Can’t we just give the ladies a break?
I live and work in what is perhaps the Middle East’s capital of consumerism. I can’t go a single day without driving by numerous billboards of flawlessly airbrushed models promoting real estate and all manner of clothing brands. Every time I walk through one of the city’s 75 malls, my eyes pass scores of images of pencil-thin models sporting the latest fashions in store fronts. Online, even legitimate news sites feature sidebar advertisements with scantily clad waifs posing as clickbait. I’m beginning to have trouble telling the difference between Photoshop, plastic surgery, and women that are (at least somewhat) natural.
I am under no illusion that women are dressing up primarily for men. I understand they do it for a variety of reasons, usually revolving around their own feelings toward themselves or the opinions of other women. I can’t speak into those issues, but there is one issue I can speak into: how a man sees the female pursuit of beauty.
As I finished my breakfast the other day, my mind began to wander down a rabbit trail. It tends to do that. I have heard the average runway model is taller than around 99% of women. Also, these models tend to have extraordinarily thin hips. Their entire body is unnaturally slender for a healthy female. Tall… Tiny hips… Hmm… This standard was beginning to sound less and less feminine the more I thought about it. Basically, fashion designers want models to have a body like a skinny man. Like… Me? Ha ha! If it’s easier for a slim male to fit a beauty standard than the vast majority of women, I suspected society’s standard of beauty had gotten blown way out of proportion. I began to think, “Surely I’m not the only man who thinks this way.”
Later that day, my research was sparked when I ran across the news article, “Why Do So Many Women Wear So Much Makeup?” (1) It describes a study aiming to relate how much makeup is required to achieve maximum attractiveness to men versus how much makeup women expected to need. Let me explain. In the study, researchers in the UK photographed over 40 Caucasian women in their 20s with no make up. Then, they allowed them to apply a variety of top-of-the-line products as if they were getting ready for a night out on the town. Then, the subjects were photographed again. Using digital software, researchers arranged the portraits on a digitally simulated progression from no makeup to full makeup in over 20 images. On a scale from 0% make up to 100% makeup, men preferred, on average, 60% full makeup. Females guessed that men would prefer 80% full make up. The study demonstrates that women consistently overestimate how much make up men expect them to put on. (1)
This explains the trend toward more makeup (and Photoshop), but my research still hadn’t gotten to the core of the issue: the body. Is there a difference between society’s image of the ideal female body and men’s individual preferences? The first article hinted at another study, and after a little digging I finally was able to find Dr. Will Lassek’s article “Do Men Find Very Skinny Women Attractive?” (It’s a provocative title, I know.) The female subjects in the study described seemed to think most men wanted a 22-year-old runway model, but in actuality, the men’s preferences were a bit more curvy:
When asked to predict the figure that men will find most attractive, women consistently choose a skinnier figure than the men actually prefer. … The figures that the men actually prefer are also much closer to the women’s own figures than the skinnier ones women believe that men like. This misreading of men’s desires may encourage some women to mistakenly think they would be more attractive to men if they weighed less. (2)
Elated to find my suspicion backed up by hard data, my mind immediately went to a book I’d read by Gary Thomas entitled The Sacred Influence. What I had read in the previous article surprised me, but what came up in this book floored me:
[I]t might surprise you to learn that when dozens of men filled out a recent survey, listing how they wish their wives would love them, not a single one mentioned a desire for their wife to lose weight. About half of them, however, expressed a desire for their wives to cultivate a different attitude toward… intimacy… [specifically] willingness to be emotionally engaged, initiating, enthusiastic. (3) (Emphasis mine)
It seems like the collective covers of many leading women’s magazines scream, “Lose weight, lose weight, lose weight!” Wives are tempted to think that all their husbands agree, but that is not what the data suggests. Where does the pressure, then, come from? It’s inside us. Within us resides a flaw deep with in the unrenewed parts of our hearts, a vice as old as the fall. It’s the fulcrum on which the entire system hinges. It’s comparison.
You know, I’ve driven by thousands upon thousands of billboards over the past decade with subjects covering the spectrum from liquor to Lexuses to lingerie! Yet in all my years, I have never seen a billboard advertising contentment. Why? You can’t commodify it, can’t sell it, and can’t make money off it. It’s the one product no one is trying to sell you, but it’s the one product you need for your self worth to survive in a consumerist society fueled by discontentment and stoked by ceaseless comparison. You can’t stop a world from monetizing the discontentment of millions of women, but you can stop comparing yourself and women around you with the immaculate runway model looming larger than life over you in the storefront. The men you know aren’t putting that mold on you, so neither should you. In my mind, God broke the mold when he made you, and you are a completely original work of art. Lay hold of contentment, and know that you are deeply loved.
Stay radiant, my friends.
3. Thomas, Gary. The Sacred Influence. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.