As women, the process of trying to attain body confidence can feel like running on a treadmill: For some of us, despite how many miles we clock, we never actually get anywhere. Now, researchers believe they've put a finger on a specific source of insecurity for heterosexual women -- namely, what men want. Or at least, what women think men want.
Whether it's through television, magazines or the Internet, women are constantly bombarded with messages about How Bodies Should Look. We know this contributes to body dissatisfaction. But a study recently published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science pinpoints one very particular way in which men serve as passive moderators of these messages. The findings suggest that women may only feel unhappy about their bodies if they believe men prefer women who are very thin.
To come to this conclusion, researchers from Southern Methodist University and Florida State University gathered three different groups of heterosexual women for multiple versions of the same study. First, they had 74 women look at media images of models who were a size 8 or 10 -- in other words, well outside the narrow range of body types typically seen in fashion and advertising. Half the women were told that "men chose these images selected from advertisements to depict what they find attractive." The other half were simply told that "these images were selected from advertisements." After that, each participant filled out a questionnaire about body image.
Here's where it gets interesting: Women who were told that men found images of "plus-size" models most attractive reported feeling more satisfied with their own weight, regardless of their actual body size.
Of course, the men's "preferences" in the study were hypothetical -- the researchers simply told women different things to see how they'd react. For the next version of the study, the researchers brought in another 143 women and divided them into three groups. First, each woman was asked about her own personal body satisfaction, in order to establish a baseline. Then, each group was shown the images of "plus-size" models from the first study, side by side with versions of those same images digitally altered so that the models appeared 30 percent slimmer. (It wasn't explicitly made clear to the participants which photos had been altered and which were the originals.)
After participants viewed the side-by-side images, researchers told one group that "a recent study showed 100 men these images and found that they consistently reported that they found the body of the average-sized women... more attractive compared to the body of the ultra-thin women." The second group of women was told the opposite -- that men reported a preference for the "ultra-thin" models. A third group was simply shown the various pairs of images, without being told that men preferred one over the other. After that, all the participants were asked once again about their feelings of body satisfaction.
This time around, because they'd previously established a baseline level of satisfaction for each woman, researchers were able to gauge the effects of viewing the images and being told what men had preferred. The women who were told that men preferred the "plus-size" models reported being happier with their own weight than they'd been at the start of the experiment. These women also reported higher weight satisfaction than the women who were told that men preferred "ultra-thin" models and the women who were told nothing about men's preferences.
By this point, it seemed like a safe guess that men's opinions, however notional, had a big effect on how the women felt about their own bodies. But the researchers had one more question: How do women's opinions of "plus-size" bodies affect other women's self-perception?
So they brought in 221 more women to replicate the second study with an additional control group. In the new group, researchers told some participants that other women preferred the heavier models.
Reaffirming that there seems to be particular importance attached to men's preferences, it turned out that other women's tastes did not really affect how participants felt about themselves. On average, their body confidence only got a boost when they thought men liked "plus-size" bodies.
This study never actually surveyed men to figure out their actual preferences. But the researchers did emerge with evidence that men's perceived preferences can make a big difference in how heterosexual women feel about their bodies. And that, in turn, might make it a little easier to help women understand that they already have perfect bodies -- no matter what size they are.
Of course, men, like women, have varied tastes. Dr. Vivian Diller, a psychologist who has written about women's self-image as it relates to their appearance, told The Huffington Post that many studies suggest men are simply attracted to women who are confident, and there are no across-the-board rules about what men do and don't prefer in terms of weight.
Diller, who isn't connected to the Southern Methodist and Florida State study, said that it's natural for people to want to feel attractive. But, she said, it's important to put any insecurities in context.
"I think that women are actually much more focused on being thin than men are focused on them being thin," Diller said -- a statement that research seems to bear out.
Obviously, this isn't to say that there aren't various social privileges associated with being thin -- in particular, women in the workforce who don't conform to a certain body type can experience a serious economic disadvantage. But in the context of sexual attraction and romantic relationships, there is likely room for a much broader range of body types than what we tend to see represented in popular culture.
"Bottom line," said Diller, "is that the most appealing women are not women who fit a narrow standard of beauty, but women who like themselves."