The New Gender Gap

Reports that there have been an increase in women who are unhappy about their self-image compare to men. How women before 1970 felt about their bodies; Why there has been an increase; Comments from Alan Feingold, a Yale psychologist.

By Katherine Billie, Camille Chatterjee, published September 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The sexual and feminist revolutions may have brought women and men closer toequality in work and play. But in at least one area, the social upheavals may have led the genders further apart: more women today suffer from poor body self-image than do men.

Since 1970, the number of women unhappy with their appearance has drastically increased, while the number of discontented men has stayed virtually the same. Yale psychologist Alan Feingold, Ph.D., and research assistant Ronald Mazzella arrived at that conclusion after analyzing data on body image and physical attractiveness gathered from men and women during the past 50 years.

Women before 1970 actually showed little displeasure with their bodies, reports Feingold. Why the subsequent increase? He speculates that women's newfound independence ironically exacerbated the biological need to look attractive to draw a mate and produce offspring.

"Until the 70s," he notes, "the typical woman got married and had children. She didn't have to dress up: she wasn't visible." But as women began working, they had to compete for acceptance, responsibilities, and promotions—and appearance counted. "In the workplace, women face heightened pressure to be attractive, which makes them more vulnerable to poor body imaging," says Feingold, who believes the strain also explains why eating disorders have flourished among women in the past 20 years.

Happily, the number of women dissatisfied with their bodies seems to have leveled off, and Feingold doesn't expect the gender gap to widen further. Says Feingold: "It would be hard to duplicate the sociocultural changes that altered women's lives in the 1970s."

PHOTO (COLOR): Building Better Bodies: Is work making women more than men feel the need to work out?