Our image-obsessed culture offers no shortage of things to feel insecure about — just consider the myriad body parts society has cooked up that nudge people away from respecting what they have and toward hating it. We’re fed the idea that men ought to be bronzed, hulking figures and women lithe, skeletal beings. As it turns out, the true perceptions of beauty may be malleable, and according to a study recently published in the journal PLoS One, the shift is done in less than 60 seconds.
One of the usual suspects when it comes to measuring health is body mass index (BMI). It’s a calculation comparing a person’s height to his or her weight. It’s also the metric used by University of Nottingham researchers in a new study of Malaysian men and women that sought to understand how beauty is perceived. What they found is that while men largely held steady in their opinions of beauty, women’s perceptions varied widely according to what they had been exposed to.
The research team recruited 46 men and 49 women and separated them into four groups. Despite having no control — arguably, a large pitfall in the study, as a baseline is always necessary to gauge the standard opinion — the groups offered a workable comparison to assess how views can change. First, each group either viewed models that were lightweight and generally viewed as attractive, plus-sized and attractive, lightweight and less attractive, or plus-sized and less attractive. Then the groups looked at a series of five pictures of the same woman, whose body had been digitally altered to five degrees of heaviness or thinness. Each group was asked to pick the most attractive of the five.
Male perception didn’t vary between groups. Those who had seen plus-sized women that were less attractive were, more or less, just as likely to pick the same pictures as a man who had seen a lightweight attractive model. Women were a different story. Those who had seen the plus-sized attractive model averaged a preferred model BMI of 18.4. By contrast, the lightweight attractive group said a BMI of slightly less than 17 was more beautiful. Figures for the less attractive group stayed consistent with this trend.
Thin Is In (But Shouldn’t Be)
Overall, one of the main takeaways for the researchers was the preference for underweight models. A healthy BMI for Asian women is around 18.5. Looking at the data, subjects needed to first view plus-sized models in order to temper their thin bias. Even still, the plus-sized group averaged 18.4, still underweight by the BMI’s measure. This preference held for both men and women, the researchers explain.
“These results also help us to understand how exposure to images of models affects weight preferences of individuals,” they wrote, “and based on these results we can estimate the negative consequences of longer periods of exposure to media.”
The remedy, they argue, is introducing more “plus-sized” models into popular culture. Some efforts have already made an impact, such as popular models starting plus-size bikini fashion lines, artists introducing accurate renderings of Barbie, or plus-size models posing fearlessly to defend the fight against cancer. Admittedly, even the term “plus-size” may overstate a women’s true size, as many brands pull the trigger at a size 8 despite the average woman being a 14.
“Portraying models that are not extremely underweight (as seen in the plus size attractive group) as being attractive,” the team concludes, “may help change both female and male perceptions of female attractiveness.”
Source: Stephen I, Treshi-Marie Perera A. Judging the Difference between Attractiveness and Health: Does Exposure to Model Images Influence the Judgments Made by Men and Women? PLoS One. 2014.