July 5, 2000 GAINESVILLE, Fla.---The bony, Twiggy-thin figure may be in style in Hollywood, but most people don't find the look attractive, according to a new University of Florida study.
No matter their age, Americans hold strikingly uniform views that mid-range sizes are the best-looking. But they also generally perceive as attractive and socially acceptable a range of builds that vary considerably from what they see as the ideal shape, a UF researcher reports in the July issue of The International Journal of Eating Disorders.
"It's not the exceedingly thin model figures shown in most magazines and television shows that people in this study found attractive or acceptable. Whether you are a child, a teen-ager or a middle-age adult, most people think a figure with a moderate amount of fatness is what looks the most attractive," said Colleen Rand, the study's lead researcher.
"People like a range of body sizes from slender to rounded - sizes that look healthy as opposed to scrawny," said Rand, who retired recently from her position as an associate research scientist in UF's As people grow older, they become more tolerant of a greater range of body sizes, the researchers found. And while it might be presumed that dating-age young people would be the most judgmental about body size, intriguingly, the study revealed elementary school children were the least accepting of figures that were not ideal.
In a society obsessed with weight but plagued with record levels of obesity, Rand said it is important for people to understand that body sizes in addition to the ideal can be attractive and healthy. More than half the adult population - an estimated 97 million people -- is overweight or obese, according to the National Institutes for Health.
Many people unhappy with their looks struggle, often unsuccessfully, to reach one perfect size, Rand noted. It's a struggle fraught with dangers- unhealthy nutritional habits, eating and weight preoccupations, the risk of developing eating disorders and turning to surgical fixes such as liposuction.
"We should throw away the idea of a single ideal size because it's not healthy. It's like saying only if you have an IQ of 170 are you smart, or unless you have a million dollars you're not a successful business person. There needs to be more to life than a single standard," Rand said.
For the study, 1,317 participants in four age groups were shown line drawings of babies, children, and adults who were young, middle-age or older. Each stage depicted people in nine sizes ranging from very thin to very obese.
The participants were asked to choose which size for each gender they thought was most attractive or ideal. They also were asked to select all the figures they felt were socially acceptable--those that looked all right at school, the mall or the beach. The participants, from North Central Florida, were fairly evenly divided among middle-age adults, college-age adults, high school adolescents and children between 9 and 10.
With the exception of the elementary school children, all groups rated at least three and as many as four body sizes as socially acceptable. As the age of the participants increased, their acceptance of variations in builds grew, from an average of 2.7 for the elementary school children to 4.0 for middle-age adults.
Rand and her research colleague, Beatrice A. Wright, a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas psychology department, expected adolescents and young adults to be the most judgmental because they are in the middle of the dating routine, likely to be especially concerned about their own appearance, and are at an age often considered to be at high risk for eating disorders. They were surprised it was the 9- and 10-year-olds who made the most restrictive judgments.
"This may be because these children were in their intellectual development period where they place great importance on adhering to rules. They may have considered the figures they selected as best to be the rule, and they weren't willing to budge much from that," Rand said.
Even though participants of all age groups were accepting of several sizes, they still tended to be more restrictive than health standards would warrant, Rand said. Medically healthy weight ranges can vary by 30 to 40 pounds for a given height-a range that likely would include four or five of the sizes depicted in the study.
Rand said one limitation of her research was that participants were disproportionately white, female and middle-class. The way the drawings were dressed also might influence the ratings, she said, adding that further research would be needed to determine whether there are racial, gender or regional differences in body size preferences.
When Rand reviewed popular magazines and clothing catalogs to compare the drawings in the study with photographs of models, she found most were super-skinny and that the mid-range body sizes that study participants selected as ideal did not appear in standard magazines but in those targeted for larger women.
These distorted visions are likely to skew people's image of how they should look and affect their self-acceptance, particularly among women and those prone to eating disorders, Rand said. "From a marketing as well as a mental health perspective, it would seem advantageous to promote the use of mid-range rather than very thin body sizes for fashion models," she said.
Thomas F. Cash, a professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and author of "The Body Image Workbook," concurs.
"Relative to young and middle-aged adults, children and adolescents were less tolerant in their acceptance of variations from an average-size body that was the consensual ideal, so the media's depiction of too-thin-to-be-real images is clearly out of synch with the body size most people like best," Cash said. "Moreover, the media's intolerance of anything other than this extreme image reflects a childlike bias. Is it not time for the media to grow up and charitably put away childish things?"
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