Science Figures Interpreted and Analyzed by RealClearScience
Media images strongly impact our perceptions of attractiveness. When we see slender women and muscular men lifted on a pedestal and endlessly fawned over, we're cued to think those forms are ideal.
In general, the majority of men depicted in media outlets are muscular and of a normal weight (though it should be noted that the methods they use to attain extremely lean looks are not always healthy).* The same cannot be said for women. Many female models who grace the pages of magazines and the screens of televisions are underweight. Weighing too little can be just as harmful as being obese. Sufferers contend with malnourishment, fragile bones, fatigue, and weakened immune systems. Moreover, previous studies have found that media images contribute to lower self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and depressive mood in women.
Many have questioned what level of exposure to these images is required to skew what we perceive as attractive, particularly in regards to weight. According to new research published in PLoS ONE, it may take as little as sixty seconds.
Researchers at the University of Nottingham Campus in Malaysia recruited ninety-five college-aged subjects (46 men, 49 women), split them as evenly as possible into four groups, and exposed each group to 12 images of female models, each viewed for five seconds. One group viewed plus-size models previously rated to be highly attractive, one viewed plus-size models rated as less attractive, one viewed light-weight highly attractive models, and one viewed light-weight less attractive models. After viewing the slideshow, participants looked through manufactured images of a woman whose Body Mass Index (BMI) was subtly altered in each photo and were asked to select which image they deemed to be most attractive.
Men in the four different groups did not differ appreciably in their views on female attractiveness, but women did. When viewing light-weight highly attractive models, female participants rated images with an average BMI of slightly less than 17 as most attractive. (For reference, any BMI under 18.5 is considered underweight for Asians.) However, women who viewed plus-size highly attractive models rated images with an average BMI of 18.4 as most attractive.
"These results... help us to understand how exposure to images of models affects weight preferences of individuals," the researchers say. "Portraying models that are not extremely underweight as being attractive may help change both female and male perceptions of female attractiveness."
A couple key limitations of the study: First, it would have been valuable to see a control group who wasn't exposed to any model images. That way we could see the population's baseline views on attractiveness. Second, the subjects were Asian men and women from the University of Nottingham Campus in Malaysia, so the findings certainly don't extend to all cultures. However, it is refreshing to see a psychology study with subjects who aren't entirely WEIRD (Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries.)
Source: Stephen ID, Perera AT-M (2014) Judging the Difference between Attractiveness and Health: Does Exposure to Model Images Influence the Judgments Made by Men and Women? PLoS ONE 9(1): e86302. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086302
*Passage updated 1/23 to remove what the author realized to be slightly insensitive and overgeneralized statements.