A new study suggests that women are more averse than men to looking at babies with facial abnormalities — and coverage of this study includes a whole host of annoying stereotypes about moms, dads, babies, and love.
First of all, the study was very small, 13 women and 14 men. The participants were shown 50 photos of "healthy and attractive babies" (Time's wording), and 30 photos of babies with facial abnormalities, such as cleft palates. The photos would remain on a computer screen for four seconds, unless they pressed a button to shorten or lengthen the time. Women were less likely than men to lengthen the time they looked at "pretty" (again, Time's wording) babies, but they were 2.5 times more likely to shorten the time the ones with abnormalities appeared on the screen.
Time and the AP offer several explanations for this, all of them upsetting in their own way. Time says,
All animals, humans included, are hardwired to spend wisely, devoting the most energy to the offspring most likely to yield the highest genetic payoff; healthy, beautiful offspring are the best bet of all. Perhaps women, who still must do the lion's share of childcare, are naturally more attuned to this trade-off than men are.
The idea that a universal definition of beauty exists, that this particular kind of beauty indicates health and genetic fitness, and that people unconsciously make decisions based on this beauty, is deeply ingrained in the popular coverage of evolutionary biology. We are always being asked to accept that some bodies — whether they belong to babies with cleft palates or overweight women — are inherently less attractive, and that people have to overcome a strong genetic impetus in order to love them. Time even extrapolates the results of the study to people's own offspring: "the fact that both parents and nonparents in Elman's study reacted the same way to the pictures suggests that their responses are deeply ingrained and that they may be hard to mitigate simply by having children of their own." And the headline of the Time article is, "Is an Ugly Baby Harder to Love?," which assumes both that babies with abnormalities are ugly, and that this study can actually tell us something about parental love.
Attraction — both to babies and to potential partners — may have biological components, but popular science writing is often far too quick to assume that these components are everything. If we uncritically accept that people are naturally attracted to a certain appearance, that this attraction has to do with the survival of the human species, and that there's nothing we can do about it, we continue to stigmatize people who don't fit whatever ideal of health and beauty we've set up. It's not that we should entirely discount studies like this one — it's just that we should pause before we make the now-popular abnormal=ugly=harder-to-love link. Both science and attraction are partly culturally determined, and science these days may be a little too enamored of a simplistic view of human love.
Coverage of the baby study is also rife with gender stereotypes. Lauran Neergaard of the AP writes,
Puzzling new research suggests women have a harder time than men looking at babies with facial birth defects. It's a surprise finding. Psychiatrists from the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, who were studying perceptions of beauty, had expected women to spend more time than men cooing over pictures of extra-cute babies. Nope.
So, the scientists just expected women to look longer at all the babies, because women love babies so much? And yet women, rather than having a coo-fest over every single baby, actually had a complex reaction? So surprising! And Jeffrey Kluger of Time says, "Turns out that your mother's feelings for you may not be the unconditional things you always assumed. It's possible, researchers say, that the prettier you were when you were born, the more she loved you." There's no handwringing over the men's reactions to the babies, but when women behave in an unexpected way, it means your mom didn't love you? The idea that a mother's love is a single, uncomplicated entity that can be disproved by a tiny study is not only dumb, it's also damaging — to children, who may worry that their normal, complicated moms don't love them; to moms, who may feel that any ambivalence makes them inadequate; and to society, which expects moms to be constant conduits of sweetness and light, and gets all confused when they're human.