We’re lucky that the tide is changing when it comes to positive body image, but there’s still so much pressure out there for women to be “healthy” — AKA thin. Obviously, when someone outright criticizes your appearance, that’s a huge jerk move (plus body shaming can literally make you sick). But what about all of the more subtle negative messages we’re absorbing on the regular? It’s hard to just shut down that cycle of negative thinking (unless your self-care mantra routine involves strapping on body-positive virtual reality tech), and you might not even realize how skewed your body image is. A recent study published in PLOS ONE suggests that the huge, dangerous (thigh) gap between what people see as healthy vs. attractive may be more persistent than we think.


Researchers at Macquarie University in Sydney set out to see if, assuming attractiveness reflects physiological health, what men and women perceive as the most beautiful and healthy bodies would be in line with what is scientifically the healthiest body composition. There have been similar studies done previously, but this one went beyond BMI, looking at the specific role of fat and muscle composition in making up what is seen as the “ideal” for male and female body types. The researchers used pictures and measurements from 192 people to create 30 composite images, and then gave those images to 63 participants and asked them to use a computer program to manipulate the photos into the most healthy and then most attractive body types. The participants weren’t aware that what they were actually doing was virtually building or stripping away muscle and fat content.

In the end, results showed that what participants deemed the best-looking level of fat for women was way lower than what they thought was the healthiest. And what they thought was healthy would be considered too little fat IRL too. There was no significant difference for muscle mass between what the participants chose as healthy and attractive levels.

“While previous studies have found that smaller female body size generally corresponds to a greater perceived attractiveness, this observation is actually due to people’s preference for lower fat mass, rather than lower muscle mass or smaller body size in general,” explains lead author, Mary-Ellen Brierley. Even though that means hitting the weights isn’t perceived as a turn-off, these findings are still pretty discouraging.

Optimal fat and muscle mass for men was right in line with the healthy range, although men preferred a significantly lower overall male body mass than the women in the study. So clearly guys put pressure on themselves to look a certain way too.

It’s not exactly shocking news that our society has a skinny bias for women, but it’s still kind of crazy to see it scientifically proven. Hopefully, women will see it as a wake-up call to ease up on themselves, and remember to focus on their health rather than their weight.

How do you define healthy? Tweet your thoughts to us @BritandCo!

(Photo via Getty)