An old joke tells of four women who interview for a job with a male boss. The choice is difficult because all four are clearly qualified. So who gets the job? The one with the largest breasts.
Men typically smile at the punch line, but women often cringe, feeling tyrannized by breast size the way many men feel oppressed by the size of something else—except that penises are usually hidden, while women’s chests are routinely visible and often accentuated by clothing.
Personally, I’ve never understood men’s supposed preference for big boobs. In my relationships, the women’s breasts have ranged from small to large, and I’ve never cared. When I got involved with women who were smart, kind, and fun, who could put up with me, and who were willing to remove their bras, I felt so grateful that I thoroughly enjoyed whatever fell out of them.
The Conventional Wisdom: Men Prefer Large Breasts
But apparently, I’m in the minority. Two recent studies support the notion that men prefer big boobs:
• French researchers fitted women with various size padded bras and then sent them to cafés where they sat alone. As bra size increased, so did the number of men who approached them.
• New Zealand researchers used eye-tracking technology to assess how men viewed women with various-size breasts. While small boobs attracted and held some men’s attention, most men gazed at the women with medium to large breasts. (Many women complain that men talk to their breasts, not to their faces.)
The bra industry supports the idea that bigger is better. The first modern bra was patented in 1914—two handkerchiefs sewn together with straps made of ribbon. Soon after, padded bras appeared to make breasts look bigger. In 1948, Frederick Mellinger, founder of Frederick's of Hollywood, introduced the push-up bra, which made them look even larger. And in 1994 the Wonderbra became a sensation. A refinement of the push-up concept that accented cleavage, Wonderbra tripled sales of push-up bras from less than 3 percent of the market to 10 percent.
Finally, since 1990, the average American bra size has increased from 34B to 36C. Ditto for England. One reason is breast augmentation. Surgeons now perform 317,000 boob jobs annually (vs. around 100,000 reductions).
Plenty of Men Love Small Breasts
But beyond augmentations, another reason explains more of the recent increase in average bra size—weight gain. Breasts are fatty. As weight increases, so does breast size, and with one-third of American adults now considered overweight, many women’s breasts have grown heftier.
Meanwhile, flat-chested models dominate the fashion runways of Paris, Milan, and New York. And because top models often wed celebrities or alpha-males, some of the world’s richest, most visible women have small breasts.
I googled “women’s breast size men’s preference,” and found several discussions. Participants were self-selected and not representative, but the comments were all over the map. Some said they could feel attracted only to women with a specific endowment. (The leading preference was large, followed by medium then small.) But like me, many men insisted that when they fell in love, they fell in love with the women’s breasts, whatever their size.
This dovetails with the visual evidence displayed in that major window into men’s erotic desires, pornography. Back in the days before the Internet, all the girls in Playboy had huge breasts because that’s what the magazine’s publisher, Hugh Hefner, likes. But visit any of the zillion free porn-sampler sites (lobstertube.com, cliti.com, etc.) and you can view men erotically enraptured by women of every imaginable size from utterly flat to zeppelins.
Finally, English and Malaysian researchers showed full-body photos of women to 361 men, who rated their attractiveness. The women with large breasts were not considered the most attractive. The honor when to the women with medium-size endowments.
Breast Size and Evolutionary Psychology
Paleolithic cave art dating back 35,000 years portrays naked women with enormous hips and breasts. Perhaps that’s pre-historic porn, or maybe it has to do with reproductive fitness. Just as any size penis can cause a pregnancy, all breasts can swell with milk and nurture infants. But evolution seems to have primed men to believe that women with larger breasts are a better reproductive bet.
Long before the contemporary obesity epidemic, when food was scarce and starvation a real threat, large, fatty breasts suggested caloric reserves. That, in turn, suggested that the women had reliable access to food, which increased survival odds for their offspring—and for their impregnators. English and Malaysian researchers showed photographs of women with varying breast size to 266 Malaysian men whose socioeconomic status ranged from poor to wealthy. Poor men showed a significantly greater preference for large breasts than middle-class men, who in turn were more likely to prefer larger breasts than the wealthy men who had plenty of resources and didn’t “need” women with substantial fat reserves. (This may explain why the wealthiest men often fall for skinny models.)
Then the researchers showed the photos to 66 Englishmen who were hungry and 58 others who’d just eaten. Compared with the satiated men, those who felt hungry rated larger breasts significantly more attractive. Taken together, these studies suggest that resource security plays a role in men’s breast size preferences.
Breast Size and Sexism
Some evidence also suggests that oppressive attitudes toward women may play a role in men’s size preference. Recall the 361 Englishmen who considered women with medium-size breasts the most attractive. The researchers also asked them to complete a survey that explored their feelings about women in society. The most sexist showed a strong preference for large breasts, while the more egalitarian men preferred smaller breasts.
So do men really want women with big boobs? Some do, at least in fantasy, hence the joke about the woman who gets the job. But many prefer women with medium or small breasts, and many others don’t care. It turns out that men’s feelings about women’s breasts are more complex than the stereotype would have us believe.
Dixson, B.J. et al. “Eye Tracking of Men’s Preferences for Female Breast Size and Areola Pigmentation,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2011) 40:51.
Gueguen, N. “Women’s Bust Size and Men’s Courtship Solicitation,” Body Image (2007) 4:386.
Swami, V. and M.J. Tovee. “Resource Security Impacts Men’s Female Breast Size Preferences,” PloS One. (2013) 8:e57623.
Swami, V. and M.J. Tovee. “Men’s Oppressive Beliefs Predict Their Breast Size Preferences in Women,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2013) Feb. epub ahead of print.