Why are we obsessed with female bodies that are thin? A new study from England's Durham University offers two theories -- and one possible solution.
Researchers Lynda Boothroyd, Martin Tovée and Thomas Pollet asked why women in many Western cultures prefer a thin body. They looked at two psychological phenomena that might explain this: the "visual diet" of Western women and the process of associative learning.
The visual-diet theory suggests that preferences can be shaped by the level of visual exposure. In other words, the more images a woman sees of thin women, the more she will internalize the idea that their bodies are the normal ones and larger bodies are abnormal.
Associative learning occurs when individuals perceive a connection between a certain body size and positive traits. Thus, the more thinness is linked to health, wealth and prestige, the more women will feel that thin equals good.
"If thin is constantly equated with success and popularity on TV and in magazines, it is not surprising that there is a strong pressure to shift the ideal body towards a lower weight," Tovée told The Huffington Post in an email.
The researchers conducted two separate studies with heterosexual British women to test the two ideas.
For the visual-diet theory, they asked 57 women with a mean age of 26.4 years old to look at opposing pairs of large and small women in bikinis (the pictures were computer-generated) and indicate which of the two body sizes they preferred, and how strongly. Next, participants were shown a series of images of all large or all small women, some of whom were beauty queens and some of whom were being treated for eating disorders. (The mix of "aspirational" and "non-aspirational" photographs was designed to make sure that participants' responses were not linked to how happy or healthy the women in the photos looked.) After the so-called manipulation phase, participants repeated the comparison test.
Results indicate that women who were shown images of thin models in the manipulation phase had a stronger preference for thinness in the comparison test afterward, whereas women who were shown images of large models had a decreased preference for thinness.
In the associative learning study, researchers showed a different group of 69 women sets of images sorted into aspirational and non-aspirational categories. Participants who looked at pictures of smiling, well-dressed plus-size beauty queens and models intermixed with underweight eating-disorder patients wearing gray leotards showed significantly less preference for thin bodies, whereas those shown images of thin beauty queens and overweight eating-disorder patients showed a stronger preference for thin bodies.
"This is an important finding when considering our media environment and the development of eating disordered behaviour in young women," Tovée told HuffPost via email.
The new study, published in the November 2012 issue of the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, supports the idea that beauty is a cultural construct and contradicts a recent study from Michigan State University suggesting that the desire for thinness is genetic. Other research has shown that factors including ethnicity, historical context and advertising methods can influence a woman's body-size preferences.
"Although we don't yet know whether brief exposure to pictures of larger women will change women's attitudes in the long term, our findings certainly indicate that showing more 'normal' models could potentially reduce women's obsession for thinness," researcher Boothroyd told Science Daily.
If that's true, it backs up the efforts of 14-year-old activist Julia Bluhm, who this past summer petitioned magazines like Seventeen and Teen Vogue to use a variety of "real girls," not just ultra-thin models, and cease manipulating photos in their editorial spreads.
"Cultural ideals can end up in this feedback loop, so that if you're in a culture which favors one particular thing in bodies, that if you have a visual media that then reflects that back, that results in a stronger preference," Boothroyd told HuffPost in a phone interview. "And if the media then responds by reflecting that back strongly, then you get an even stronger preference ... You've just got this feedback loop where everyone gets thinner and thinner and thinks it's normal."