Are Bigger Breasts Best?

A scientific study of men’s and women’s preferred breast sizes.

In the distant future, when planet Earth has been laid waste by nuclear weapons, climate disasters, and Godzilla attacks, alien archaeologists will pick their way through the debris of our civilisation and quickly conclude that our entire culture was based on the worship of giant breasts.

An apocrine gland encased in fatty tissue and designed to produce milk for the sustenance of infants has been co-opted as a way to decorate magazine covers, flog tickets to movies about transforming robots, and generally make anyone who owns a regular sized brace of ladyboobs feel anxious that she doesn’t have a pair of over-inflated zeppelins stuffed down the front of her blouse.

Women know — because every day they are told it is true — that men love an oversized rack. The bigger the better, right?

Well, maybe not.

If you’re reading this in public, prepare to skip past the NSFW image coming up after the next two paragraphs. — Rob

Barnaby Dixson was a guest on my podcast back in April 2013, when we talked about his interest in a part of the male anatomy that it is currently fashionable to grow as massive as possible (that would be the beard). But Dixson also conducts research on breasts, and he recently published the results of a survey on breast size and attractiveness.

Dixson had 200 young men and women from Wellington City, New Zealand, view photographs of a nude female torso posed at a 45° angle. Each photograph was of the same woman, but her breasts had been modified using Photoshop software. They ranged from very small to large, somewhere around a C or a D cup. Dixson also tweaked the color of the woman’s areolae: the skin around the nipple. This skin is darker in women who are of reproductive age, and becomes darker still after a woman has been pregnant.

A figure from Dixson’s paper. These are the stimuli he showed to his research volunteers, with breast size and areolar pigmentation manipulated in Photoshop.–015–0516–2

Each of Dixson’s research volunteers rated the photographs for sexual attractiveness.

The first thing to mention is that there were no differences in ratings made by men and women. Which is pretty surprising. Most traits that are related to beauty produce different reactions in heterosexual men and women, but it appears from Dixson’s research that men and women see breasts in much the same way.

He found that large and medium breasts were perceived as more attractive than small and very small breasts. Which at first glance would seem to imply that we like bigger breasts. But there were no differences in how medium and large breasts were rated: large breasts were no more attractive than medium breasts. Straight men apparently don’t hanker after ever more capacious mammaries, and straight women seem to be aware of this. Otherwise they would probably have rated the largest breasts as most appealing.

These findings suggest that ratings of breast size, and to a lesser extent areolar pigmentation, follow the pattern predicted from the biological literature that both are age-related cues of sexual maturity. — Barnaby Dixson

So, how did the color of the areolae affect attractiveness?

Dixson found that darker areolae were less attractive than either light or medium-colored areolae. We know that areolae get darker as a woman ages, so a preference for lighter skin probably reflects the link between female youth and attractiveness.

But Dixson also noticed that there was an interaction between breast size and areolae color. That is, the effect of areolae color on attractiveness depended on breast size. A lighter areola was less attractive when combined with very small breasts, most likely because both of these cues together signal youth too strongly. Most men are attracted to young women, but not to pubescent girls. A darker areola on a very small breast indicates that a woman has reached maturity and — even though she has not developed large breasts — she is attractive as a potential mate.

Dixson found that medium sized breasts are just as attractive as large breasts. Teresa_Moore-Rigby-001 by fervent-adepte-de-la-mode, CC BY 2.0

A light-coloured areola was most attractive on small to medium breasts, but not on large breasts. In that case, medium- and dark-coloured areolae were most appealing. Dixson speculates that this could be because larger breasts look like they belong to older women, and that a good sign of reproductive health and attractiveness in older women is that they are able to become pregnant. Darker areolae signal this, because the skin becomes darker after successive pregnancies.

Given that areolar pigmentation darkens during pregnancy and accumulates pigmentation with successive pregnancies within larger breasts that are judged to look older and more sexually mature, darker areolar pigmentation may enhance perceived reproductive health and fertility. — Barnaby Dixson

So it isn’t simply the case that larger breasts are more attractive, and it seems as though other variables like skin color and estimates of youthfulness are important too. Dixson’s previous work on breast preferences in New Zealand, Samoa, and Papua New Guinea revealed that there are are also cultural influences on ideal breast size.

One thing’s for certain: there’s a lot more research still to be done on breasts and attractiveness. Don’t feel too sorry for Barnaby!

Dixson, B. J., Duncan, M., & Dixson, A. F. (in press). The role of breast size and areolar pigmentation in perceptions of women’s sexual attractiveness, reproductive health, sexual maturity, maternal nurturing abilities, and age. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Read summary

For an audio version of this story, see the 16 June 2015 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Dr. Robert Burriss’s story.