Body ideals

Body ideals

Are ‘hookups’ changing the way men and women view each other? Dr Raj Persaud and Prof Kathleen Martin Ginis look at the research

A new study has found that the rise of ‘hookups’, or sex without commitment, could be having an unexpected impact, particularly on the way women assess men’s bodies.

This new research, on the type of ideal body men and women prefer in romantic heterosexual partners, also reveals surprising differences between what men and women are looking for in each other.

The study, from Kenyon College in the USA, examined body ideals that heterosexual college women and men choose for romantic partners, by comparing responses to body silhouettes that vary in thinness, shape, and in women’s breast and men’s chest size.

Evolutionary theory predicts that what we are attracted to in the opposite sex is in some way genetically programmed in our brains. Perhaps certain preferences had some kind of survival value in the ancestral environments we evolved in—for example, women might seek muscular men for ‘short-term mating’ because muscularity is linked with dominance, and dominant men might help protect women in dangerous environments.

Plenty of research has found that women rate their ideal body as significantly thinner than what men selected as most attractive – likely influenced by the pervasive media representation of unrealistically thin women as attractive. However, the authors of this latest study, published in the academic journal ‘Body Image’, conclude that it is difficult to say which gender was more critical in their assessment of the body of a romantic partner.

Women chose a body ideal for men larger, or more muscular than men’s actual bodies, while in contrast, men chose a body ideal for women quite close to women’s actual body size. Women’s ideal for men’s chest size was significantly larger than men’s actual chest size, but women’s ideal for men’s chest size was smaller than the ideal men had for themselves. The ideal that men had for a female partner’s breast size was slightly larger than women’s actual rating, and it was significantly larger than the ideal that women had for themselves.

When considering thinness, the study found that a woman’s ideal for men’s thinness was slightly smaller than the ideal men had for themselves. The ideal that men had for the thinness of a woman partner was not significantly different from women’s actual rated thinness, yet women’s ideal for themselves was significantly smaller than men’s ideal for women. Women placed more importance on their own thinness than men did on women’s thinness. It was also possible to predict that men who viewed more sports on television and watched reality TV were likely to rate female body ideals and the size of breasts as important. Particularly interesting was that the more men were interested in ‘hookups’, and the more sexually permissive their peer culture, the thinner their choice of ideal woman.

‘Hookups’ appear to have overtaken committed relationships in popularity and priority amongst those of college age. But because ‘hookups’ emphasise the physical rather than emotional, young adults who participate in ‘hookup’ culture might be more likely to select partners based on physical features of attractiveness.

For women, ‘adversarial sexual attitudes’ emerged as the most important predictor of women rating body ideals as important for a male partner. Adversarial sexual beliefs are beliefs that heterosexual relationships between women and men are adversarial due to being opposite to one another. Those who subscribe to adversarial sexual beliefs endorse views such as “men and women cannot really be friends” and “men are out for only one thing”. They believe that men and women are out to “use” each other, and may be more likely to invest in body ideals that magnify the differences between women and men, a thin body for women and muscular body for men.

The study, contends that women who participate in ‘hookup’ culture and who also have more adversarial attitudes about relationship, are more willing to judge men’s bodies, because they are part of a culture in which their own bodies are being judged.

Perhaps judging men by their bodies is considered “fair play.” Preferring ‘hookup’ culture to dating was also related to the importance of the chest ideal silhouettes as rated by women. Although women generally placed less importance on the ratings they chose for an intimate partner’s body, if they believed that men and women are adversaries in romantic relationships, they were more likely to do so.

So, the rise of ‘hookup’ culture might lead women to objectify men’s bodies in ways similar to what men already do with women’s bodies. The problem is that body dissatisfaction rates among both women and men are increasing in recent times.

The authors of the study, entitled ‘Body ideals for heterosexual romantic partners: Gender and sociocultural influences’, point out that unrealistic, yet influential, images people are exposed to in the media means that recently the ideal image of women has become unrealistically thin, while the ideal image of men has become unrealistically muscular.

Perhaps we should try to encourage young people to value their bodies for what they can do, rather than what they look like.

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist and joint podcast editor for the Royal College of Psychiatrists with a new free to download app entitled ‘Raj Persaud in Conversation’ which contains many interviews with mental health experts from around the world. Kathleen Martin Ginis is a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, the director of McMaster University’s Physical Activity Centre of Excellence and the founder and director of SCI Action Canada


Author: bodylanguage

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