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Feminists and Body Image

March 26, 2008

A new study in the journal Body Image examines self-identified feminists’ and non-feminists’ perceptions of women’s attractiveness by body mass index (a ratio of weight to height). The authors interviewed 261 women in the UK who were largely white, educated, and unmarried and answered either “yes” or “no” to the question “Would you describe yourself as a feminist?” Those who were unsure were excluded.

The women were presented with 10 photographs of real women, viewed from the front, with two images each from the BMI categories of emaciated, underweight, normal, overweight, and obese. This is a little bit different from the categories we normally see in the U.S., as we don’t normally see an “emaciated” category separate from “underweight”, although the ranges are the same. For non-metric reference, a person who is 5’9″ would have to weight 124 lbs or less to be considered underweight, and would be considered “normal” weight up to 168 pounds. Someone my height (5’2″) can only get up to about 130 lbs before being considered overweight.

The participants then rated the images (whose faces were obscured and were dressed identically) from 1 (not at all physically attractive) to 9 (extremely physically attractive), identified the smallest and largest figures they considered attractive, and selected the figure they thought was “maximally physically attractive.”

The authors note that of the demographics such as age, education, and income, only feminist status predicted attractiveness rating. Feminists in general gave higher attractiveness ratings across the board, being more accepting of both thinner and heavier women. The figure with the highest approval rating from both groups, however, had a BMI of 18.45, which is slightly less than “normal” and into the underweight range.

This does not mean, unfortunately, that anyone was particularly accepting of varying body types, feminist or not – click the above graph to see details adapted from the study. If you plot the mean attractiveness ratings for each BMI, there is pretty close agreement on the most attractive, slightly underweight BMI, and attractiveness falls off on either side, with feminists simply falling less far in their ratings. The authors note several limitations of their study (such as “feminist” meaning different things to different people), but conclude, “although feminists do not appear to be buffered from preferring thin figures, their belief system nevertheless allows them to interpret physical attractiveness as encompassing a wider range of body weights. In this sense, attempting to more thoroughly understand the influence of feminism on thin-ideal internalisation may prove fruitful in the search for protective factors against negative body image.”

Swami V, Salem N, Furnham A, Tovée MJ. The influence of feminist ascription on judgements of women’s physical attractiveness. Body Image. 2008 Feb 13; [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 18280228

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2008 9:55 am

    I think this is so fascinating. I’m glad you wrote about it, and interpreted the results so objectively. I suppose the difference in feminist/nonfeminist status made an interesting difference in aesthetics, if not a significant one. Whatever else one can interpret, it seems pretty evident that all women in the study have internalized fatphobia to some degree.

    Not nitpicking, but any discussion of aesthetics brings up more questions than it answers. I’d love to know more about the faceless dressedalike women. Were they all the same race and same height, as well? Had the same percentage of body hair? Did their similar clothes have adjusted hemlines and waist levels to take various body types into account? (I’m thinking the last wedding I attended, for which the bride threw up her hands and said all the maids should just choose their own gowns because no way would we find one that everyone would look great in.)

  2. March 26, 2008 10:07 am

    tanglethis, you’re right, of course, about the details counting. The photos were “images in greyscale…presented simultaneously on a single page, and all women were captured in a set pose at a standard distance, wearing tight grey leotards and leggings, and with their faces obscured.” They all appear to be the same race (Caucasian) and height. Also, while the article notes that the “faces” were obscured, the entire heads are missing, so between that and the outfits there is no hair to be found on any of the figures.

  3. Bele permalink
    August 9, 2008 6:56 am

    I applaud your article as a genuine attempt to look at women’s body image, when I viewed your article however it was coupled with a google add entitled “10 rules to a flat stomach” from at internet site titled [weight loss link redacted as possible spam]. It’s a pity your genuine and heartfelt attempts to look at this issue are being undermined by this type advertising.

  4. August 9, 2008 7:43 am

    Bele, I’m not sure what you’re talking about – there is no advertising on this site.


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