When Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive, anthropologists said the title made perfect sense.
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies love and attraction, said at the time that Levine has “stereotypically masculine features,” including a square jaw, high cheekbones, and thin lips—all of which women are drawn to.
“Look at that jaw, it really juts out on the side,” she said. “His brow ridges are such that he could probably stand in the shower and keep his eyes open.”
New research, however, suggests that women may not like manly men as much scientists once thought. In fact, the study shows, many ladies might prefer the opposite: guys with softer, more feminine facial features.
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and done by researchers from Brunel University in the UK, led by psychologist Isabel Scott.
Historically, according to evolutionary psychologists, men with more masculine faces were thought to have a variety of traits that might be appealing to a mate hunter looking for someone to take care of her. These included stronger immune systems and dominant or aggressive personalities.
For the study, researchers showed participants three pictures—all were of the same guy, but altered so that in one he had extremely masculine characteristics, in another he had very feminine ones, and in the last, neutral features. The men were from one of five ethnic groups: European, East Asian, South Asian, African Caribbean, and South American.
A total of 962 subjects, who lived in both urban and rural areas in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ecuador, Russia and China, among other places, saw the pictures.
They were asked to place each shot in one of three categories: (1) most attractive for a long-term relationship, (2) most attractive for a short-term one, and (3) least attractive face.
In urban areas, women generally picked the more masculine men as most attractive for both long- and short-term relationships, but in rural areas, there was no such standard. For example, “in South America, women preferred feminine-looking men,” Scott told Time. “It was quite unexpected.”
Specifically, in Ecuador and Nicaragua, women in the countries’ Shuar and Miskitu indigenous populations respectively preferred feminine-looking men, researchers said.
The study, Scott said, shows that anthropologists might be wrong—our preference for manly men might not be based our evolutionary history. If it were it should hold true in rural societies that are more similar to how we lived back in the caveman era.
“These are clearly modern preferences,” she said.