Sexy or Healthy?

Sexy or Healthy?

Last week we took a look under the shirt of male body image.

This week, we’re diving into the dressing rooms, to dissect the difference between what males and females think their bodies ought to look like… and how they’re typically out of touch with the wider world.

Anecdotally, it’s heard often in heterosexual relationships:

Women don’t want their partners to be as ripped as men think they want them to be.

And men don’t want their partners to be as thin as women think they want them to be. 

Does that ring true in research? 

Opposites Attract

One study of 200 people showed different body types to men and women. 

As you’d expect, the men preferred the two most-muscly body types for themselves, and the women preferred the two thinnest body types for themselves…

Where it gets interesting though, is that “the men estimated less muscle mass than women for the average-weight body types.” This plays into the condition of bigorexia, the phenomenon where people who go to the gym actually see themselves as smaller than they are. Estimates suggest around 10% of gym-goers exhibit some kind of bigorexia

Further, the same study found that the women rated the hyper-muscular physique with a lower attractiveness than the men did – highlighting a disconnect between what the opposite sexes feel when they see a muscle-bound male figure.

It doesn’t stop there, though.

Tell Me What I Want To Hear

In a 2001 study of over 800 people, where “most men were… overweight and most women were… average or thin,” the men considered themselves “lighter than they were, and the women saw themselves as heavier than they were.”

Disconnect, again.

It gets more interesting still. The overweight men viewed themselves as more attractive, when compared with the overweight women.  

The reverse rang true for women: Underweight women rated themselves as more attractive compared to how underweight men viewed themselves.

In a world of “life-hacking,” and a culture of optimisation over everything, do individuals associate attractiveness with health? In short… no.

A 2021 UK study found that “men’s notion of an ideal male body is heavier than the body shape men perceived as healthiest.” And, obviously at this point, the same applies the other way. “Women’s notion of an ideal female body is thinner and lower in body fat compared to the body shape women perceived as healthiest.”

So both sexes inherently feel that the body type they’re aspiring towards isn’t the healthiest version of themselves they could be, yet we tell ourselves this is the body shape we desire. 

This feels unexpected in our eyes, given the proclivity towards performance and function for individuals in 2023.

There’s a consistent double standard that emerges from much of this data. “Other people" can look however they want… but when it comes to ourselves, we aspire to look a certain way, even if it goes against what we deem to be healthy.

Why do we idolise body types that we ourselves understand to be unhealthy? If not to attract a mate, then perhaps for some maligned understanding of self… you fill in the blanks.

What (Wo)Men Want

As you might expect by now, this disparity fleshes out statistically in culture too. 

A 2005 study looked at hundreds of issues of magazines read by tens of millions of people, and found categorically that “men portrayed in magazines targeted at male audiences are more muscular than men portrayed in magazines targeted at women.” 

The advertisers and publishers understand that different genders have different expectations for topless images of men… on an individual level though, we don’t seem to. If we did, we’d stop placing unrealistic body types on pedestals to strive towards. And, perhaps more importantly, we’d stop lambasting ourselves when our reflection doesn’t resemble an A-List celebrities' pool-side snaps.

Men should be bigger, women should be smaller. That’s what the stats continue to suggest we think when it comes to ourselves.

However, when it comes to a partner, heterosexual individuals don’t have the same expectations for their potential mates.

Men ogling certain body types for women has been part of society for hundreds of years: think Victorian peep shows and pin-up girls. But only recently has it become more acceptable for women to display similar behaviour.

Peeping Parity

The race towards parity has been pronounced in this regard. One study examined advertisements in leading US women’s magazines, and observed that “images of undressed men increased from 3% in the 1950s, to 35% in the 1990s.”

It’s as if these extreme ends of physicality – bigger and leaner for men, and thinner for women – state some kind of increased value compared to an average person’s physique. 

We’re wired to aspire to body types for ourselves that we consider unhealthy. Body types that, in heterosexual relationships, statistics suggest our potential partners don’t find as attractive.

As functional fitness continues to rise, it appears that individuals are increasingly viewing their bodies as something that needs to perform, rather than simply look good.

That aspiration towards performance finishes with our physicality, though, rather than continuing the line of thought intellectually. If we’re truly seeking holistic performance, we might do well to understand that minimal body fat isn’t the topping the list of things our potential suitors desire.

Ultimately, we want peak performance in every area of our life. We maximise our schedule, sculpt our body, ostensibly optimise our physical health… but when is enough, enough?

There’s always room for improvement, but rarely room for perfection. 

Comparison, The Thief of Joy

In closing we’ll leave you with a couple of stunners. 

2020 British Government survey of nearly 8000 people found that only 1% of women felt “very positive” about their body, with that figure tripling meagrely  to 3% for men.

On the whole, 53% of men felt negatively about their body image, with that number rising to 62% for women.

It’s clear there’s a crisis in modern body image.

We dislike how we look, we misunderstand what partners want from physiques, and we continue to wilfully disconnect ourselves from what’s attractive and what’s healthy. 

The double standard between what’s acceptable for others and what’s desired for ourselves needs to be broken, for the sake of our own wellbeing.

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