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Do Men Find Very Skinny Women Attractive?

Women often misjudge men’s preferences.

Key points

  • Men find curvaceous women's bodies more attractive than skinny ones, possibly for evolutionary reasons.
  • A typical Playboy Playmate is 36% more curvy than a typical fashion model, and 54% more curvy than an average university undergraduate.
  • Today's less-curvy fashion models may represent the need for lower production costs in the fashion industry more than what men find attractive.

by Will Lassek and Steve Gaulin

Because of our work extolling the great value of women's fat, we are often asked why, then, do men find super-skinny models so attractive? The answer is: They don't. Men don't find very skinny women attractive. How often do you see a guy ogling the latest issue of Mademoiselle or Vogue? The ultra-thin fashion models whose photos adorn these magazines and who flaunt the latest Parisian designs on runways are quite different from the women who are attractive enough to men that they are willing to pay to look at them, like Playboy Playmates.

The average Playmate is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 115 pounds. This gives her a BMI (body mass index) of about 18.5. These are similar to the BMIs men prefer when rating the attractiveness of images of women with varying BMIs. They might seem pretty skinny, but are they thinner than other young women? Comparing them with young American women before the obesity epidemic (or those in European countries today), we find that Playmates are not really much skinnier than average: Before 1980, almost two-thirds of American women in their late teens had a BMI below 20. So Playmates are not unusually thin, nor have they been getting skinnier.

What makes Playmates quite different from other young women is that they are much more curvaceous. The typical Playmate's bust, waist, and hip measurements are 35-23-34. Using the difference between bust and waist, and waist and hips in relation to height, a typical Playmate is 54 percent more curvy than an average university undergraduate. This is what gives her the hourglass figure that men find so attractive. The reasons men find these curvy figures so appealing can be found in our earlier post.

Fashion models are quite different from Playboy models. Their average BMI is only 17.1 and almost half have BMIs below 17 (compared with just 6 percent of Playmates). They have much smaller bust sizes (by 3 inches), larger waists, and similar-sized hips. They are also extraordinarily tall, averaging 5 feet 10, which is taller than 99 percent of American women. Being so tall makes them appear to be even skinnier. A typical Playmate's hips are 53 percent of her height, similar to other women with the same BMI. But the hips of a top fashion model are only 46 percent of her height, making her look 20 percent thinner and actually quite boyish. (The ratio in a typical teenage boy is actually higher: 49 percent!) Fashion models are also much less curvy than Playmates: a typical Playmate is 36 percent more curvy than a typical fashion model. And since it is their curvaceousness that makes Playmates so attractive to men, fashion models generally aren't on men's radar.

Unfortunately, many women seem to believe that men find super-skinny women like fashion models especially attractive. In study after study, women consistently underestimate the amount of body fat that men prefer. 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 women think men prefer are more like fashion models than Playmates. (For what it's worth, men also misjudge women's preferences for male muscle and genital size.) 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 male desire may encourage some women to mistakenly think they would be more attractive to men if they weighed less.

Just why today's fashion models are selected to appear so thin is harder to explain. Since typical young American women today are 20 pounds heavier than they were 40 years ago, those who seem to be quite slender are much more of a rarity today. It is also easier and less costly to produce clothes with fewer labor-intensive darts and tucks, but these more linear clothes do not show well on a curvy model. So, one possibility is that production costs and marketing strategies combine to create a demand for less curvy models. In addition, it may be that male fashion designers are more likely to prefer boyish figures.

Whatever the reasons, the differences in the models featured in Vogue and Playboy reveal that men and women don't currently agree on the most attractive female body shape. Which viewpoint is more likely to reflect the healthiest option for women? Over evolutionary history, men's genetic contributions to the next generation depended on their ability to make subtle and accurate assessments about which women would make the best moms. In contrast, women got no reproductive payoff from any ability to make similar assessments about other women's bodies. Hence, odd as it may seem, men's unconscious preferences are more likely to tell us about what has been healthy for women.

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