Friday, November 21, 2008

On women, men, and bodies

I wouldn't normally highlight a specific woman's body proportions, but Megan McArdle is someone who's been unusually explicit about hers. As she says in this Bloggingheads clip, she's 6'2" and 145 pounds, yet she can't shake the admittedly irrational belief — which she says "every other American woman" also holds — that her life would be better if only she lost 5 pounds:

She also says (as you can see in the video clip):

If I were an actress, I would have to lose 15 pounds, probably, to keep my jobs. And I'm really pretty skinny. . . Almost no one looks like me, and almost no one can look like this over the age of 19. I'm not saying that I'm amazingly gorgeous. In fact, I think that being that thin isn't really particularly attractive — to men. Women think it is.
I remember seeing a study in one of my textbooks back in college. It found that men's views of the ideal female body type is, on average, about average. Women, of course, viewed the ideal female body type as much skinnier. You can find similar conclusions by Googling around (example: PDF). I wish I still had that textbook, though, because it not only stated the findings but also included realistic color illustrations of two women — one for men's ideal and one for women's. I wondered: if every woman in America could see these illustrations and absorb their significance, wouldn't we be living in a saner world, where the goal isn't always to keep losing more and more weight?

I don't mean to imply that women should only care what men think and not want to be attractive for themselves. It would be different if women were satisfied with a more realistic range of body types and men were the ones who wanted to see women get as skinny as possible. But since the opposite is the case — men are the less oppressive ones — I think it's fair to assume that something has gone wrong.

Where do women's misperceptions come from? The easy, politically correct answer is that "society" bombards women and girls with unrealistic images of supposedly ideal women. You know the drill: models in advertisements, Barbie's body proportions, etc.

First of all, speaking of unfair expectations, I think it's unfair to expect a doll to have proportions that would be realistic if they were blown up to the scale of a real adult. Isn't it possible that on a purely aesthetic levels, exaggerated proportions work better on a tiny scale?

More to the point, though, the "skinny models" explanation can't be true. Can it? Or at least, it's leaving a whole lot out.

Here's the problem: pick up a copy of Details magazine and look at the male models. Even though the articles are about macho topics like whisky, meat, and the military, the models are extremely svelte. I'm pretty skinny, but I'd have a very hard time if I were to try to conform to those body types.

At the other end of the spectrum, what about male action figures? People love to gripe about Barbie, but what about the dolls for boys? No one would argue that He-Man's muscles are a realistic, healthy standard for boys to aspire to.

We don't expect boys/men to be incapable of thinking through for themselves whether these are really the right standards. Yet it's considered the enlightened position to suggest that women are mere passive victims, hypnotized by whatever images the big bad "media" or "society" puts in front of them.

An aside: many liberals/feminists will rail against female genital mutilation — as well they should. But how many of them are upfront about the fact that it's primarily practiced by women? (One person who isn't upfront about this is Eve Ensler, who included a long piece in her famous play The Vagina Monologues about female genital mutilation, but oddly never mentioned who actually does it.)

Liberals/feminists will also rail against unrealistic female body ideals — as well they should. But could it be that the crux of the problem is women going after other women?

When I think about what kinds of body types straight guys really consider attractive, I think about two random exchanges I've had with some friends (both of these were situations where young guys were the only people in the room):

1. Four of us — old friends who had gone to college in different cities and were back home for winter break — were catching up with each others' lives. One of them was telling us about his new girlfriend. He said that she has a nice "medium" body, and that he's never been specifically focused on skinny girls. Two others said we felt the same way. The fourth guy disagreed, saying he's mainly just attracted to skinny girls.

2. Three of us were watching the movie Ghost World. (Aside from me, these were different guys than the ones in the previous exchange.) Thora Birch isn't overweight by any means, but she's definitely curvier than the typical Hollywood actress in that movie. Two of us thought she was extremely attractive, but the other guy couldn't really see that.

That's the real world. Two-thirds of us (4 out of the 6 guys) didn't have a strong preference for especially skinny women.

Of course, this is completely anecdotal and unscientific, so I have no idea if my "two-thirds" conclusion is statistically accurate. But when I think about those conversations in light of the sociological studies, I have to conclude: most men are not fixated on skinniness as an essential criterion for female attractiveness. This isn't to deny that most men do find plenty of skinny women attractive, but just to say that it's not a requirement.

Of course there are some men who really do have an overwhelming interest in skinnier-than-average women. And that's just fine. There are also some men with an overwhelming interest in heavier-than-average women. That's fine too. But most men's tastes aren't so austere, in either direction.

Although, as I said, I make no moral judgment of men who are attracted to a relatively narrow range of body types, I do feel sorry for them, just as I feel sorry for women who insist on only dating men who are over 6 feet tall.

I don't object to the superficiality. Everyone cares about looks. Everyone is superficial. This isn't about trying to enforce some kind of rule that we have to be earnestly respectful toward "plus-size" women — which is doomed to be a joyless affectation if it's done out of a sense of duty. I just think that finding curvy women attractive is more fun for everyone concerned.

I'm writing this because it's on my mind, not to boost anyone's self-esteem. In fact, based on my experience, there's not much I can say to convince women that life isn't a contest where the goal is to be as skinny as possible. Whether women have that perception is not going to be affected by what I say. And it can't fairly be imputed to that imaginary scapegoat known as "society." The only one with the power to convince a woman she does have a beautiful body is the woman herself.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

One reason women want to be skinny is so that they'll fit into the clothes that are available for purchase.

I prefer skinny women, but I've sometimes thought I should expand my horizons.