Why Women Want to Lose Weight
There is a tradeoff between being sexy and seeming competent.
Posted March 2, 2017
In subsistence societies, heavier women are perceived as fertile and sexually attractive (1). In developed countries, women strive to be more slender. They aspire to a slender standard. But why?
Cultural determinists like to blame the slender standard itself that is an unrealistic standard in a world where everyone tends to gain weight due to reduced physical activity and increased availability of high-calorie snack foods. Yet, that is like blaming the thermometer for cold weather.
Social scientists often assume that changes in body ideals for women are driven entirely by a blind herd mentality. Yet, we have known for decades that how slender, or curvaceous, women want to be is affected by economic cycles, specifically by the proportion of women entering higher education and careers (2). A more slender body contributes to the impression of professional competence.
Why the Feminine Body Ideal Changes
When women are more interested in marriage, they emphasize bodily features that are attractive to men. Hence the curvaceous body ideals represented by actress such as Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the 1950's when marriage rates and fertility were unusually high.
This contrasts with a more slender body ideal that emerged during the 1920's when flapper fashions prevailed. During this period, more women moved into higher education and careers. These ambitions favored a more slender standard of attractiveness. Women dieted and exercised to lose weight and there was an outbreak of eating disorders.
Sending a strong signal of sexual attractiveness undermines perceptions of professional competence. Or at least that was true in the past when professional competence was perceived as more masculine. For that reason, during times when large numbers of women enter education and careers, the standard of attractiveness moves to a more slender body ideal (2).
This was manifested by the popularity of skinny fashion models like Twiggy in every decade since the 1960's. The pursuit of extreme slenderness by women (and by men in specific fields like being a jockey, or a wrestler, where weight is restricted) is a contributor to eating disorders. This problem is exaggerated, perhaps, in the modern world where it is increasingly easy to gain weight thanks to declining physical activity and increased consumption of energy-dense products like fast food and junk food, so that average weight rises steadily from one decade to the next.
The mismatch between body ideals and actual weight creates a great deal of unhappiness and provides a huge market for weight-loss products and cosmetic surgery.
This seeming insanity of unhealthy body ideals might be relieved by the emergence of a more realistic standard of feminine bodily attractiveness and there has been a lot of political awareness of this issue. Yet, despite this, fashion models mostly continue to look anorexic. Observers find hope in the fact that at least some advertisers have begun to use women who have fuller figures and are closer to average women in their body weight.
Are Heavier Models Glamorizing Average Women?
Much is made of the fact that some full-figured women now find work as models. Yet, the market is limited. One obvious opening is the marketing of clothes to an ever-increasing population of overweight women for whom conventional fashion models often seem laughably irrelevant, as do the diminutive size of clothing available in many stores.
Another niche involves underwear advertising. Plus-size models are a lot more effective at selling bras, for instance (3). Why?
Curvaceous women send a stronger sexual signal and are more attractive to men. They may thus be perceived as having expertise in the sphere of sexual attraction. Of course, that message is more relevant to the bedroom than to the boardroom.
To the extent that women become increasingly ambitious in careers, their clothes will mostly be marketed using slender models because they will be more interested in projecting professional competence than sexual attractiveness and fertility.
1 Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
2 Silverstein, B., Perdue, L., Peterson, B., Vogel, L., & Fantini, D. A. (1986). Possible causes of the thin standard of bodily attractiveness for women. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 5: 907-916.
3 CNNMoney (2015, March 17). Plus size models sell more bras. Accessed at http://www.cnnmoney.com