By Sola Ogundipe
There was a time women that were pleasantly plump or big-sized were considered attractive and beautiful. At that time, skinny women were looked upon with disdain and dismissed as poor and malnourished souls. But these days the reverse is the case.
Now it is cool to be skinny. Skinny women are “hot” and obese women are not. In fact, to be skinny is often accepted as being more confident and more contented with life. Men are motivated by what they see and slimness in a woman connotes physical attraction.
On magazine covers, inside newspapers and on TV shows, slimness is the vogue. The perpetuation of skinniness has taken root. Men are more attracted to slim women these days and the reverse is also true, because slimness is associated with youth, fertility and generally good health.
A woman that is leggy, tall and slim like Taylor Swift is seen as ideal, more likely appealing and appreciated than the woman that is short, stocky and plump.
The reason is because “bigness” is no longer fashionable. No thanks to obesity— one of the biggest public health challenges of the modern world. Bigness is now synonymous with obesity, which is in turn synonymous with ill health in the form of potentially fatal disorders such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
A major study involving almost 60,000 volunteers rating almost 1,000 variations of the female figure discovered tall and slender is more attractive than curvy “Figure 8” or hourglass-shaped.
Although this contradicts earlier theories that suggest people are drawn to female body types with more flesh, studies describe it as an evolution.
Skinny men and women are said to be more successful in their careers, earning more than their average weight counterparts. However, a woman shouldn’t ever get too thin— because exaggerated skinniness spoils the ideal lines of femininity.
According to studies, owning an obese body produces significantly lower body satisfaction for females than males. In the first study of its kind investigating healthy individuals and their brain activity when perceiving themselves as either slim or obese, psychologists found that the way we perceive our bodies directly triggers neural responses which can lead to body dissatisfaction.
To create a sense of illusory body ownership, participants wore a virtual reality headset and observed a video of an obese or slim body from a first person perspective, so when looking down the body appeared to belong to them. Scientists then prodded the participants’ torso with a stick in synchronisation with the video, eliciting a vivid illusion that the stranger’s body was their own.
Monitoring brain activity in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, scientists found a direct link between activity in the parietal lobe of the brain —relating to body perception—and the insular and anterior cingulate cortex, which controls subjective emotional processes such as pain, anger or fear.
Such research helps to shed light on why patients of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa can be affected by a distorted perception of their body as overweight, when in reality this is biologically inaccurate.
Investigating healthy individuals allows researchers to examine the link between perception and emotion without the possibility that body starvation could affect biological results, as is the case when studying those with eating disorders.
Dr Catherine Preston, Lecturer in York’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the study, said: “In today’s Western society, concerns regarding body size and negative feelings towards one’s body are all too common. However, little is known about the neural mechanisms underlying negative feelings towards the body and how they relate to body perception and eating-disorder pathology.
“This research is vital in revealing the link between body perception and our emotional responses regarding body satisfaction, and may help explain the neurobiological underpinnings of eating-disorder vulnerability in women.”
Professor Henrik Ehrsson, Professor at the Karolinska Institutet and co-author of the study, added: “We know that woman are at greater risk at developing eating disorders than men, and our study demonstrates that this vulnerability is related to reduced activity in a particular area of the frontal lobe— the anterior cingulate cortex— that is related to emotional processing.”
Preston hopes to follow up these findings with subsequent research investigating how emotions could affect body perception.