Where do women look when sizing each other up?

Friends enjoying a party in nightclubBy Christian Jarrett

Studies show that when heterosexual women look at other women’s bodies, they, just like men, tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at their waists, hips and breasts, as if estimating how much they will appeal to men. This is consistent with “mate selection theory” which argues, among other things, that women have evolved strategies to monitor potential love rivals. However, psychologists are interested in this topic, not only from an evolutionary perspective, but also because women who feel dissatisfied with their bodies, and who are vulnerable to developing eating disorders, may be especially pre-occupied with comparing their body against others, potentially exacerbating their anxieties.

Past research is mixed: some studies suggest women with body dissatisfaction and/or eating disorders pay disproportionate attention to the bodies of thin women, other studies suggest the opposite. A new exploratory paper in Psychological Research says hang on a minute, we don’t actually know much about how healthy, confident women behave when they look at other women, nor whether their attention is influenced by their feelings about their own bodies.

Amelia Cundall and Kun Guo at the University of Lincoln asked 33 female heterosexual psychology undergrads to don eye-tracking equipment while they looked at several realistic female computer avatars of different body shapes (from size 6 to size 18 based on UK high-street dress sizes), wearing either tight-fitting or loose clothing, and while they rated each one in terms of attractiveness and estimated dress size. The participants also rated their satisfaction with their own bodies (separately for face, breast, waist, hips, arms and legs); answered questions about how much they tend to compare their physical appearance to others; and the researchers also recorded their body-mass index (BMI), dress and cup size.

Somewhat consistent with past research, overall the participants spent more time looking at the waist and hip region of the models’ bodies. After that, they spent an equal amount of time looking at their head, upper-body and legs, and the least amount of time looking at their arms. “As women tend to deposit a larger amount of fat onto the lower body parts … these regions may contain more diagnostic cures for body attractiveness and body size assessment than other body regions such as the arms,” the researchers said.

In terms of attractiveness ratings, the participants rated the slimmer models as more attractive and the size 18 women as least attractive. But “thinner is not necessarily more attractive”, the researchers pointed out, because size 6 was rated as less attractive than 8, 10, and 12, and seen on a par with size 14. The participants gave slimmer women the same attractiveness ratings regardless of whether they wore tight-fitting or loose clothing, but they rated women of size 12 and up as being more attractive, and estimated them as having a smaller dress size, when they wore loose clothes.

Contrary to past findings, there was no link between participants’ own body satisfaction or their body size and the relative amounts of time they spent looking at the on-screen models that they considered more or less attractive, indicating a lack of either a harmful or self-protective bias, respectively. This may be because the participants were all generally confident in their own bodies and they had healthy below-average BMIs whereas past research that’s revealed these kind of viewing biases has studied women with body satisfaction concerns and eating disorders.

However, the participants in the current research who reported lower overall satisfaction with their own bodies did tend to say that they were more inclined to compare themselves against others. And in terms of where they looked when looking at the women on-screen, the more satisfied the participants were with a particular body area of their own, the less they tended to look at that area on the models. “Self-satisfaction with a body region means the need for comparing that region is reduced and thus gaze is allocated at the neighbouring body areas that are also informative for body attractiveness and size assessment,” the researchers said.

Irrespective of their body satisfaction ratings, the researchers also found a general pattern for participants’ with smaller chests to spend less time looking at the chest area of the models. “It seems having a smaller chest size may result in an unconscious avoidance of viewing other women’s chest area, possibly to preserve self esteem,” the researchers said. Meanwhile, there was also a tendency for the participants with a higher BMI to spend more time looking at the legs of the slim on-screen models, the opposite of a protective habit. “BMI … is a more changeable construct [than chest size]” the researchers said, “and therefore [one explanation is that] upward comparisons occur in an attempt for healthy self-improvement.”

This is a small, exploratory study with young students which obviously limits the broader conclusions that can be drawn. Some readers may also feel that research of this kind risks feeding the tendency for our culture to objectify women’s bodies. In its defence, the study has highlighted several interesting patterns in how women view and appraise other women’s bodies, each of which could be followed up by future research to potentially further our understanding of how and why, for some people, body dissatisfaction can develop into a more serious psychological problem.

Women gaze behaviour in assessing female bodies: the effects of clothing, body size, own body composition and body satisfaction

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest