Fantasy vs. reality


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Yesterday someone tweeted a link to a New York Post article that was clearly designed to get a lot of clicks. With a headline like “You’re not as kinky as you think,” and a sub-hed like “Massive Internet study finds that we’re all sexual deviants,” what other outcome could have possibly been expected and hoped for? I mean, it’s the New York Post. All their headlines scream bloody murder for you to click on them so there’s nothing new there.

Well, they got me. I clicked on the story and I read it.

By now many, many people on Twitter know which part of the story obsessed me and drove me insane. I went on a bit of a rampage about it this morning and by the way, for those used to a bit more deocrum and useful information from me there, I’m sorry. We will shortly return back to our usual programming.

Anyhow… the story mentioned several preferences gay and straight men and women were found to have in terms of what they see as sexually attractive. One of them was that straight men prefer heavier women over thin ones. Come again? I did a double take when I read that? Really? Can it be true? I felt like a kid who had been told there’s no Santa Claus. NO, was my reaction. I don’t believe it. 

So I started thinking about it. Obviously I can tell from looking around that heavier women often seem just as able as thin women to attract and keep a mate. But is that really a measure of what most men prefer in an ideal world? I then started asking people on Twitter what they thought. I got a lot of responses, too many to list here and of course this is as un-scientific a sample as it gets (however, someone did point me to a book which is supposed to be a scientific study of sexual preferences and they said it also asserted that men prefer heavier women).

Back to all the replies I received… with a scant few exceptions, not a single man said they prefer thin women over more curvy ones. Some said weight doesn’t matter. At the very least, they said that appearance gets them interested of course, but if a woman carries herself well, is intelligent, has a good personality overall, etc., those things become more important in the end. Now, they could all be bullshitting me, sure. But I’d like to believe that the relative anonymity of the Internet (even when using one’s real name) often breeds more honesty than face-to-face conversations. Besides, I don’t believe anyone had a reason to lie about this, particularly to me. What would be the motivation?

So now I am righteously angry.

If this is all true, if men really prefer more healthy-looking, heavier, curvier women, whatever you want to call it, then we women have been lied to on a daily basis from a very early age. What I mean of course are the images of women we see in the media. The women on TV newscasts, sitcoms and reality shows. The women in movies. The women in magazines. The women in the ads in those magazines, on billboards, TV and all the rest. I could go on and on.

This is, of course, not a new concept. A Google search for “images of women in the media” yields about 227,000,000 results and you can trust me when I say that none of these will tell you that the way women are portrayed is just fine, that it’s not at all damaging or problematic.

These images we see in the media are a huge part of why girls and women hate their bodies, why they feel fat and unattractive, why they think men aren’t interested in them (when really it might just be, say, the extremely strong low self-esteem vibe they’re giving off). If you’re on the higher side of the scale or have struggled with weight, you know what I mean. You know how persistent these feelings are. You know that even when a man tells you he loves you and loves how you look, you tend not to believe him. He loves me because I’m funny or smart, you think to yourself. And because I have such a great personality, he’s able to overlook the physical shortcomings. He doesn’t really love my body, you think to yourself. He just puts up with it.

These feelings and thoughts persist even when you hopefully one day reach a point of being totally comfortable in your skin and maybe even liking yourself just the way you are. They persist no matter how many men ask you out. They persist no matter how many girlfriends tell you you’re beautiful. Such is the power of those lifelong bombardments of what it supposedly means for a woman to be beautiful. 

This is what I would say in response to what seems like a perfectly good question someone posed on Twitter after the discussion had somewhat died down:

So you have guys telling you they like “average sized women & empirical research to back it up. What else do you want?

Except it is a bad question. It’s a bad question because it presupposes that empirical reality is enough to assuage millions’ of women’s fears and insecurities. Seriously, when has empirical reality ever convinced anyone of anything? Facts and figures matter very, very little to most people.

So… what do I want? Just one thing really. I want women not to have to go their entire lives in some cases thinking they are ugly and unlovable.

In order for that to happen, we cannot continue to bombard girls and women with unrealistic images of female beauty. Why do we all accept this fiction if it’s apparently not even what most men want? Why is the perpetuation of this insane fantasy acceptable to us?

Imagine if, say, ads for restaurants showed really gross-looking and unappetizing food. Would we all accept it because we knew that when we actually go the restaurant, the food would look great and taste good? What if car ads showed old, beat up, rusty cars but when you get to the dealership you’d see that they were all shiny and new? What if ads for airlines only showed the planes crashing? I realize some of these examples are not extremely apt, but I think you see where I’m going with this. The point is, why do we accept such a gross inversion of reality as it pertains to female beauty; an inversion we would be unlikely to tolerate anywhere else?

Think about this for a moment. To draw a parallel, African-Americans, Asians, gay people, people with disabilities and many other groups represent minorities of Americans. And yet there is often a persistent and admirable effort to secure representation for them in TV shows, movies, ads, etc. The reason many people would probably cite is that it would be nice if what we see on TV or in the theater more closely reflected the reality of our day to day lives. There is a social good in that, most people would probably say. Also, they would say, if we see more images of minority groups, we might come to see them as less different, less “other” and perhaps become more tolerant if we are not already.

It all sounds very nice, right? Well, here’s the deal: a realistic portrayal of the female body is no different. It is the reality, but the media images we see rarely reflect it.

I hope you feel just as strongly as I do. If not, read this.

Now it’s your turn. What do you think needs to happen for this sad state of affairs to change? Is it changing already? What can the average person do to help?

I’m sure (or I hope) there are some organizations already doing this work. If you know of any good ones, post their info here.


  1. Anonymous April 26, 2011

    (I think I successfully logged into your comments with my Twitter, but just in case, this is @jennkloc)

    I remember when I took my first mass media studies class at DePaul and one of the lectures was about this very topic. I had an epiphany in class when I realized that all those beautiful, thin, tan images of women that tormented me so much during my adolescence were not *my* idea of what is beautiful. They’re someone else’s. It’s someone else’s (or a whole industry’s) interpretation of what is beautiful, and it’s carefully calculated and sold to me in a package to make me also think that it’s beautiful–but I don’t have to think that way.

    And it’s sort of jarring to realize, “Whoa, I think this way, and I have so many insecurities about my own body, but these ideas didn’t come from me, they came from someone else.” And then that’s sort of liberating, because I get to decide what I actually think is beautiful. And what I actually think is beautiful includes so much more than what I see in the media.

    I think it would be great if young girls could have this realization before they are young women in college media studies classes. I can only imagine how much less painful my middle school and high school years would’ve been if I had known that I could make my own decisions about what I think is beautiful instead of trying to conform to some ridiculous, airbrushed ideal.

    And on top of it all, despite what other people think is beautiful, and despite what I think is beautiful, and all of that–we’ve got to stop tying our self-esteem to our perceptions of our sexual desirability. The connection between the Post writing about men porn-searching for bigger women and an over saturation of hyper-sexualized images of thin women in the media shouldn’t be that apparent, and it shouldn’t be tied to reflections of how normal women feel about their own bodies. There’s sexual desirability, and then there’s everything else.

    Let’s teach young girls to feel confident and good about themselves for everything else.

  2. Anonymous April 26, 2011

    Hi Anna,
    Do straight women prefer skinny guys? Serious question. Just as women are bombarded with size zero images, the media is full of images of toned, tanned, well-groomed men. There’s nothing new about this really… Michelangelo’s David wasn’t exactly a fat bloke. Indeed, would it still be around if it was a statue of a portly gent? I want my four-year-old to grow up with the same attitude as his dad. Enjoy life, what you are and what you’ve got.

  3. Anna Tarkov April 26, 2011

    Thanks for the comment Paul.

    I have no idea if there have been any studies done about what straight women prefer in terms of how men look. I can tell you from personal and anecdotal experience though that women seem, on average, to be more able to look beyond the physical than men. I’m not sure why that’s so and even if it’s true of most women or not. It’s just what I see.

    Second, I of course didn’t mean to leave men out of this discussion. Men are also affected by unrealistic images in the media, but (and this is a CRUCIAL difference) not nearly on the same scale as young girls and women are. If you click through to that True Child link, you’ll see what I mean. Also, let’s be honest here. Many images of men in the media do present an idealized image of manhood, but there is also a lot more variety. We also see geeky men, fat men, men with bad hair or no hair, men who are short, etc., etc. In most cases, none of these things are shown to preclude them from attracting women, having a good job, a generally happy life, etc. I could probably name 10 men or more from movies, TV shows, etc. who, despite their not so perfect looks, are shown to be doing pretty well in life. I struggle to name even one woman you could say the same about.

    And again, even if the depictions of men and women were EQUALLY unrealistic (which they are not), it’s been demonstrated that girls and women are more affected by these messages. How many teenage boys have you heard of that get eating disorders for instance? Now how many teenage girls? That’s just a tiny example.

    As far as your question about Michelangelo’s David, yes, I actually think he would still have just as good a chance of being around today if he was portly. What is most appreciated about the work is the artistry of the sculpture, not that he is a fit, nude man. If that were the reason for its longevity, other sculptures of fit, nude men (and there were many in those times and since) would hold an equally high place in the pantheon of art history and appreciation.

    Finally, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying life and being happy about what you have. But enjoying life and being aware of some of its painful realities are not things that must be mutually exclusive. It’s entirely possibly to be a generally happy, positive person while also being sensitive to the fact that there is much going on in the world and in our society that make it very UNhappy life for some.

  4. Anonymous April 26, 2011

    Thanks for this post, Anna. As a youngish woman (I’m 21) I’ve been bombarded with images of the ideal woman for as long as I can remember. I’m short (5’3), and while I’m healthy, I’m more curvy than girls features in magazines. It took me until pretty recently to feel okay about the way I look, and I know that my 18 year old brother doesn’t struggle with these issues.

    Also, I’m educated, I know that people in fashion magazines are airbrushed, and that celebrities get access to personal trainers and nutritionists that I as a poor college student don’t. That knowledge doesn’t stop the feelings of inadequacy, but I think some knowledge makes dealing with not being the ‘ideal’ body shape easier.

  5. Anna Tarkov April 26, 2011

    Sarah, thanks for reinforcing what I said. That even when we KNOW that the images we see are unrealistic and don’t usually match what we see in the real world, we still can’t help feeling inadequate. Imagine what the world would be like if the women we saw in magazines, on TV, etc were more like the women we see at the grocery store or riding the bus. I think we’d have a ton more happy women and girls, that’s what I think :-)

    By the way, congratulations on reaching a level of comfort with your body at a fairly young age. Good for you. Some women never get to that point or get there much later in life. Imagine the happy years they could have had if they had come sooner to the realization that look just fine and are just as worthy as anyone else of love and happiness.

    It’s amazing how skewed our perceptions can be. Now, at 30, I’d love to weigh what I did in high school, but looking back I remember feeling fat at what was probably a normal weight for my age. It’s only now that I know why I felt that way. As Jenn mentioned in her comment, we just don’t realize where those feelings come from unless we learn about it in a class or learn about it on our own somehow. Many women surely never learn it and will go on thinking that their low self-esteem is their own problem and no one else’s.

  6. Anonymous April 26, 2011

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. My husband constantly tells me that he likes my curves, and whenever I mention wanting to lose weight for the sake of losing weight, he actually gets sad. When he comments on attractive women in movies/TV, they are always curvy. He doesn’t understand why there is so much pressure on women to be thin – that’s not attractive to him or most guys he knows. Who wants to cuddle with a bag of bones? Guys want something to “grab onto” to use his crass words.

    Have you read The Beauty Myth?

  7. Anna Tarkov April 26, 2011

    I most certainly have. Alas, not all other women have read it. And again, if only knowing the problems were enough. It isn’t. Like some of the other commenters have said, you can totally understand the root of your insecurity and still feel it all the same. I just hope that one day we can give our daughters a world where things are different.

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