Throughout time, the female body has been revered as an absolute representation of beauty. From Nefertiti’s beautifully sculpted, brilliantly painted, symmetrical face, to the alluring renditions of Venus’ voluptuous full-figure, to photographs of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic wind blown dress, the list goes on and on. Yet in the 1960’s times started changing, as society placed greater emphasis on being thin. And so began America’s obsession with being thin. Today, as evidenced by a growing number of women attempting to achieve an unrealistic and often unhealthy body type, we must ask whether beauty really is in the eye of the beholder or is this competition at its finest? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder and research tells us that men prefer a more curvaceous body type when compared to more slender types,1 then why are women so driven to achieve a rail thin appearance?
In a recent study,2 researchers determined that male opinion and the media’s representation that men seek extremely thin women drives much of a woman’s body esteem which is defined as the positive belief in ones own body image. In this study, women were randomly assigned to groups in which they were told that (a) men found a particular, heavier model attractive or (b) men preferred ultra-thin women. Women were more likely to have weight satisfaction when they believed that men found a heavier body type more attractive, yet this was not the case when participants were informed that another woman heavier models more attractive.
When it comes to body esteem, other than the evolutionary3 and reproductive explanations of why women seek opinions from men, the prior study yields a very disturbing result that begs for additional research. While both men and women provided statements that heavier women were more attractive, the participants only assigned importance to the statements of the males. The fact that women identified the same supportive statements as did the men, yet did not produce the same positive effect relative to the participant’s body esteem signifies that we have work to do in improving female to female esteem. Is this a lack of support or is this simply competition at its finest? According to Dr. Nigel Barber, women are driven to the thin extreme as an adaptation of the fittest. For example, this evolutionary mechanism allows women to beat out their other competitors (i.e., other women). He further suggests that the body image insecurities held by women are a direct result of such competition between and among women.1 To best understand this concept, one can turn to the box office smash Mean Girls. Using comedy as a platform, the film explores the very real difficulty experienced by adolescent girls who must experience the wrath of other adolescent girls. Throughout the movie, alpha character Regina George (Rachel McAdams) is hyperfixated on her status, her beauty and mostly, her weight. Regina uses her role as the alpha leader of a high school clique to disparage and belittle anyone who could potentially be a threat to her, including the new girl, Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan). With both stars vying for the same boy at school, a covert and brutal competition ensues, highlighting the lengths females will go to destroy another female who gets in her path. While a fictional piece of work, Mean Girls depicts an uncanny account of experiences often cited by pop culture.
As with any form of competition, there can be deleterious effects. Psychosocial and cultural factors influence the intensity of female competition, including how competition can affect females’ body esteem.4 The difficulty with female competition is that it is often shrouded in verbal gymnastics (e.g., “Anyone who wears more than a size 2 is fat…except you. You are beautiful!”) and social exclusion (e.g.,Inviting friends one feels are “less attractive” to maintain a center of attention status) as opposed to the physical aggression seen in male on male interactions. Point being, female competitiveness tends to be more subtle and indirect which can lead to increased pressure to achieve the thin ideal. This indirect aggression can be equally as harmful as physical aggression. In a society where obesity is approaching a pandemic status, this is problematic, especially as it relates to the impact on self-esteem.4,5
When it comes to appearance acceptance, women seek the approval of their male counterparts. Despite this, or quite possibly because of this, competition among women is driving the female population to harbor poor body-esteem, which can lead to disordered eating. So yet again we must ask: if men prefer a more curvaceous body type when compared to more slender types,1 then why are women so driven to achieve a rail thin appearance?
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1Barber, N. (2013). Why women feel bad about their appearance. Lookism does not explain body image discontent. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201305/why-women-feel-bad-about-their-appearance
2Meltzer, A. L., & McNulty, J. K. (2015). Telling women that men desire women with bodies larger than the thin-ideal improves women’s body satisfaction. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(4), 391-398.
3Ferguson, C. J., Winegard, B., & Winegard, B. M. (2011). Who is the fairest one of all? How evolution guides peer and media influences on female body dissatisfaction. Review of General Psychology,15(1), 11-28.
4Carwile-Ivankovich, K. K. (2015). A correlational study of self-esteem and perceived stigmatization in healthcare among obese African American patients. Retrieved from Proquest. 3701266
5Bos, A. R., Pryor, J. B., Reeder, G. D., & Stutterheim, S. E. (2013). Stigma: Advances in theory and research. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 35(1), 1-9. doi:10.1080/01973533.2012.746147
Karla Ivankovich, PhD, LCPC, DCC – Facebook | Website
Karla has earned degrees in a range of disciplines including: Business Administration, Psychology, Human Development Counseling, and INO-Disability Studies. Karla is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who is board certified by the American Psychotherapy Association. Karla teaches Psychology for the University of Illinois at Springfield. In addition, Karla is the co-founder and President of OnePatient Global Health Initiative. Karla also hosts a radio show called Life and Love, with her partner, Dr. Daniel Ivankovich. The show airs on the iHeart radio network.