What makes for an attractive female body? Whatever your views on this, across cultures, and socioeconomic groups in particular, there are some differences in opinion.
Western media, with its promotion of “thin ideals”, has been cited as an influence on attitudes. But the only way to really explore this is to study groups of people who are very similar, except that some have been exposed to Western media, while others have not. Needless to say, this isn’t easy. However, a team led by Lynda Boothroyd at the University of Durham has now published just such a set of studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their data suggests that TV exposure does indeed drive both men and women towards finding thinner female bodies more attractive.
The team studied residents of seven villages in the remote South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region of Nicaragua. At the time of the research, these people had no access to magazines and, generally, no access to the internet. Over the past decade, the government has, though, gradually extended the electricity grid through villages in the area, making TV-viewing possible.
These people are mostly subsistence farmers and fishermen, with relatively poor food security. It has been suggested that people in such communities tend to find fleshier people more attractive — so if Western TV does have an influence, this would be a good spot to look for it.
For a first cross-sectional study, the researchers compared attitudes of people with regular TV access (Latin American soap operas, which feature thin, curvy actresses, and Hollywood movies were both popular genres) versus those who didn’t yet have it. A total of 314 men and women aged 15 to 79 gave basic details about themselves and rated the attractiveness of 50 colour photographs of women (with their faces blacked out) with Body Mass Indices that ranged from 11 to 42. (A healthy BMI is typically between 18.5 and 25.)
Two factors emerged as being associated with a preference for thinner bodies. One was a higher level of education — and this, the researchers note, implies that someone has spent time studying in a large town, which could have given them earlier access to Western media. The other was TV exposure. Though different ethnic groups had slightly different opinions, when TV viewers vs non-TV viewers of the same ethnicity were compared, the difference in the “ideal” BMI could be at least 5 points. For one group, it was about 22 among the regular TV-watchers vs 27-28 among those who had not been exposed to TV, or who had very little access to it.
The researchers also wanted to explore whether people who didn’t have access to TV and then gained it shifted towards preferring thinner bodies. For various reasons, this proved tricky. But for one village, it was possible to gather data on 31 individuals. The analysis did indeed suggest that with TV came a move towards finding a thinner female body most attractive.
For a final study, the researchers tried to mimic the immediate impact of TV exposure. They did this by showing villagers a series of photographs of either thin or plus-sized fashion models. After just 15 minutes of viewing these images, the participants changed their perceptions of the ideal female body size in the direction of the images they had just seen.
“These data strongly support the proposal that visual culture may be a critical contributory factor in the development of attraction in modern humans,” the researchers write.
There could be other implications of the work, too. The data “strongly suggests visual media may be pushing preferences below the healthy optimum in nutritionally vulnerable populations such as ours,” the researchers write. The most favoured BMI in one of the TV-watching villages was 22.5, for instance: if a woman with that BMI lost a stone of weight during a bad fish season, she would shift to 19.3. That’s still within the healthy BMI range, but only just.
And there’s another risk: exposure to Western body ideals and a more Western-style lifestyle (including a higher-calorie diet) often go hand in hand, making a thin figure even harder to attain — and promoting body dissatisfaction.
However, the work does also suggest a route to changing unhealthy body ideals: as sheer exposure seems to be so influential, altering the images people see could change perceptions in a healthier direction, too.