For decades, sex researchers have published studies tracking the nude models in Playboy magazine--their weight, breast size, waist-hip ratio, pubic hair, and vaginal lips. In my humble opinion, it's time for this cottage industry to shut down. Before the Internet, Playboy was widely believed to be a touchstone of American men's taste in women. But thanks to the Internet, we now see how wrong that was. Men's taste in women is, in fact, much broader than that of Playboy's founder and photo selector, Hugh Hefner.
First, full disclosure: From 1990 through 1995, yours truly answered all the sex questions submitted to Playboy's advice column, the Advisor. In a 40-year journalism career, that was the gig I was most thrilled to land. I called old high school buddies. "Guess who you're talking to, dude--the Playboy Advisor!" They all went crazy.
Why? If you're a man who came of age before, say, 1990, no doubt, you know. Playboy was the king of the "one-hand magazines" (the other was busy). And at a time when good sex information was difficult to find, the Advisor was refreshingly open, honest, and authoritative. That's not just my opinion. It's the opinion of University of Louisville researchers who analyzed how the Advisor answered sex questions over a period of 38 years, including my years.
At its height in the mid-1970s, Playboy sold more than 6 million copies a month. Then VCRs arrived and suddenly men no longer had to visit seedy theaters to view naked women. They could rent tapes and bring them home. Playboy's circulation began to fall. During the late-1990s, it fell off a cliff when porn became one of the top destinations on the Internet. Today Playboy's circulation is less than 1 million, a decline of 85 percent. It's Web site is huge and reportedly active, but overall, Playboy's influence has waned considerably....
Except, apparently, with sex researchers, who can't seem to stop tracking the magazine's depictions of women. The latest study, by George Washington University researchers, analyzes the models from 1953 through 2007. It breaks no new ground, finding that breast size went from big to bigger, hips got smaller, and display of the vulva went from absent (1953-1969), to showing untrimmed pubic hair (1970-1979), to trimmed (1990-1999), to shaved (2000-2007). These findings echo previous studies.
The researchers then assert that Playboy models establish a female ideal, that women who look different (the vast majority) lose self-esteem as a result, and that women feel pressure to shave their pubes and have boob jobs and surgical vulva shaping because they want to look like the female ideal in Playboy.
Sure, some women shave or have cosmetic surgery because their boyfriends shake Playboy at them. But I would argue that Playboy and its female aesthetic has only a trivial impact, if any, on how today's men view women's bodies. Who reads it anymore?
If you want to see which female body types really turn men on, check out Internet porn. Visit any of the myriad "department store" free sites (e.g. LobsterTube.com) you find no Barbie doll ideal, but rather every type of woman imaginable. You like Playboy-style big breasts? You got 'em, but you've also got chests that make Miss October's look modest, plus fake breasts, average size, small, almost flat chests, and completely flat. Do you like Playboy-esque smallish hips? They're there. But so are skinny gals, svelte ones, thick, chunky, fat (big beautiful women), and so obese they must work for circuses. Are you turned on by the 22-to-24 year olds in Playboy? The Internet is filled with them--plus teens (age 18-20), babes (21-30), MILFs (Mothers I'd Like to...., 31-39), mature (40-49), and grannies (50 and up). Playboy models have always tilted toward white and blonde, and there's no shortage of such women on the Internet. But guess who else is all over the Internet? Every racial and ethnic group under the sun.
The Internet proves that Playboy's take on women is not some male consensus view of a purported "ideal." It reflects the aesthetic of just one man, Hefner. In contrast, Internet porn represents the Amazon.com of womanhood--anything you want, anytime you want it. The eclipse of Playboy (and the other men's magazines) shows that Hef never had his finger on the pulse of American men's taste in women's bodies. What he's always published is his taste. Other men's tastes run broader, and embrace every woman imaginable.
Why do sex researchers continue to make a fetish of the photos in Playboy? Beats me, and I wish they'd stop. I wish they'd focus on something more important, for example, the implications of sex media that display the female form in all of its limitless variety. Thanks to the Internet, we now know that anybody can be somebody's hottie.
Beggan, J.K et al. "An Analysis of Stereotype Refutation in Playboy By An Editorial Voice: The Advisor," Journal of Men's Studies (2000) 9:1.
Schick, V.R., et al. "E-vulva-lution: The Portrayal of Women's External Genetalia and Physique Across Time and the Current Barbie Doll Ideals," Journal of Sex Research (2011) 48:74.