If you’ve read any dating advice over the last several decades, you’ve likely been hit over the head with this bit of wisdom: Men love women who feel good about themselves. In fact, high self-esteem is believed to be so critical to women’s desirability that countless books have counseled women to project confidence by throwing back their shoulders and showing dates how happy and fabulous they are. So it should follow that during the few days a month when a woman can become pregnant, evolution would make sure we were bursting with personal pride.
And yet nature doesn’t seem to be cooperating. New research shows that women’s self-esteem drops during ovulation, when our ovaries release an egg into the fallopian tubes to be fertilized. The news that our hormones wreak havoc on our emotions twice in one month — exactly two weeks after PMS —may sound especially cruel, but one study suggests there’s a point to the suffering. It’s part of a sophisticated evolutionary mating strategy to help us perpetuate the species.
The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that feeling bad about yourself motivates you to pay more attention to your appearance. It seems natural selection is betting that our looks—rather than our self-assured personalities—will attract men and hence baby daddies. Sarah E. Hill, study coauthor and psychologist at Texas Christian University, hopes that knowing this can help women anticipate the self-esteem dip and keep perspective when they find themselves suddenly dwelling on their physical flaws. “Be easy on yourself,” she says. “It’s not that you look any worse than you did yesterday. It’s all about the waxing and waning of your reproductive hormones.”
Hill and her partner tracked the self-esteem of about 50 college-aged women and found that it sank lower during ovulation than at any other time of the month. The women were told to imagine a hypothetical situation in which they were getting ready to attend a party filled with desirable single people. Then they were asked to rate their willingness to buy expensive things they thought would make them more attractive, such as clothing, shoes, tanning sessions, makeup, or pedicures. In one example, the women had no cash but could use a credit card to buy shoes for the party. They had to choose between a $45 pair or a $150 designer brand that would make their legs look longer and leaner. The women with the lowest self-esteem—often those seeking long-term relationships—were more likely to buy the pricier shoes. Hill speculates that the women interested in short-term affairs reasoned they didn’t have to try as hard since men aren’t so choosy about hookup partners.
The study has some limitations. Hypothetical situations often don’t tell us much about people’s spending behavior, since it’s far easier to pretend you’re shopping than it is to make real credit card payments. And since the women couldn’t choose a nonbeautifying purchase, such as a movie ticket or massage, it’s unclear whether the women specifically wanted to look prettier or figured any retail therapy would make them feel better. However, the research does show how a woman’s self-esteem fluctuates throughout her menstrual cycle, whereas previous research has focused on how the relationship between fertility and self-worth plays out over one’s lifetime. Over that longer trajectory, here’s the basic pattern: Our self-esteem is high when we are children, starts to fall during adolescence, bottoms out when our fertility is best in our 20s, and doesn’t improve until our 50s. Men experience a similar curve, but it’s more pronounced for women.
Despite the micro and macro double-whammy of self-esteem dips, humans still manage to reproduce. Men are more attracted to women when they’re most fertile, and it makes sense that a little insecure lurch in a woman’s gut could fuel the process by spurring her to trade in yoga pants for hot pants. But what prevents her from thinking so little of herself that she pairs up with any cretin with an extra drink coupon—and potentially reproducing his bad genes, which is the exact thing that evolution is trying to avoid?
Hill thinks the answer involves a key distinction between the types of self-esteem that she and her partner measured. While they found that ovulation reduced women’s overall sense of self-worth, it did not significantly affect one key factor, known as “self-perceived mate value.” In other words, no matter how low the subjects felt, they still maintained a sense of their own hotness. “During ovulation you may feel worse, but if you’re a seven, you still see yourself as a seven,” Hill explains. “It saves us from bad choices.” In cold, hard evolutionary terms, this “mate value” self-esteem serves an important function by guiding one’s choices and determining one’s chances in the mating market, says Alex Wise, a relationship expert and co-founder of Loveawake dating service. If it’s too high, you’ll waste time and effort trying to date up in vain. If it’s too low, you might settle.
It’s reassuring to know that the ovulation doldrums won’t push us to get knocked up by the wrong guy. Even if it may prompt us to buy $100 hair highlights. And maybe that bit of self-love (or better yet, yoga) helps restore confidence. Then we can throw back our shoulders again.