A study published in Sex Roles suggests that the very thin female body type prevailing in the media is less admired than people think it is.

Body dissatisfaction is alarmingly common among women and research suggests that this is partly due to the unrealistic portrayal of female bodies in the media. The glorification of very thin female bodies creates an ideal that women feel they have to meet in order to be seen as attractive to romantic partners.

Interestingly, there is an abundance of evidence suggesting that women think men prefer thinner female bodies than they actually do. While much of the previous research has had participants evaluate silhouettes of female bodies, study authors Sarah N. Johnson and Renee Engeln wanted to take a different approach. The researchers sought to extend the relevance of these findings by having participants evaluate images of real women in the media.

A first study involved a sample of 548 college students that was almost evenly split by gender. The participants were asked to evaluate 13 images of female models. The images were chosen to be representative of the types of bodies shown in women’s magazines. Subjects rated the size of the models’ bodies on a scale ranging from 1 “way too thin” to 7 “way too fat”, and the attractiveness of the models’ bodies on a scale from 1 “extremely unattractive” to 7 “extremely attractive.” Next, subjects were asked to complete the two scales a second time for each model, this time indicating how they thought members of the opposite sex would rate them.

The researchers found that while men and women gave similar ratings to the models, neither gender was accurate at guessing how the other would evaluate the models. Both men and women felt that the other sex would be less likely to rate the models as too thin and more likely to find the models attractive than they actually were. The researchers call this a “parallel misconception”, explaining that men overestimated the extent that women would idealize the models’ bodies, and women similarly overestimated the extent that men would admire the models’ bodies.

Johnson and Engeln then conducted a second study with an identical design — this time among a more diverse sample of 707 US residents between the ages of 18 and 86.

This time, there was a significant difference between men’s and women’s ratings of the models. Female respondents gave the models ratings that were closer to the “too thin” side of the scale and male respondents gave the models higher ratings for attractiveness.

However, when it came to guessing how the other gender would rate the images, the same pattern as the first study emerged. Both men and women thought that the other gender would rate the models’ bodies more favorably than they actually did.

The authors emphasize that sharing these findings might help lessen the negative impact of unhealthy beauty standards. Beyond telling women that the female bodies portrayed in the media are unrealistic, interventions should focus on helping women recognize that they may be overestimating others’ preferences for these “ideal” bodies.

Having used images from actual women’s fashion magazines, the findings offer insight into how people view media representations of the female body. However, given that all the models were of a thin body type rather than a range of sizes, the researchers say they cannot draw direct conclusions concerning men and women’s ideal female body type.

The study, “Gender Discrepancies in Perceptions of the Bodies of Female Fashion Models”, was authored by Sarah N. Johnson and Renee Engeln.