When summer arrives, despite all the limitations on socializing still in place in many locations, many men and women still find themselves under pressure to have a “beach body.” We’re still under the sway of a myth about physical beauty and its role in romance.
The idea of beauty inevitably goes hand in hand with the idea of “perfection,” a static goal we’re supposed to reach where we can finally rest. In reality, the idea of perfection is not objective, and especially when we talk about the female body. Cultural ideas of physical beauty have varied wildly in different places and times.
Over the last 100 years, for example, the ideal for women’s bodies has changed from one extreme to another. Women aspired to a wasp waist, prominent breasts and wide hips in the early 1900s. Later there was a trend toward a more androgynous body, then the return of more voluptuous forms, then back to athletic physiques, and finally a rebound at the beginning of this century toward exaggerated curves. There’s been a succession of different icons every 10 years that have influenced generations of women in what it means to look beautiful.
But let’s get to the present: According to current aesthetic guidelines, if someone wants to show off an attractive body to the opposite sex on the beach, men should be muscular, and women should be thin. How does the quarantine fit into this picture? The lockdown has made us all a little fatter than before, and with gyms closed, our muscles are not as toned and sculpted as we’d like.
A new study sheds light
A recent study throws a life preserver to the men and women whose free time is all about fitness, sacrificing themselves at the exercise machine and sweating away the pounds with various forms of aerobic activity. Research by the Scottish University of St. Andrews has shown that men’s and women’s preferences regarding the body type of people of the opposite sex isn’t as focused on thin women and muscly men as most people think. Apparently, when it comes to romance, popular aesthetic canons do influence us, but up to a certain point they are generally overrated by both sexes.
To conduct the research, scholars recruited 169 white European heterosexual men and women between 17 and 26 years of age, who were offered interactive 3D body models. First, they were shown an image of a body of their own sex, and asked to “adjust BMI and body fat percentage to reflect their own body shape (trial 1), their ideal body shape (trial 2), the body shape that a heterosexual opposite‐sex individual would find most attractive for short‐term (trial 3) and long‐term (trial 4) relationships.” Then, they were shown a model body of the opposite sex, and were asked to “adjust BMI and body fat percentage to reflect their own preferences in an opposite‐sex body for short‐term (trial 5) and long‐term (trial 6) partners.”
The results were that men placed too much emphasis on muscularity in their description of women’s preferences, and women overestimated the desire for thinness in the female body. In addition, these misperceptions were more extreme in the case of short relationships. The researchers report that their results are generally in line with previous studies.
According to the authors of the study, there is still more research to be done to understand perceptions of preferences and actual preferences and the differences between them, and the causes for these disparities. The existing data, however, can help men and women who have low self-esteem from attempting to imitate at all costs the media’s unattainable models of beauty. Hopefully this data can bring people a little more confidence about their bodies, and peace in accepting themselves the way God made them.
Struggling with your body image? St. Catherine is here to help