Why we want to be skinny little chimps: Dispelling the myth of powerful media influence on women’s pursuit of thinness

I am often asked to comment on the role of the media, advertising and the fashion industry (I will just refer to them as the media for simplicity) in shaping women’s desire to be thin, and on the psychological impact of exposure to the so-called ‘thin ideal’. Behind these questions, I often feel there is already an uncritical assumption that firstly, the media created the ‘thin ideal’, and secondly, that exposure to images of very thin women causes psychological harm and even eating disorders. I think that both of these claims are very much overstated.

It is easy to see why many people believe that the media created the ‘thin ideal’. Skinny celebrities in bikinis are splashed all over news-stands. Toy shops are full of Barbie dolls and Disney princesses with (we are told by critics) impossibly tiny waists. Anorexic-looking models strut across the catwalks at fashion shows. Fat-free mannequins inhabit the windows of fashion stores on every high street. And flawless, Photoshopped celebrities and models advertise our favourite products. So the media must be to blame for putting pressure on girls to be thin, and for what advocacy groups tell us are high levels of body dissatisfaction amongst young girls?

If you agree with that, ask yourself this question: Why is thin deemed ideal? We can interrogate this question further: Why would the mainstream media, advertisers and the fashion industry, made up as there are from the contributions of countless individuals, all conspire to arrive at the conclusion that thin is good, the view that thin is what women should be? If there is really no inherent value in thinness, if it is even harmful (a view that is at least implicit, and often explicit in critiques of media ‘pressure’ on women to be thin) then why would so many people converge on the view that thin is desirable?

Some critics seem to be of the view that the ‘thin ideal’ is a conspiracy of a patriarchal society in which men objectify women, value them only for their looks and put pressure on them to conform to their preferences. Even if this were true (and I don’t believe that we live in a patriarchal society), this goes no further in helping to answer the question – why thinness? If it has no value, if it is harmful, why would men want their partners to be thin?

Human preferences for slender female bodies are actually much older than the Western media, and are part of human nature. Humans evolved preferences for mates who will help them to pass on their genes. For men living in the ancestral environment, reproductive success could be achieved by mating with healthy, fertile women. The size and shape of women’s bodies provide information about their health and fertility, and therefore their ability to reproduce successfully.

One key feature of female body shape typically preferred by men is a narrow waist in relation to the hips (an hourglass shape). This is measured by the waist-to-hip ratio, which is the diameter of the waist divided by the diameter of the hips. Waist-to-hip ratio is less than one if the waist is narrower than the hips. Historically, women have used various methods to reduce their apparent waist-to-hip ratio. In Victorian times, women commonly wore highly restrictive corsets to make their waists appear smaller. These were often so extreme that they are thought to have been responsible for the tendency of many Victorian women to faint.

Some women have even taken the more extreme step of having their lower ribs removed to make their waists appear smaller. Preference for a low waist-to-hip ratio is also prevalent in modern popular culture. Playboy playmates, for example, often have extreme waist-to-hip ratios.

Psychologists have found cross-cultural evidence supporting a preference for a low waist-to-hip ratio. The most attractive waist-to-hip ratio is thought to be around 0.7, indicating a waist that is around two thirds the width of the hips. Some studies have suggested that such a waist-to-hip ratio is associated with optimal fertility and health, although the evidence is inconclusive. There is some evidence that a better explanation for the preference is that low waist-to-hip ratio is associated with better and heritable cognitive ability. Despite having lower fat stores overall, women with the most attractive waist-to-hip ratios store greater amounts of an omega-3 fat called docosahexanoic acid (DHA) on their hips and thighs. This fat is protected and used only in late pregnancy and during lactation. Healthy brain development in babies depends on DHA. Women with higher levels of DHA and their offspring have been shown to have better cognitive ability. In contrast, abdominal fat inhibits the supply of important fatty acids.

This means that men who choose thin-waisted yet curvaceous partners may have more intelligent offspring. These findings are surely a death blow to the cliché that beauty is only skin deep, and the generally unchallenged assumption that personality and intelligence are of more value than physical attractiveness. These findings show that beauty can indicate intelligence!

Women can possess this optimal waist-to hip ratio regardless of their overall body size. For example, both Kate Moss and Marilyn Monroe have a similarly ideal waist-to-hip ratio.

Therefore, some have interpreted findings about the role of waist-to-hip ratio as indicating that curvaceousness plays a more important role than thinness in determining attractiveness. in other words, perhaps it does not matter how fat or thin you are, as long as you are curvy.

Joan’s curves never fail to capture the attention of the Mad Men

However, there are two major problems with this interpretation. Firstly, it is possible to be anorexic to the extent of infertility yet still have a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7. Clearly, such a preference is not adaptive in this instance. Secondly, many of the studies on waist-to-hip ratio preferences had inadvertently failed to control for body size. Although they often included images of women in various weight categories, the Images with lower waist-to-hip ratios also had less body fat, and so what appeared to be a preference for a low waist-to-hip ratio may have been a preference for thinness after all.

The line drawings used by Singh in his studies on waist-to-hip ratio confounded it to some extent with body mass index. Within each weight category, the images with the higher waist-to-hip ratios are also fatter.

Subsequent research (by Martin Tovee, who supervised my second year dissertation on the relative importance of body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio at Newcastle University) used images of real women (including me at one point I think) to show that although waist-to-hip ratio does play a role in attractiveness, body fat as indicated by body mass index is a much better predictor. Attractiveness ratings fall as participants view images of fatter women, although they also fall sharply when they view extremely thin women. Body mass index is therefore thought to be an accurate signal of health and fertility; obesity leads to poorer health and reduced fertility, but extreme thinness can lead to cessation of fertility because the body is unable to support a growing baby.

How thin is optimally attractive? Studies in Western countries estimate that men prefer a body mass index between 17 and 20. The average body mass index of Playboy models, who are generally considered to be extremely attractive, is around 18. Because body mass index is associated with health and fertility, it has been assumed that this preferred body mass index must indicate optimal health and fertility. However, a recent cross-cultural study used epidemiological data to directly assess the relationship between body mass index and mortality risk. Using a mathematical model, the researchers estimated that the optimal body mass index based on mortality risk should be around 22.4 to 23.2, yet none of the data they collected from well over a thousand participants, male and female, from different cultures, supported a preference for a body mass index as high as this. Consistent with other studies, images of women with a body mass index of around only nineteen were judged to be most attractive.

Research on preferred body mass index indicates a preference for body shapes that border on what is normally considered underweight.

Why is there a preference for a female body mass index that is linked to lower than optimal mortality risk? What the researchers also found was that as images increased in fatness, they were judged to be not only less attractive, but also older. Body mass index is positively associated with age; as women get older they typically gain some weight, particularly around the abdomen. Participants may therefore assume that images of larger women are also older. Because fertility is so central to men’s mate preferences and fertility declines with increasing age, larger women may be deemed less attractive because they are assumed to be older.

In the ancestral environment, both slimness and low waist-to-hip ratio were characteristic of women who were young (and therefore more fertile) and not already pregnant. Men who mated with women with these features would have had greater reproductive success, and therefore men evolved preferences for them. Women who can maintain and display such a body shape are likely to be more successful in obtaining the best quality mates, who can help them to maximise their own reproductive success.

Beauty (discussed here in terms of body size and shape) is therefore not only skin deep; it provides reproductively useful information. Because humans are a slow-reproducing species, human nature has changed little since the ancestral environment, and these ancient preferences, formed long before the inception of the Western media, remain with us today.

Ultimately then, the media is not the source of the thin ideal, but a reflection of innate preferences. Whilst I strongly believe that the role of the media has been overstated in shaping preferences, that is not to say it does not play any role in exacerbating desire for thinness amongst women.  Indeed, there is reason to believe that pursuit of thinness may be exaggerated in modern Western environments. Women have evolved to compete for the most valuable mates. Because women can bear only a limited number of offspring, their mate preferences are for male traits which enhance offspring quality. The key aspects of mate quality that women seek in men are the ability and willingness to invest resources and to protect (both indicated by high status) and good genes (indicated by physical attractiveness). Relatively few men possess all of these traits, and so there is intense competition between women to acquire the best mates.

One of the primary ways in which women compete for the best mates is by enhancing and displaying their own mate quality to the opposite sex and to potential rivals. This is known as epigamic display. Because thinness is attractive, women do compete to be thinner than one another. In the ancestral environment, humans lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers, and would probably have encountered a limited number of rivals for mates. We now live in a heavily populated, global society and we are exposed to hundreds, perhaps thousands of other women. This does include exposure to media images of women who may represent the peak of female attractiveness to begin with, and are often made yet more perfect by expert make-up artists and Photoshopping.

Our hunter-gatherer brains interpret these women as examples of the likely mate quality of potential rivals for mates, and there is evidence that women have a more negative view of their own body image after viewing thin media images, although the effect is a small one. Competition is further exacerbated in Western environments because the availability of highly calorific, fatty foods means that achieving thinness is even more difficult, and therefore more desirable. In addition, less stable long-term relationships, divorce and the ability of women to delay reproduction and to appear younger for longer result in a more crowded mating market. These factors together result in high levels of competition, as women try to appear more attractive than potential rivals. In their intense competition to be thin, women are sometimes becoming so thin that their fertility is impaired, and this is actually unattractive to men (who have strong preferences for fertility). Indeed, there is some evidence that women over-estimate male preferences for thinness.

But if we continue to view the media as the root of the problem we make little progress in tackling desire for extreme thinness. This is apparent in the failure of campaigns to ban skinny models and promote ‘body confidence’ to make any significant impact on the desire of women to be thin. Likewise, campaigns to replace Barbie with a more ‘realistically’ proportioned doll are doomed to failure. Like the media proliferation of images of thin, perfect women, I think Barbie’s shape is more a reflection of female desire for a slender body with a low waist-to-hip ratio than a cause of these preferences. Whilst many people believe that it would be better for young girls to play with a wider variety of dolls that reflect the diversity of female body shapes, I suspect efforts to achieve this will not be successful. Humans evolved preferences for particular body shapes are evident in the dolls they choose to play with. Lammily has a normal body shape, spots and cellulite – but will girls actually want to play with her? Of course the majority will not. The argument that dolls like Barbie are harmful to children is also overstated. Like images of extremely thin women in the media, they may exacerbate body image dissatisfaction to some extent. However, most girls play with Barbie dolls, Disney dolls, or similar. The vast majority do not go on to develop an eating disorder. Indeed, they are far more likely to become obese.

This brings us to the darker side of the current push (paradoxically, often by the media) to promote ‘body confidence’. If these campaigns were focussed on educating women about the origins of preferences for thinness and explaining why female competition in modern environments may have led to a distorted desire for extreme thinness in women, that might be useful. If they were focussed on promoting healthy and fit bodies rather than extremely thin bodies, that would be a good thing. There are some examples of the latter. The recent nude images of female athletes, for example, are a fantastic example of this; they demonstrate that fit and healthy bodies are beautiful.

However, some ‘body confidence’ efforts seem to send out the message that it is fine to be overweight. This is clearly well-intentioned and of course there is a real concern about the dangers of promoting extreme thinness. But anorexia is a complex disorder that is absolutely not reducible to a simplistic explanation in terms of exposure to thin models. Obesity is perhaps the biggest health issue facing our society and sending out the message that being overweight is fine is not a good thing given all that we know about the risks to health and mortality and the impact on quality of life.

There is a real danger that we are redefining thin as anorexic, and obese as normal. Obesity has increased in the last few decades and there is perhaps a push to redefine overweight as realistic and normal. The epidemiologist Will Lassek has argued that until recently, it was not uncommon for women to have a body mass index below 20 and a waist-to-hip ratio below 0.7. In the western world, as technology has been used to engineer foods which are loaded with fat and sugar, the average waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index has increased. There is perhaps a danger of labelling a previously normal body shape as unattainable when it might actually be within the reach of many women by eating a healthy diet and taking exercise.

The push to redefine thin as unhealthy and overweight as normal is evident in the extent to which body shaming of thin women is deemed as acceptable, whereas the same behaviour towards overweight women is met with outrage. Cheryl Fernandez-Versini recently spoke out about this after being on the receiving end of a barrage of negative social media and press commentary about her thin frame. These comments included the suggestion that she would look better with meat on her bum, and that she is a bag of bones. She rightly made the point that it would be deemed socially unacceptable to call someone too fat, and to suggest that they should cut down their food intake, but many people find it acceptable to criticise and shame her for being thin.

I think that ultimately this recent tendency towards body shaming and vilifying thin women is a manifestation of the competition between women to be thin. Because thinness is difficult to maintain in the modern Western world, women who are thin are often labelled unattractive by other women. The underlying and perhaps unconscious motivation may be to attempt to damage thin women as rivals for mates by casting doubt on their mate value. But saying that thin women are unattractive does not make it true.

The argument I have made in this post may lead you to think that evolutionary psychology deems only one female body type to be attractive. Evolutionary psychology has traditionally been concerned with identifying universal laws of attractiveness – in other words, the features which humans find attractive on average. It has been overwhelmingly successful in this endeavour. On average, men prefer young, slim women with a low waist-to-hip ratio. However, I will be honest here and say that I believe evolutionary psychology has to date made little progress in explaining the variation in mate preferences that is hidden within these averages. Clearly there are many men who do not prefer the thin ideal. Clearly what makes a women beautiful can vary a lot. There are also some cross-cultural differences. This variation at the individual and cultural level occurs partly because adaptations are responsive to environments; adaptive mate preferences are not identical in all environments and for individuals who themselves vary in many ways.

Variation in mate preferences is where more theory and research is needed. It is also infinitely more interesting to me than studying universal mate preferences. But that is a whole other post.


3 thoughts on “Why we want to be skinny little chimps: Dispelling the myth of powerful media influence on women’s pursuit of thinness

  1. Thank you. A BMI of 20 and below and a waist to hip ratio of about 0.7 is still achievable. I’ve also been writing to dispel the myths surrounding slim women’s eating habits and healthy eating. It takes discipline but the wonders it does for confidence afterwards is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

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