Sex Appeal and Thin Ideals: Are Men to Blame?
Under the belief that men are only interested in having model lookalikes and rail-thin trophy wives by their sides, too many women go to dangerous, unhealthy and exhausting extremes to become what they think men want. (And yes, I intentionally used the word “what” instead of “who.”) Whether it is disordered eating, exercise bulimia, life-threatening cosmetic surgery or just plain old body hatred that most girls and women live with on a daily basis, females are in an all-consuming battle for “beauty,” which today is equated with worthiness of male attention and sex appeal.
In media, male sex appeal is represented as being influenced by a huge variety of factors, such as humor, intelligence, charisma, athleticism, income, courage, etc., along with appearance. Female sex appeal is consistently and exclusively defined by appearance alone. That sucks. And though the body ideals perpetuated by media are frighteningly unrealistic, the promised reward of love and companionship that supposedly comes with attaining those ideals is all too real. Since the early days of mass media, the promise of love and desirability has been used by companies to sell everything from household appliances to cosmetics (think Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique”), and now it’s used to sell anything you can think of, either subtly or blatantly.
Happy, satisfying romantic relationships are a highly sought-after aspect of life, so it’s no wonder the promise of male attention and love is a dominant theme in media that flaunts idealized bodies and the strategies to get them.
Thin Ideals = Sex Appeal
And to complicate matters further, beauty ideals today are defined most prominently by thinness. Usually extreme thinness. Fitness magazines and others like Cosmo regularly equate thinness with not only health, but also sex appeal, as do an infinite number of entertainment media outlets and advertisers. Whether in blatant verbal terms or by the use of images or bodies that exclusively represent thin ideals, the idea that female attractivness is defined by thinness is so pervasive that it now goes unquestioned. This extreme thinness = sex appeal idea serves a very lucrative purpose in every industry that makes money off women’s body insecurity: cosmetics, plastic surgery, weight loss plans and pills, clothing, so-called fitness magazines, beauty, hair and skin care products, and any media supported by advertising dollars from these industries.
These companies rely on women believing that everything is at stake in fixing their “flaws” – from their health and happiness to their worth as women, but especially their ability to be loved by a man. But by convincing us all that only women with very thin, idealized bodies are good enough to catch and keep a man’s attention, they’re selling dangerous ideals while also perpetuating a myth about who is behind this whole thinness=attractiveness idea: it’s not about men. It’s about money.
Is This Really What Men Want?
Studies show over and over that women constistently overemphasize men’s preference for thin bodies, which helps to prove the thin ideal is really media’s ideal and not men’s. Some of these examples are scientific and rigorous, some are simple surveys, and some are scholarly hypotheses, but they’re all pretty revealing:
- Numerous academic studies show that women overestimate the level of thinness desired by men. Past research has asked women to indicate the level of female thinness desired by men, and then separately measured men’s preferences for female thinness. Results overwhelmingly showed that compared to what women thought men wanted, men actually preferred a larger female ideal (1).
- An August 2004 study published by Cosmopolitan magazine (of all sources!) declared that a full 61.6% of men preferred a “curvy” female body type with an average bust size, with 20.4% selecting “svelte with big breasts,” 11.6% for “model-thin and small-chested,” 4.7% “other” and 1.7% “big and bodacious.” Obviously, those aren’t clearly defined categories for scientific selection, but the clear winner remains.
- Another 2008 study published in the UK magazine Fabulous showed that in surveys, the vast majority of women perceived the ideal body size as a size 6, while men believed the ideal female body looked like a size 10.
- In The Evolution of Desire: Strategies for Human Mating, psychology professor David M. Buss (1994) points out how in massive studies of all ages, women chose slimmer-than-average physiques as the ideal for both sexes. But once again, when men selected a female physique that they perceived as most ideal, they chose a body type that was more average and larger than what was chosen by women.
- A study reported in New Scientist revealed the body preferences of 100 men who were asked to rate the attractiveness of 200 female bodies of various sizes. The results showed that the men’s ideal most closely fit a normative body type represented by a U.S. size 10.
These examples help to refute the common belief among women that they need to achieve unrealistic thin ideals in order to be considered attractive to men. In all reality, those unnatural ideals benefit companies and not relationships. Too many industries thrive off women believing that they must continuously fix their “flaws” in order to be happy, healthy, successful and in this case, desirable or worthy of love. This is a lie. A profit-driven lie. Recognizing these dangerous messages found inside so many sources that claim to give women the tools to become sexy and successful is a major step toward rejecting them. We have to continuously reject harmful ideals that tell girls and women their sexuality, health and happiness is dependent upon whether or not they fit unrealistic beauty standards.
Men Are Not Immune to Media Ideals
Interestingly, this for-profit lie isn’t reserved for just women. Scientific research has also discovered that men overestimate the degree of muscularity that women find attractive (2), assuming they need to have rock hard bodies and sport a six-pack to be found attractive. Just as so much research has demonstrated that females experience decreased body satisfaction after exposure to thin ideal media, studies also show that men’s body image satisfaction decreases after viewing images of the idealized male physique, such as in health and fitness magazines (3). Hand in hand with financial motivations, other factors are fueling the increasingly thinner female ideal and the increasingly muscular male ideal: competition for attention and selective media exposure. As proposed by David A. Frederick and several other scholars (2005), competitions for “prestige” in body shape often result in exaggeration of specific physical attributes over time as competitors strive to outdo one another. This idea also helps prove the power of media influence on our ideas of what is ideal and attainable, and on our own body dissatisfaction. Here is the UCLA scholars’ well-stated explanation of how this happens:
“The media highlights high-status individuals who display extreme versions of the bodily traits at issue, fueling prestige competition. In order to maintain their preeminence, celebrities must often work hard to manifest even more extreme versions of the attributes at issue. Similarly, magazines, videos, and TV programs frequently feature relatively unknown individuals who, because they display many other prestigious attributes (attractive faces, association with attractive members of the opposite sex, and a link to themes of sexual success), communicate the message that they possess a prestigious body form.” Frederick et al., 2005
While the male examples of this phenomenon are hard to name outside of men’s health and fitness magazines (really – I can’t come up with any), the female examples of “otherwise relatively unknown individuals” who display extreme versions of body ideals and are constantly featured in media are endless: Victoria Beckham, Angelina Jolie, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Heidi Montag, Nicole Ritchie, Kate Moss, every Victoria’s Secret and SI Swimsuit Issue model, almost every single fashion, fitness and lifestyle magazine, every TV program or publication that highlights “success stories” of celeb weight loss, body transformations, etc. Basically, ALL media is guilty of this obession with thin female bodies.
Thin Ideals and the Way We Feel
Weights and sizes of women featured in ALL media – from Playboy and Vogue to fitness magazines and primetime TV – have shrunk dramatically over the past several decades. Extensive research on 18 magazines read by adolescent girls shows that 87% of the female models shown in the pages were below average in weight – a proportion that grossly overrepresents the percentage of such bodies in the real world. Similarly, women’s magazines almost exclusively use models who are underweight, with a focus on products and articles that tell readers how to become thin, and a blatant emphasis on weight loss as the key to health, happiness and success in relationships (4). Even media and products aimed at 3 to 5-year-old girls are selling scary sexed-up thin ideals these days. Street advertising exposes people of all ages to harmful ideals all hours of the day. Since it’s rare to see an ad that does anything positive for female body image, we at Beauty Redefined have launched a campaign to raise money for billboards that promote positive body image across the U.S. We’ve already put up 13 of them from Utah to Pennsylvania and we’d love to put up more! If you can help, please do!
We can’t pretend like media’s constant connection between thinness and sex appeal isn’t influencing women in really scary ways. Whether it is in blatant discussion focusing on their bodies or by featuring such thin bodies so frequently (as almost all media are guilty of today), the appearance of extreme thinness has become the norm, and average-sized bodies have been become the abnormal.
- The vast majority of girls and women now perceive underweight bodies and extremely low body weights as being ideally healthy (Kantrowitz & Wingert, 2007; American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010; Wiseman et al., 2006)
- Even underweight and average-weight females are striving for weight loss using dangerous and unhealthy means (Grabe et. al, 2008: Posavac, 1998; Eskes et al., 1998)
- 66 % of adolescent girls wish they were thinner, though only 16 are actually overweight
- 35 % of 6 to 12-year-old girls have been on at least one diet (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010).
- More than half of adult women claim their bodies “disgust” them and 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with their appearance (Dove International, 2007)
If girls and women have such distorted ideas of what healthy and attractive is supposed to look like, then it’s pretty obvious males haven’t escaped these harmful messages about female bodies. Though the previously cited studies show promising differences between what women think perfect female bodies look like and what men think perfect female bodies look like, there’s still a big problem here. We can’t keep allowing female worth, health and desirability be defined by body size or shape.
As long as media keeps perpetuating these myths about physical appearance, people are going to believe them. And as long as people keep believing that female desirability, worth and health are defined by thinness, media will keep perpetuating those myths. Clearly, this is a vicious cycle that is harming everyone in its path. Everyone. So what can we do to steer clear of its path and recognize its grasp on our thoughts and actions? A lot. Here are just a few strategies:
Unreal Ideals: Remember it is reasonable to assume no image we ever see of a woman in media has gone un-manipulated. Today, magazine editors refer to airbrushing as an industry standard. Plus, vertical film stretching to make women appear taller and thinner is a common technique, as are filtered lenses on cameras and soft lighting, which do away with wrinkles, pores, and other so-called “blemishes.” The next time you start comparing yourself to a woman in a magazine, remember that even she doesn’t fit the ideal she’s made to represent!
Go on a Media Fast: Choose a day, a week, a month, or longer to steer clear of as muchmedia as you can. That way, you can see how your life is different without all those messages and images, and when you return to viewing and reading popular media, you will be more sensitive to the messages that hurt you and those that are unrealistic. One group of male college students in Utah went on a “media fast” for three months, and at the end of that time, they claimed they found the real women in their lives more attractive while they were on the fast, and continued to find them more beautiful once the fast was over.
The Power of Kindness: Choose to compliment the girls and women in your life for character traits, actions or talents you admire about them. The compliments that stick with you for a lifetime are often those that acknowledge your valuable qualities, like a good attitude, selflessness, talents, honesty and so much more than beautiful hair or a cute outfit.
RUN from Normalized Pornography: Depicting sexual images and dialogue is now a normal part of media all hours of the day, and it is presented as “safe” in advertisements, catalogs, TV shows, movies, men’s and women’s magazines, books, video games, websites, billboards, etc. Research is very clear that pornography changes the way men and women view each other, it gets in the way of us forming loving and healthy relationships, it skews our perceptions of attractiveness, our sense of self-worth, and our sense of others’ worth. Do not just walk away – RUN from it!
Object to Objectification: Girls and women exposed to sexually objectifying messages (which are inescapable in today’s media landscape) prove to experience body hatred, and both males and females learn to primarily view and value women for their outward appearance and actually endorsed objectifying images in the future. And a particularly scary fact is that research proves these harmful messages leave females preoccupied with their physical appearance, which then hurts their performance in school (including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills) and athletic activities. Yikes.
Be an Advocate: If our suggestion to turn away from media that degrades or otherwise hurts you is just not enough for you, consider your fierce influence as an advocate for women. When you come across a company’s advertising that fuels female insecurity or a magazine that objectifies women even as it claims to empower them, speak up! Blogging your disapproval is a great start, and so is posting links to news stories that reveal harmful ideals on social networking sites. Join us on our Facebook fan page for regular links to share and continue this conversation! We are currently working on raising money to promote positive messagse about female bodies on billboards across the country. If you can donate, please do!
Redefining Healthy: Getting back to reality involves figuring out what “health” really means – and it’s not what media shows us. For-profit media like fitness magazines or TV shows would have us believe health and fitness are all about what we look like, and any doctor can tell us that simply isn’t true. Talk to a doctor, nutritionist or other health specialist to figure out what healthy really means for you individually. Work with them to set healthy goals for yourself that aren’t based off profit-driven beauty ideals.
Get back to Reality: Since we’ll see more images of women in one week of media viewing than we’ll probably ever see face to face, it’s important to give ourselves a reality check! When we look eye to eye with the women we know and love, we can remind ourselves what real women and real beauty look like. And this real definition of beauty is so much more than just looks! For a reality checkup, check out our project “Facts and Figures: 10 Girls Tell the Truth About Weight.”
Tell the Truth: Point out the difference between media representations of women’s bodies and real-life women’s bodies while watching TV or flipping through a magazine with friends or family. Saying these things aloud will help you train your mind and the minds of those you love to recognize what is real and what is far from the truth. Remember, honesty is always the best policy!
Be a Positive Example: Research and real-life experience make it clear that when women and girls speak negatively about their bodies and their appearance, they negatively impact those around them. That very much holds true for men and boys who make critical comments, whether jokingly or seriously, about real life women or media images. Start today with a goal that you will do your best to avoid saying anything negative about your appearance or other women’s appearances, either in your mind or aloud, and soon the negative self-talk that floats through your women’s minds will become less and less prevalent, too.
Be Critical of Media, Not Yourself or Others: While the U.S. is the No. 1 producer and exporter of media, we are also the only industrialized country in the world without some form of media literacy in public school curriculum. We need to feel an obligation to put media under closer inspection for the influence it has in our lives. Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching a movie, train yourself to ask important questions about what you see. If you don’t like the answers you find, remember you can turn away from the messages that hurt you and those you love!
- Do you feel better or worse about yourself when viewing or hearing this media? Do you believe the females in your life would feel better or worse about themselves after viewing or hearing this media?
- Who is advertising in these pages or on this screen? (Look for ads and commercials and you’ll see who is paying the bills for your favorite media messages)
- Who owns the TV show, movie, magazine, video game or website you are viewing? (Research the company and its owners and you’ll find out who the powerful decision makers are behind the scenes of your media of choice)
- Is the media you read and view promoting real health or impossible ideals meant to make you spend money and time? Who are those messages promoting impossible ideals usually speaking to?
- How are women and girls presented here? Are they valued for their talents and personality? Do they look like the females in your life?
By Lindsay Kite. 2011. “Sex Appeal and Thin Ideals: Are Men to Blame?” Published at www.beautyredefined.net/are-men-to-blame. March 15, 2011.References 1) Prabu et al., 2003; Frederick et al., 2005; Cohn & Adler, 1992; Fallon & Rozin, 1985; Jacobi & Cash, 1994 2) Frederick et al., 2005; Oliviarda et al., 2004; Frederick & Haselton, 2003 3) Thompson & Heinberg, 1999; Botta, 2003; Morry & Staska, 2001