Oh, Please, Tell Me More About My Eggs
The many weaknesses of ovulation studies.
Last month, a study claiming that women buy sexier clothing when they are ovulating made the media rounds. "Not unlike the chimps featured on the Discovery Channel, women become more competitive with other females during the handful of days each month when they are ovulating," the study, which will be published in The Journal of Consumer Research next year, explained. "The desire for women at peak fertility to unconsciously choose products that enhance appearance is driven by a desire to outdo attractive rival women." Highly clickable stories about women who gravitate toward tight sweaters because of their unhinged animal desires appeared on the Web sites of the BBC, CBS News, and the Week, among many other outlets.
It turns out that this is only one of the notable characteristics of the ovulating woman, mythical beast that she is. Other studies that have managed to whip around the Web: Ovulating women are "especially likely to stare at handsome men"; they emit special "odor signals" letting guys know that they're fertile; they swing their hips less—counterintuitively becoming less attractive to mates in the process; and if they're strippers, they get better tips. "If you can convince someone to shell out grant money so you can spend your afternoons hanging out with Dakota and Stormee at the Titty Trap you are pretty much tops in your (or any) field," Gawker's Alex Balk declared back in 2007 when the ovulating stripper story came out. "Is this a meaningful use of the scientific method?" Salon's Carol Lloyd wondered.
Sure, some of these ovulation studies have a legitimate goal: They are meant to explore whether women subtly advertise their fertility. Unlike other primates, human females don't make it explicit when they're ovulating. But then there are the studies that are just about figuring out how to get women to shop more. The study from last month, about the "sexier clothing" ovulating women buy, is Exhibit A. It was conducted by marketing researchers. They took 100 women who were at various stages of their menstrual cycle and showed them photos of women, of various degrees of physical attractiveness. The subjects were told the location of the women in the photographs. Then, they were asked to choose clothing. If women were ovulating and looked at photos of local hotties, they were more likely to buy tight or revealing outfits. If they were shown photos of women who were not cute or lived more than 1,000 miles away, they were more likely to opt for a muumuu. Co-author Kristina Durante told the Daily Mail that her findings show that an ovulating woman needs "to assess the attractiveness of other women in her local environment to determine how eye-catching she needs to be to snare a good man."
Durante was explicit about using this information to figure out how to advertise more strategically to women. "Our findings suggest marketers for many types of female products are well served to strategically time their mailings, coupons, electronic solicitations, and direct requests to the specific window when women are ovulating," she told the BBC.
OK, so this study is about making money. Even if we take it on those terms, it seems hard to wring value from. How would clothing companies begin to tell when consumers were ovulating? Will the next location-based Internet service beam directly from the ovaries? Will they only send out their Herve Leger catalogs when the moon is half full? What about all those women with irregular menstrual cycles? Will they miss out on mondo sales just because their poor ovaries won't cooperate? A lot of this research is pretty much based on speculation, says Harriet Hall, who is an editor at the Web site Science-Based Medicine. She explains that whether their goal is marketing or to better our understanding of the hidden effects of ovulation, all the studies tend to suffer from the same basic flaws. "They are isolated studies that have not been replicated, and the findings could be inaccurate due to chance factors."
Ah, but who cares about those caveats when you can practically guarantee a headline like "Style 'Make Ova!' " (New York Post). That was for a 2006 study about how women are more likely to wear skirts instead of pants when they're releasing eggs. Really—we are? Or maybe I'm just cranky. As it happens, I'm on my period.