Women compete to be thin for men – a pursuit exacerbated in modern times

Tape. Waist by Shutterstock

Plus Sized Wars, Channel 4’s exploration into the rise of the plus-sized fashion industry is part of an ongoing debate about where body image ideals come from, their effects, and what we should do about them. But far from being a creation of today’s society, modern concepts of the “ideal” body may stretch right back to our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Plus Sized Wars claimed that the fashion industry has sold women a “super skinny ideal that most of us will never achieve”. Few would argue with this. We are confronted with frequent news reports of anorexia deaths, surveys showing body image dissatisfaction among increasingly young children, and tragic stories such as the recent death of 21-year-old Eloise Parry from diet pills containing industrial chemicals.

Kate ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ Moss. COMΛS, CC BY-SA

It seems obvious to blame the relentless exposure of young girls to the impossibly tiny waists of Disney princesses and images of painfully thin digitally altered models – and companies such as Victoria’s Secret digitally altering images for advertising have come under fire from campaigners. There are indications that these campaigns are making some headway. The French government has just passed a law banning models with a body mass index below 18, and although arguably motivated more by the potential profit associated with an untapped market, the race to satisfy the fashion desires of larger women shown in programmes like Plus Sized Wars indicates a shift in the UK fashion industry.

Whether changes like these result in a decline in body image dissatisfaction and eating disorders depends on whether these problems are really caused by the fashion industry and the media. One obvious question is why is thin deemed ideal?

Male pursuit and female competition

As an evolutionary psychologist, I consider much older causes of these preferences and how they interact with modern environments. Humans have evolved preferences for mates who will help them to pass on their genes. The shape and size of women’s bodies provide signals about their health and fertility, and therefore their ability to reproduce successfully.

A narrow waist in relation to the hips (an hourglass shape) and a relatively slender body are typically preferred by men. These two features, measured by the waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index, indicate better health and greater fertility. In the ancestral environment, these features would have been characteristic of younger (and therefore more fertile) women who were not already pregnant. Some authors have suggested that men have evolved to be particularly sensitive to thickening of the waist, which may indicate reduced fertility as a result of pregnancy or increasing age

Corsetry made waists impossibly thin. din_bastet, CC BY-SA

Men’s preferences for narrow-waisted, slender women go some way towards explaining women’s desire for thinness. Humans have always competed with each other for the best mates. Women compete with other women by enhancing their appearance, making themselves more attractive than their rivals. This includes competing to be thin.

Psychiatrist Riadh Abed has suggested that this once adaptive mechanism of female competition has spiralled out of control in industrialised societies. This may be due to increased competition for mates as a result of factors such as less stable long-term relationships and divorce, and greater numbers of older women maintaining a youthful body shape by using contraception to delay reproduction, and investing in modern methods of appearance enhancement. Further social pressure to be thin may also arise from scientific knowledge about the relationship between obesity and various aspects of ill health such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Abed has argued that at its most extreme, the female competition that underlies the pursuit of thinness in our society may result in eating disorders. These competitive mechanisms were useful to our ancestors, who lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers, but in more competitive modern environments their effects are amplified.

Competition. Boston Public Library, CC BY

It is clear that men should not have evolved a preference for extremely thin women, since anorexia results in cessation of ovulation and therefore reduces fertility more than obesity does. Consistent with this, some evidence indicates that women overestimate men’s preference for thinness. This may be a consequence of the intensity of female competition to be thin. However, in some non-Western societies where highly calorific food is less available, the ideal body shape is somewhat larger. In a relatively malnourished environment, fertility may be compromised by extremely low body weight. In this situation, more body fat indicates higher mate value and therefore women compete to reach this different ideal.

Ultimately the Western fashion industry’s obsession with thinness may reflect, rather than cause, intense competition for thinness. If women do believe that thin is attractive, it seems unlikely that plus-size models will sell clothes; hence the challenges campaigners have faced in getting the fashion industry to change. However, while the claim that the fashion industry is to blame for obsession with thinness may be overstated, if the role models for young women are predominantly extremely thin, this will lead to a distorted perception of the likely physical attributes of competitors for mates, and may exacerbate the pursuit of thinness.

Does this mean that plus-size role models are a good thing? Pop star Jamelia’s controversial suggestion that overweight women should not be able to buy clothes on the high street is not helpful.

Fat shaming does not work. It is important that young people have role models who reflect the diversity of human beauty and not just an unrealistically thin ideal. However, we should not forget the obesity crisis facing our society and the extremely harmful consequences of being very overweight. In discouraging the pursuit of extreme thinness, we should also be mindful of the dangers of promoting obesity.