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Proof dating after 25 is rocket science, shown in two graphs

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

Single women over 25 are basically in a dating obstacle course they can't win

At what age do you think a guy looks most attractive to you? If you're a woman, you probably answered that with, "It depends..." And according to a recent survey, it depends a lot on what age you are, as women prefer men within three to four years of their own age. How very reasonable of us? But if you're a man, survey says you prefer 20-year-old chicks, always. Even when you're 80 years old.

Behold, online dating summed up in one graph:

Single women over 25 are basically in a dating obstacle course they can't win

Photo credit: Imgur

It probably comes as no surprise that men prefer younger women — evolutionary biologists will say it's because that's when a woman is at her most fertile and men have a deep-seated need to spread their sperm around — but I was surprised at seeing it all laid out like that, mostly because we're so different. (Did I just say that I was surprised to discover girls and boys are different? Yes, yes I did.)

I have to wonder, is it really all nature that makes men attracted to such a narrow subset of the population while women are much more open in relationships? Or could it be the fact that when Mission Impossible 5 was green-lighted it was announced that 30-year-old Rebecca Ferguson was cast to play the love interest to 52-year-old Tom Cruise? We're conditioned in our culture to seeing older men with younger women, at the same time expecting women to stay an ageless 20-something.

The fertility hypothesis is just one of many explanations for this phenomenon. Some have postulated it's because younger women have less life experience and are therefore more mold-able. Or perhaps it's because younger women are seen as less demanding while older women are perceived as too controlling (if they're seen at all). Or maybe men are just trying to prove to themselves that they've still got it. (And by "it" I mean a prescription for Viagra.)

The opposite trope, that younger women prefer much older men because they are financially established isn't borne out by the data. Nor is the newer "cougar" stereotype of older women preying on younger guys. While it is true that younger women picked men slightly older than themselves and older women picked men slightly younger than themselves, all the women picked men very close to their same age.

This really reflects is the difference in how men and women view their futures. Women are told from the beginning -— and rightly so, to some extent — that our age will limit our goals, especially if those goals include having a family. Men on the other hand, are led to believe they can party and sleep around as long as they like and when (or if) they decide to settle down and have a family, that choice will always be available to them. And the people with a wider range of options get to do more choosing. It's not so much nature or nurture as economics. This wouldn't matter so much except that the net result is that this marginalizes middle-aged and older women. We're being told that not only are we not attractive anymore but we have no place in a society that so obviously equates attractiveness with value.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of all this is technological: When I typed in "Why do older men" Google automatically completed my query with "like younger women." Regardless of the answers, a lot of people are asking this question. Because, seriously, Tom Cruise??

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