It is hardly necessary to conduct a formal scientific study in order to determine that a woman s physical appearance is an important factor in her ability to attract members of the opposite sex. This idea is nothing new to us. Although the cultural standards of attractiveness have continued to change over the years (Marilyn Monroe vs. Twiggy vs. Cindy Crawford), the basic notion that beauty is essential to one s romantic success has remained. Little girls grow up playing with Barbie and know that they must look like Barbie if they want to find a Ken.
So why is it so important for a researcher to conduct a study of this nature, when the outcome is so utterly predictable? Firstly, we must ask ourselves, Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life, or does art simply create its own idealized conception of how life should be? Just because Seventeen Magazine, with its waif thin models and pages of hair and make-up tips, or Baywatch, with its well-endowed lifeguards sprinting down the beach, tell us one thing about the nature of physical appearance and sexual appeal, it doesn t mean that all people agree with or pay attention to the standards set forth by these media. Many studies have actually indicated that men prefer women to be slightly heavier than the ideal weight most women assume men to desire. So, do physical appearance and body size actually play the enormous role that we, as a culture, believe them to in determining a woman s ability to attract men, or are other issues, such as self-perceived attractiveness and body image, more important? These are the questions which Michael W. Wiederman and Shannon R. Hurst sought to answer through their 1998 study entitled, Body Size, Physical Attractiveness, and Body Image among Young Adult Women: Relationships to Sexual Experience and Sexual Esteem.
Summary of the Article:
This article documents Wiederman and Hurst s 1998 survey of 192 heterosexual female college students ranging from ages 18-21. Its primary goal was to determine the relationship between body size, as measured by the BMI, physical attractiveness, as determined by impartial judges, and self-perceived overall attractiveness, as rated by the participants themselves, to self-reported sexual experience and sexual confidence. The researchers gave each woman a series of questionnaires and surveys each determining a certain aspect of her sexuality, self-perception, and sexual attitudes in which the researchers were interested. These included sexual experience, sexual esteem, sexual attitudes, experimenter-rated facial attractiveness, body size, body dissatisfaction, self-rated attractiveness, self-rated bodily attractiveness, appearance orientation, and social avoidance due to concerns about appearance. Each participant was then weighed and had her height taken.
The results were calculated by dividing the participants into several subgroups, such as Virgins vs. Had Intercourse and comparing the mean scores (based on assigned numerical rating scales) between the two groups. In comparing those participants who were currently involved in a relationship with those who were not, Wiederman and Hurst found that the only statistically significant differences appeared in regard to BMI, experimenter-rated facial attractiveness, and self-related bodily attractiveness. Women who were currently involved tended to be thinner, objectively more attractive, and viewed their bodies as being more attractive. In the comparison of virgins and non-virgins, findings were much the same, with those who had not yet engaged in sexual intercourse averaging a higher body mass and a lower experimenter-rated score in regard to facial attractiveness. However, in examining the differences between girls who had performed fellatio and those that had not, the body-image factor to provide a statistically significant difference was experimenter-rated attractiveness. Furthermore, in regard to cunnilingus, two body-image variables were found to be significant: BMI and self-rated bodily attractiveness. So, women who had performed oral sex on a male tended to be more objectively attractive, and women who had received oral sex tended to be relatively thinner and had more positive self-perceptions of their bodies. Wiederman and Hurst found little evidence of a relationship between attractiveness and body image with sexual attitudes. They determined, however, that sexual esteem scores were positively correlated to self-rated facial and body attractiveness and negatively correlated to social avoidance due to appearance concerns. Women with high sexual esteem also believed themselves to be attractive and were less likely to avoid social situations where their appearance might be scrutinized.
Given these results, Wiederman and Hurst attempt to answer the many questions raised by them: Are these general relationships between body size and attractiveness and sexual experience due to a lack of opportunity, differential attitudes, or inhibition due to self-consciousness on the part of larger women? As they found no significant relationship between BMI and negative sexual attitudes, it would not appear that lack of sexual experience among heavier women is a result of these women holding negative attitudes toward sex. Neither did data indicate that larger women had a strong tendency to avoid social situations due to self-consciousness about their appearance. Hence, Wiederman and Hurst concluded that the relationship between BMI and lack of sexual experience could most logically be the product of a lack of opportunity due to less interest by potential partners.
As human sexuality is, essentially, the way in which we experience and express ourselves as sexual beings. This term includes all of us, not just those of us who are thin or attractive. We all experience desire, love insecurity, and occasionally, rejection. This is part of the human experience. However, some of us have a less of an opportunity to experience some of the more positive aspects of human sexuality than others. This study indicates that heavier and/or less attractive women tend to have a significantly less chance of being able to find a partner, than do their thinner, more attractive peers. Does this mean that these women are not sexually responsive? Are they not as kind, smart, friendly, or funny as others of average weight? No, it only means that as physical objects, they do not appeal to men s tastes. Physical attraction initially does often play a large role in the early stages of a relationship, but it must soon take a step back, to allow for the growth of emotional and mental bonds. Heavier women are just as capable as loving, supportive partners, but they are seldom given the chance to prove this.
Significance of This Article to Me Personally:
As a woman, I will admit that I have at least somewhat bought-into this universal notion that my appearance is a highly important factor in my ability to attract males. I curl my hair and my eyelashes; I religiously apply lipstick before every class; I spend hours planning an outfit before going out to a party; I always check the fat content before I put anything in my mouth. I am the girl that feminists spit on. Yet, despite all these attempts at achieving perfect beauty, I know that it should not matter. Why should I spend so much time on my appearance, when it remains completely independent of me, of the real person I am beneath my appearance? Who cares what I look like? And then I realize that society does and I shut-up.
As this study was conducted exclusively on college students, in would make sense that its results would best reflect their reality. Of course, it indicates that prettier girls have a much better chance of attracting potential sexual partners, but it also gives a ray of hope to those who may not quite fit into this group. Experimenter-rated attractiveness was only weakly related to the participant s own self-perception of her attractiveness, and the latter was often found to be a factor just as important with relation to sexual experience and relationship experience. A woman, who views herself as beautiful, could quite possibly pass this view on to others.
However, the issue I find most pressing to both college students and young women in general, is the fact that, independent of BMI, physical attractiveness, sexual experience, and relationship status, scores regarding body image were low across the board. Nearly every woman rated herself equally low. Why does this happen? Why are women so dissatisfied with their bodies, regardless of actual body size? In a culture in which women are continually objectified, and thinness (often, extreme thinness) is viewed as the ideal, it is hardly surprising that most women are unhappy with the current state of their bodies. However, this negative body image can be extremely emotionally and physically (as in cases of anorexia nervosa) damaging.
The results of Wiederman and Hurt s study indicate that there is indeed a distinct relationship between physical attractiveness and ability to attract sex partners. Women are still held to a cultural standard of beauty, and many do not adequately measure up. It is the sad truth of human nature. Appearances do matter and they probably always will, unless some day we are able to separate reason and good judgement from those perceptions which are merely superficial. But for now, Baywatch has won.