to attain comparable success because of the competition, especially in the form of internet sites.

I have pointed out on many occasions that the physical measurements of Playboy centerfolds are unreliable.  Pettijohn and Tesser acknowledged this possibility but argued that the error is in the direction of what heterosexual men generally find desirable at the time.  However, in an analysis of the reported weights and heights of Playmates in the U.S. edition of Playboy magazine from 1953-2003, the average body mass index (BMI) was 18.1 ± 1.32, with 16% averaging a BMI less than 17.(4)  Some relevant BMI thresholds pertaining to underweight for the general population of European ancestry are 18.5-19.0 for sub-normal body fat levels,(5) 17 for compromised physical work capability(6) and about 20 from a psychological health perspective.(7, 8)  A visual examination will clearly reveal that the weights of the Playmates are generally underreported, and even if one insists that they are accurately reported, then a large number of Playmates weigh less than most heterosexual men’s optimum preferences.

In their article on the Playmates, Pettijohn and Tesser cited Tassinary and Hansen (1998) and Puhl and Boland (2001) to document examples of men preferring medically underweight women and with higher waist-to-hip ratios to make a case for strong sociocultural influences, but whereas sociocultural influences matter, both these studies had serious methodological flaws that have been addressed.

Here is the list of Playboy Playmates of the Year, 1960-2000:       

The bolded names feature women with breast implants, the italicized names are of women who may or may not have breast implants in their Playboy pictures.  Their pictures can be obtained from the net if anyone is interested in looking at their breasts.    

2000: Jodi Ann Paterson
1999: Heather Kozar
1998: Karen McDougal
1997: Victoria Silvstedt
1996: Stacy Sanches
1995: Julie Lynn Cialini
1994: Jenny McCarthy
1993: Anna Nicole Smith
1992: Corinna Harney
1991: Lisa Matthews
1990: Reneé Tenison
1989: Kimberley Conrad
1988: India Allen
1987: Donna Edmondson
1986: Kathy Shower
1985: Karen Velez
1984: Barbara Edwards
1983: Marianne Gravatte
1982: Shannon Tweed
1981: Terri Welles
1980: Dorothy Stratten
1979: Monique St. Pierre
1978: Debra Jo Fondren
1977: Patti McGuire
1976: Lillian Müller
1975: Marilyn Lange
1974: Cyndi Wood
1973: Marilyn Cole
1972: Liv Lindeland
1971: Sharon Clark
1970: Claudia Jennings
1969: Connie Kreski
1968: Angela Dorian
1967: Lisa Baker
1966: Allison Parks
1965: Jo Collins
1964: Donna Michelle
1963: June Cochran
1962: Christa Speck
1961: Linda Gamble
1960: Ellen Stratton

Note that whereas the silicon gel breast implant was introduced in the 1960s, it initially resulted in problems such as capsular contracture, i.e., hardening of breast tissue.  However, with improvements in technology, breast implants started catching on from the 1980s onward.

Whereas breasts implants make reported bust measurements largely useless for assessing femininity, their high frequency among PMOYs from the 1980s onward is consistent with Pettijohn and Tesser’s assertion that errors in reported measurements will be in the direction of most heterosexual men’s preferences.  However, Playboy pays its models very well.  It currently pays $25,000 to Playmates and $100,000 to PMOYs, far exceeding what most nude models get.  So why can’t Playboy find attractive nude models with natural breasts?  It can, but Hefner is into masculinized bleached brunettes with fake breasts, and he has been able to largely get away with his choices – Playboy’s current circulation is a few million lower than its peak in the 1970s – thanks to posing tricks, airbrushing and the fact that feminine beauty isn’t in the limelight. 

Whereas both the general hard times measure and the physical measurements of the women considered fluctuate with time, there has been a curvilinear trend in the femininity of the physiques of high-fashion models, Miss Americas and PMOYs in the twentieth century, with the greatest femininity in the mid-twentieth century.  Pettijohn and Tesser’s general hard times measure shows a corresponding overall trend, with the lower values (less hardship) mostly around mid-twentieth century.  So their environmental security hypothesis roughly competes with the explanation of the twentieth century trends I addressed before: 1) the curvilinear trend in high-fashion models corresponds to the curvilinear trend in the strength of the influence of gay fashion designers; 2) the corresponding trend in Miss Americas represents a trickle-down effect of the trend in fashion models given that high-fashion models have the highest status among female models, especially since many Miss America contestants have a fashion modeling background; and 3) the masculinizing trend among Playmates represents Hefner bringing the Playmates more in line with his tastes, the process being facilitated by the masculinizing trend among fashion models and increasingly few prominent feminine beauties that would strongly contrast with the increasingly masculinized Playmates.

I believe that the environmental security hypothesis is a less viable explanation of the curvilinear twentieth century model trends, not only because of the numerous shortcomings of Pettijohn and Tesser’s approach, but also because of another issue involving Playmates.  Whereas the environmental security hypothesis sounds reasonable if it is used to explain people’s preferences for leaders, the appeal of Playmates is at a carnal level.  Why should men prefer less fecund and less fertile women in times of socioeconomic hardship?  To reduce the likelihood of conception and successful pregnancy during hardship?  Whereas this may sound reasonable, the breeding patterns of a large number of humans run counter to this notion.  In developing nations, a large number of people have many children even though they suffer great financial hardship.  This is not merely due to ignorance of family planning since government-sponsored family planning programs have generally been failures.  The white lower class in Western societies also has more children in spite of suffering greater hardship.  Lower class whites usually have basic contraception knowledge and can obtain free condoms.  Even if one focuses on the upper class, the upper class is less affected by socioeconomic hardship and upper class men have less of an incentive to prefer less fecund/fertile women when the economy is down.

One expects nature to have equipped men with an eye for fecund and fertile women even in hardship because a man can impregnate a woman and disappear.  Also, hardship in the form of increased physical labor requirement, various stressors and worsened nutrition would tend to bring down the fecundity and fertility of women.  So women who appear healthy, fecund and fertile during times of hardship will look like they are hardly affected by it and hence would make a promising mother.  So why should men’s fantasy shift toward less feminine women during greater socioeconomic hardship?

Pettijohn and Tesser’s work is strange.  They need to come up with better data.

  1. Pettijohn, T. F., 2nd, and Tesser, A., Popularity in environmental context: facial feature assessment of American movie actresses, Media Psychol, 1, 229 (1999).
  2. Pettijohn, T. F., 2nd, and Tesser, A., History and facial features: The eyes have it for actresses but not for actors, North Am J Pscyhol, 5, 335 (2003).
  3. Pettijohn, T. F., 2nd, and Jungeberg, B. J., Playboy Playmate curves: changes in facial and body feature preferences across social and economic conditions, Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 30, 1186 (2004).
  4. Seifert, T., Anthropomorphic characteristics of centerfold models: trends towards slender figures over time, Int J Eat Disord, 37, 271 (2005).
  5. James, W. P., and Francois, P. J., The choice of cut-off point for distinguishing normal body weights from underweight or 'chronic energy deficiency' in adults, Eur J Clin Nutr, 48 Suppl 3, S179 (1994).
  6. Durnin, J. V., Low body mass index, physical work capacity and physical activity levels, Eur J Clin Nutr, 48 Suppl 3, S39 (1994).
  7. Lundgren, J. D., Anderson, D. A., Thompson, J. K., Shapiro, J. R., and Paulosky, C. A., Perception of teasing in underweight persons: a modification of the perception of teasing scale, Eat Weight Disord, 9, 139 (2004).
  8. Ali, S. M., and Lindstrom, M., Socioeconomic, psychosocial, behavioural, and psychological determinants of BMI among young women: differing patterns for underweight and overweight/obesity, Eur J Public Health, 16, 325 (2006).


The truth behind Body Mass Index(BMI) that it does not necessarily forecast health? The studies indicated that the BMI scale might not be a correct health predictor. Related article I read: BMI and obesity may not predict health problems . Realization that we should not rely on just one medical test with regards to our health condition.

Vardis Cumont,
You would do yourself well to actually read the article you linked to. The article you linked to does not debunk the topic of women that are underweight.

The BMI is a reliable tool to determine underweight status. It is only when it used to determine overweight status that it may not be so reliable. The latter situation is what the article you linked to talks about. It does not talk about underweight status therefore it does not debunk talking about the fashion industry and the mainstream media push for underweight women as supposedly the most attractive when they are not.

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