Women's body figure preferences across the life span.

 

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Women's body figure preferences across the life span.

Concern with body weight in our society is common and particularly relevant for women. Images of the ideal shape as presented in the media have progressively become thinner over the last 3 decades (Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, & Ahrens, 1992), whereas women have actually become larger. It is not surprising, then, that women perceive themselves as more overweight than do men and consequently diet more (Rothblum, 1992), even though their diets rarely work in the long term (Brownell, 1982). Restricted eating practices have, in turn, been implicated in the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia (Polivy & Herman, 1985; Striegel-Moore, Silberstein, & Rodin, 1986), which occur much more commonly among women than among men. Rodin, Silberstein, and Striegel-Moore (1985) argued, however, that those eating disorders lie on a continuum with women's "normal" concerns about weight.

Although there are a number of different techniques for measuring body image (see Thompson, 1990, or Ben-Tovim & Walker, 1991, for reviews), one that has recently become popular is to present respondents with a series of schematic figures of varying sizes and ask them to choose their current and ideal body sizes. Body dissatisfaction can then be assessed by the self/ideal discrepancy, that is, as the difference between the current and ideal figure ratings. It has been argued that such global discrepancy measures of bodily dissatisfaction are the most useful (Altabe & Thompson, 1992), and the particular task has been shown to have reasonably good psychometric properties (Thompson & Altabe, 1991).

When Fallon and Rozin (1985) asked both male and female U.S. college students to rate silhouette drawings of figures ranging from very thin to very fat, they found considerable gender differences in the perceptions of desirable body shape. Women rated their current figure as significantly larger than that which they thought most attractive to men, which, in turn, was larger than their ideal figure, whereas for men there was no significant difference between the ratings. This greater body dissatisfaction (discrepancy between current and ideal figures) displayed by college women has since been consistently replicated (Cohn & Adler, 1992; Rozin & Fallon, 1988; Silberstein, Striegel-Moore, Timko, & Rodin, 1988; Thompson & Psaltis, 1988; Tiggemann, 1992; Tiggemann & Pennington, 1990). The finding has also been replicated for adolescent women (Phelps et al., 1993; Sherman, Iacono, & Donnelly, 1995; Tiggemann & Dyer, 1995). However, an interesting finding of Fallon and Rozin's (1985) study has not been replicated: They found a significant difference between women's ratings of ideal and attractive figures, and they concluded that the pursuit of thinness was influenced by factors over and above attractiveness to men. Although the mean ideal figure has generally been lower than the mean attractive figure, in all studies that have used a sample population without eating disorders, no statistical difference between the two ratings has been reported.

As Pliner, Chaiken, and Flett (1990) pointed out, in the majority of studies investigating concern with weight, samples drawn from student populations have been used. Consequently, samples have been primarily White and restricted to a narrow age range in the teens and early 20s. In very few studies have body figure preferences in more mature women been investigated, and in those that have, very restricted samples were used. Rozin and Fallon (1988) found that the mothers of undergraduate students, in addition to their daughters, exhibited significant body dissatisfaction (discrepancy between current and ideal figures). Tiggemann (1992) found that mature undergraduate women (over 21 years old) displayed body dissatisfaction equal to that of younger undergraduate women, and Altabe and Thompson (1993) found greater body dissatisfaction among mature undergraduates. Both Rozin and Fallon (1988) and Tiggemann (1992) found no statistically significant differences between ideal and attractive figures for either young or mature women (Altabe and Thompson, 1993, did not assess this issue).

Our aim in the present study was to investigate body figure ratings in a much more broadly based sample and across a much wider age range of Australian women (not college or university students). We predicted that community-residing women would exhibit body dissatisfaction across the life span - that is, each woman would rate her current figure as significantly larger than her ideal figure.

The investigation of a community-based sample, as opposed to a student sample, also allowed us to test the contribution of factors other than age, in particular marital status, education level, and occupational status. Marital status could be important in determining the emphasis placed on attractiveness. To the extent that body dissatisfaction of heterosexual women is a function of the desire to attract and please men (Siever, 1994), single women are more likely than their married counterparts to try to be attractive to men. With respect to occupational status, the question was first raised by Rodin et al. (1985) as to whether the societal changes wrought by the women's movement, which enable women to be valued for their occupational success and financial independence, also render them less focused on weight and bodily appearance. We know of no previous empirical data that bear directly on the relationship between body dissatisfaction and occupational status.

Method

Respondents

The respondents were 180 women ranging in age from 18 to 59 years (M = 37.1 years). The majority (over 95%) were Caucasian. They were recruited from randomly sampled households in three adjacent suburbs of metropolitan Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. Those suburbs were chosen for their broad cross-section of demographic characteristics, such as age and socioeconomic status, according to the most recent census (Rogers, 1988). Of the 180 women, 64 were in full-time employment, 63 worked part-time, and 53 did not have paid employment (42 were homemakers). Twelve were students. Among those who worked, the major occupational categories were professional (primarily nurses and teachers, 38%) and clerical (36%). In terms of educational background, 41% had not completed secondary schooling, and 41% had some sort of tertiary qualifications. The majority (71%; n = 128) were married, 21 were living with a partner, and 31 described themselves as single.

Materials

The respondents were asked their age, marital status, education level, occupation, and the nature of any paid employment they currently held. Education was graded on six levels (1 = less than high school, 6 = university degree). We scored occupation by using the prestige hierarchy devised by Broom, Lancaster-Jones, and Zubrzycki (1965), which produces six categories, such that 1 indicates a low-status occupation (e.g., domestic workers) and 6 indicates a high-status occupation (professional). "Home duties" was not included in the categorization of occupation.

Next, the respondents were presented with nine silhouette drawings of female figures ranging from very thin to very fat. The drawings were those developed by Stunkard, Sorenson, and Schulsinger (1983) to determine the weight status of parents of adoptees, and then subsequently used by Fallon and Rozin (1985) to assess body perception. Following Rozin and Fallon's (1988) method, we numbered the figures from 10 to 90. The women were asked to indicate, by choosing a number (including intermediate numbers), the figure that approximated their current figure (Current), the one they would like to look like (Ideal), and the one they considered to be most attractive to the opposite sex (Attractive). We then calculated a measure of body-size dissatisfaction by subtracting the ideal size from the current size. This procedure has obvious face validity and provides an interesting task for respondents. Thompson and Altabe (1991) reported reasonable test-retest reliabilities ranging from .71 to .92.

Procedure

To obtain the sample, we used a map of the suburbs' land division from the local council, and the first author visited every fifth block in the three suburbs. Of these, 61% were residential blocks. Female residents between 18 and 59 years of age were asked to participate. The age range was chosen so that the sample would be representative of the adult female population of working age. In most cases, there was no more than one eligible, cooperative woman in any one household. Where there was more than one, both women completed questionnaires separately, but such cases amounted to only 10 of the 180 respondents. If residents were not at home, the investigator returned on up to three occasions on different days at different times of the day, to maximize the number of residents approached. Of the 447 residences visited, 225 contained women who fit the criteria. Of those women, 180 filled out the questionnaire, yielding a high response rate of 80%.

Results

Effects of Age

The women were divided into four groups on the basis of age: 18-29 years (n = 41); 30-39 years (n = 69); 40-49 years (n = 46); and 50- 59 years (n = 23). Table 1 provides the mean ratings for current, ideal, and attractive figures for the entire sample and for each age category.

As predicted, for the entire sample, the women rated their ideal figure as significantly smaller than their current figure, t(178) = 12.9, p [less than] .001. This difference was also significant for each age category: 18-29 years, t(40) = 5.44, p [less than] .001; 30-39 years, t(68) = 8.45, p [less than] .001; 40-49 years, t(45) = 5.53, p [less than] .001; 50-59 years, t(22) = 6.79, p [less than] .001. There was no significant correlation between body dissatisfaction (discrepancy between current and ideal) and age, r = .09, p [greater than] .05. Although current figure size did increase significantly with age, r = .19, p [less than] .05, so did ideal figure size, r = .21, p [less than] .01. The net effect was that dissatisfaction was approximately the same across all ages.

However, in contrast to all previously published studies, for the entire sample the nominated ideal figure was significantly larger than the figure considered attractive to the opposite sex, t(169) = 4.22, p [less than] .01. To test whether this was a function of age, we made the comparison separately for each age group. There was clearly no significant difference, t(38) [less than] 1, for the youngest age group, in accordance with previous studies (see Table 1). The 30- to 39-year-old age group and the 40- to 49-year-old age group rated the ideal figure as significantly larger than the attractive figure, t(63) = 2.76, p [less than] .01, and t(43) = 2.77, p [less than] .01, respectively; and the difference approached significance for the oldest age group, t(22) = 1.97, p = .062. Thus, the older women rated their ideal figure as larger than the one they considered attractive to the opposite sex, whereas the younger women rated both the ideal and the attractive figures the same. This finding is largely a function of the fact that, in contrast to ratings of the ideal figure, ratings of the attractive figure did not increase with age, r = .097, p [greater than] .05.

Marital Status

To investigate the role of marital status, we divided the sample into women who were married or in a stable relationship (n = 149) and those who were single (n = 31). The same pattern of results as for the entire sample emerged for the two groups. Both married and single women rated their ideal figure as significantly smaller than their current figure: married, t(147) = 11.72, p [less than] .001; single, t(30) = 5.44, p [less than] .001. Both groups also selected an ideal figure that was significantly larger than the attractive rating: married, t(140) = 3.43, p [less than] .001; single, t(28) = 3.01, p [less than] .01.

When figure ratings by the married and single women were directly compared, no significant differences (ps [greater than] .05) were obtained in any of current (M = 39.9 married, 40.1 single), ideal (M = 32.9 married, 33.7 single), or attractive (M = 31.3 married, 32.1 single) ratings. Notwithstanding the small number of single older women, we repeated these analyses for each age category separately (ns = 13, 7, 7, 4, respectively). In no case was a significant difference in rating found between married and single women (all ps [greater than] .05).

Education Level and Work Status

We calculated Spearman rank order correlation coefficients, to assess the relationship between education level and body dissatisfaction. Education level was not significantly correlated with any of the figure ratings (current r = -.01, p [greater than] .05; ideal r = ..05, p [greater than] .05; attractive r = .12, p [greater than] .05); nor was it correlated with body dissatisfaction, r = -.02, p [greater than] .05.

The sample (omitting students) was then divided into women in paid employment (full- or part-time; n = 118) and women not in paid employment (n = 50). When age and education were controlled, there were no significant differences between working and nonworking women (ps [greater than] .05) in any of the current (Ms = 40.4, 39.3, respectively), ideal (Ms = 33.6, 32.2, respectively), or attractive (Ms = 32.1, 30.1, respectively) figure ratings. Correspondingly, there were no significant differences in body dissatisfaction, F [less than] 1, p [greater than] .05. Occupational status also was not significantly correlated with body dissatisfaction, Spearman r = -.04, p [greater than] .05, or with any of the individual figure ratings (all rs [less than]. 10). Thus, it appears that in this sample, women's body figure preferences did not vary as a function of education level or work status.

Discussion

As a whole, as predicted, the women in this sample rated the ideal figure as significantly smaller than their current figure, and that finding was replicated for each age group. This result supports those found in earlier studies that used body-size drawings and involved college or university students (Cohn & Adler, 1992; Fallon & Rozin, 1985; Silberstein et al., 1988; Thompson & Psaltis, 1988; Tiggemann & Pennington, 1990). More important, the results indicate that women in the general population exhibit considerable body dissatisfaction and desire to be significantly thinner than they perceive themselves to be, just as students do. This knowledge extends the information on the generalizability of previous findings.

The effects of age, marital status, education level, and occupational status have not been effectively investigated in previous studies because most studies have used student groups, which are relatively homogeneous with respect to these variables. Our main finding was that body dissatisfaction was relatively constant across this sample, irrespective of marital status, education level, or occupational status. These results indicate that body dissatisfaction must be a very pervasive condition. Although body dissatisfaction very likely varies with individual personal variables that were not assessed here, it does not seem to be a function of broad demographic variables. The results lend further support to the conceptualization of weight by Rodin et al. (1985) as "a normative discontent."

The present sample was deliberately chosen to cover a wide range of ages, education levels, and occupational statuses, and to be representative of the suburban Adelaide population. Because nearly all of the participants were Caucasian, however, there may be racial or cultural limitations to the generalizability of the findings. For example, Black women in the United States have been found to choose less thin ideal body shapes and to express less concern with weight and dieting than White women have (Powell & Kahn, 1995).

The women in the present sample rated their ideal figure as larger than their attractive figure. This finding contradicts the results of previous studies. However, the samples used in those studies consisted of women in the 18- to 25-year-old age range (Fallon & Rozin, 1985; Silberstein et al., 1988; Tiggemann & Pennington, 1990). The fact that only the youngest group in the present study showed no difference between ideal and attractive figures suggests that the findings of previous research may be a function of the respondents' ages. Therefore, the results of this study contribute to a wider picture of women' s preferences across the life span. Although young women aspire to ideals congruent with their perceptions of male preferences, older women may aim for an ideal that is significantly larger than what they think men find attractive.

Exactly why ideal ratings should be a function of age is not clear. Young women's ideals may be determined by their perceptions of attractiveness to men. Perhaps this is not surprising given that adolescence is a time of great self-consciousness influenced by peer pressure stressing conformity, with an emphasis on appearance. Thus, young women (and young men) may well be more influenced in their choices of ideal figure by images projected by the media. Both anorexia nervosa and bulimia typically have their onset during late adolescence and are highly prevalent in women in their early 20s (Beumont & Touyz, 1985; Levey, McDermott, & Lee, 1989).

The attractiveness ratings of older women could also be determined primarily by media images. Their ideal ratings, however, diverged from their attractiveness ratings. There are a number of possible explanations for this finding. Older women's ideal ratings may indicate that they are no longer trying primarily to be attractive to men, although the data show that this is not a function of being married or in a permanent relationship. Alternately, older women may have higher ideal weights as a result of adjustments made after years of not reaching their (younger) ideal, in order to have an ideal that is possible for them. Furthermore, they may have a wider range of experience. Fallon and Rozin (1985), Rozin and Fallon (1988), Huon, Morris, and Brown (1990), and Cohn and Adler (1992) all found that men actually prefer a female figure that is larger than either the attractive or ideal figures chosen by women. Although the choices of an attractive figure by older women may still be determined by culturally set standards, their choices of an ideal figure may simply reflect their understanding that men of varying ages have wider ranges of taste.

In conclusion, in the present study, we have demonstrated a considerable degree of body dissatisfaction in a more broadly based sample of women than the usual college undergraduate samples. This body dissatisfaction was demonstrated across a wide range of ages, education levels, and occupational statuses, suggesting that it is something women suffer from for most, if not all, of their adult lives. Age, however, is not an irrelevant variable. Older women, but not younger women, rated their ideal figure as significantly larger than the one they thought most attractive to the opposite sex. This illustrates that the findings from college undergraduates cannot necessarily be generalized to other groups. Thus, there is a clear need for further investigation of the experiences of older women outside the university sector.

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Stevens, Claire; Tiggemann, Marika, Women's body figure preferences across the life span.. Vol. 159, Journal of Genetic Psychology, 03-01-1998, pp 94(8).

 

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