Many contemporary American women covet an unrealistically thin body build for themselves (Lamb, Jackson, Cassidy, & Priest, 1993; Mallick, Whipple, & Huerta, 1987; Silberstein, Striegel-Moore, Timko, & Rodin, 1988; Spillman & Everington, 1989), a phenomenon that could be detrimental to their emotional and physical health. The rising significance of the thin ideal is apparent from the changing perceptions of the ectomorphic body type.
In the fifty years since Sheldon and Stevens (1942) conducted their somatotype research, the negative characteristics associated with the thin, or ectomorphic, body build have dwindled. In the early 1940s, Sheldon and Stevens found that ectomorphic individuals were perceived negatively by others as nervous, submissive, and socially withdrawn. By the late 1980s, however, this perception had changed. Compared to individuals with endomorphic and mesomorphic body types, ectomorphic individuals were rated most positively and considered to be the most sexually appealing (Spillman & Everington, 1989).
The emergence of the slender body type as a beauty standard for women is especially salient in the mass media, and several researchers have demonstrated how the female body depicted in the media has become increasingly thin (Garner, Garfinkel, Schwartz, & Thompson, 1980; Ogletree, Williams, Raffeld, Mason, & Fricke, 1990; Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, & Kelly, 1986; Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, & Ahrens, 1992). Assessing the height, weight, and body measurements of Playboy centerfolds and of Miss America Pageant contestants from 1960 to 1979, Garner et al. (1980) found that the percent of average weight of the models declined significantly.
For example, in 1960, the average weight of Playboy models was 91% of the population mean. By 1978, mean weight of the models has dropped to 84% of the population mean. A similar trend was apparent among the Miss America Pageant contestants: Prior to 1970, mean weight of the contestants was approximately 88% of the population norm. Following 1970, mean weight of the contestants had decreased to 85% of the population norm. (2) Garner and colleagues also noted a trend toward noncurvaceousness from 1960 to 1979. The bust and hip measurements of Playboy models decreased and their waist measurements increased significantly.
These findings are consistent with those reported by Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, and Kelly (1986) who examined the curvaceousness of models appearing in Vogue and Ladies Home Journal from 1901 to 1981 and of popular movie actresses from 1941 to 1979. The investigators found that among the models appearing in Ladies Home Journal and Vogue, the bust-to-waist ratio dropped significantly. Additionally, the average bust-to-waist ratio of actresses from the 1960s and 1970s was significantly smaller than that of actresses from the 1940s and 1950s.
Similar results were reported by Morris, Cooper, and Cooper (1989) in their study of British fashion models. Taken together, the findings of Garner and colleagues and of Silverstein and colleagues show that from the turn of the century throughout the 1970s, the standard of physical attractiveness for women presented in the mass media became much thinner and less curvaceous. These findings were replicated in a recent update of the Garner et al. (1980) research. Using the same procedures employed in the Garner study, Wiseman et al. 1992) found that during the period from 1979 to 1988, Miss America contestants continued to decrease in body size and Playboy models maintained their already low body sizes.
As did previous researchers, Wiseman et al. (1992) found that curvaceousness (i. e. , hip measurements) continued to decline among Miss America contestants. One finding reported in the Wiseman et al. (1992) study has serious implications for women’s well-being. During the period from 1979 to 1988, 69% of Playboy models and 60% of Miss America contestants weighed 15% or more below the expected weight for their age and height category.
The researchers note that according to the DSM III-R, maintaining body weight of 15% below one’s expected weight is a criterion for anorexia nervosa. Other researchers have also noted the prevalence of disordered eating among fashion models (e. g. , Brenner & Cunningham, 1992) and the severe health risks associated with achieving a very thin body type. Women whose body fat falls below 22% are much more susceptible to infertility, amenorrhea, ovarian and endometrial cancer, and osteoporosis (Seid, 1989). These findings suggest that the slim beauty ideal presented in the media may be unhealthy for women.