On body image and selfishness

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Truepath objects to complaints about the way that women's bodies are portrayed in media:
So I've long been disgusted by the socially approval of complaints about models being too skinny and demands that 'real' women, i.e., less skinny women, be depicted in the media. I've already skewered most of the arguments elsewhere but the long and short of it is that the people who complain about skinny models aren't demanding we show more ugly people on TV. Rather they are just complaining about which features are considered beautiful.

Sure, often these views are voiced as mostly meaningless gripes the same way men might gripe that it should be illegal for women to prefer the guy with the fancier car, full head of hair etc. So long as these complaints are taken no more seriously than this they are a harmless way to express frustration and worry about one's sexual desirability. However, some speakers take these complaints quite seriously and that amounts to an (unconsciously) selfish ploy to get ahead by denigrating the competition. After all some people will always be more beautiful than others so at best they are demanding we change the standards to put themselves closer to the top. In men we recognize the analogous unpleasant behavior (dismissing every guy who is popular with the ladies as an asshole or sissy) isn't praiseworthy and we should do the same in women.

This is simple human psychology. We all (men and women) resent those we fear are more attractive/more successful than us and we look for ways to bring them down so we don't feel so bad about ourselves. It would thus be unfair to assign more than a little blame to the men and women who look for excuses to dismiss their potential competitors. They are just groping for ways to feel better about themselves. The true culprit here is society which doesn't call out this behavior for what it is.

I agree with some of the later argument about anorexia versus obesity, but I don't find this argument very convincing. It's certainly likely true that many who complain about extremely thin body images would like society to accept a body image that makes them feel better about themselves, but that doesn't mean that that wouldn't be a net win as well, even if we're just looking at self-image.

Let's start with an unreasonable model and assume that we can characterize body size by a single metric M corresponding to body mass index. To simplify things, we'll say that the smallest possible M value is 0 and the largest is 1. Further, we'll assume there's some ideal M value MI. If we assume that individual A has a size MA, then we can write their happiness as F(MA, MI). We could posit a large number of different forms for F, but in the spirit of oversimplification, let's say that unhappiness is always positive and is linear in the distance between your size and the ideal size:
Unhappiness = | MA - MI |
So, is there an optimal value of MI, i.e., one that maximizes average happiness? It turns out that the answer is probably yes. Let's assume (again unrealistically) that people's sizes are uniformly distributed between 0 and 1. As an example, let's assume that MI is 0. Remember that the average size is .5, so the average happiness is also .5. Because the distribution is uniform, we can extend this for any value of MI. We simply partition the space around MI and then note that the average size (and hence happiness) on either side of the partition is equal to halfway between the partition and the end. And since the fraction of people on either side is also proportional to the point of partition...
Avg-Unhappiness = 1/2((MI)2 + (1-MI)2)
or Avg-Unhappiness = 1/2(1 - 2MI + 2MI2)

It's not hard to convince yourself that the minimum of this function is at MI = .5. Moreover, unhappiness gets worse the further away MI gets from 0.5, reaching a maximum at 0 and 1.

Now, obviously, this model is unrealistic in a number of ways. For instance:

  • There's no single metric of body size that's useful.
  • Body sizes aren't anything like uniformly distributed (it's more like a bell curve, which actually would make the pull towards the center more powerful).
  • Body image happiness isn't a linear function of distance from some ideal body image.

The last objection is probably the most serious. In fact, it's not clear it's any kind of distance function. You could imagine instead that it's a function of how many people are between you and the top. However, I doubt that's completely true. For most practical purposes, being merely more attractive than almost everyone you meet is almost as good as being the most attractive person in the world. Most women are never going to meet Brad Pitt, so if I just look more attractive than nearly every man they ever meet (which is regrettably not true), that's nearly as good as being as attractive as Brad as far as getting dates is concerned. And yet, very attractive people—even those more attractive than almost everyone they know—seem to be reasonably likely to be unhappy with their bodies as well, at least in part because they're judging themselves against people with whom they're not really competing directly.

This brings me to what I think is the more important point: it's not clear that the current media-portrayed ideal body image is within the possible range at all. I've never seen any supermodel in person, so I'm operating pretty much on the basis of photography and video, which (1) are very heavily made up (2) are posed and cherrypicked to be those people at their most attractive and (3) at least in the case of still photography, are extremely heavily photoshopped. In other words, it's quite possible that they appear to be at (say) -.2, which isn't actually achievable. And since the further away from the center of gravity the ideal image gets the more unhappy people get, having the ideal image outside the possible range creates unnecessary unhappiness. Even if we moved it to just the outer limit of the possible range, i.e., MI=0 that wouldn't upset the orderings but would make people happier because they would feel closer to the perceived ideal (this is actually Pareto dominant).

As I said at the beginning, this is a ridiculously oversimplified model. I don't know if any of these properties would hold up in a more realistic model, but it certainly seems possible they would, and if so, then it's possible we would in fact benefit—at least in terms of happiness with one's appearance—from an ideal body image more closer to the population norm, in which case wanting to change the ideal body image is potentially more than just a matter of rearranging the pecking order.

8 Comments

Aah--that explains why the same women are all so furious at Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and their ilk, for creating an ideal of female political power that the vast majority of women can never hope to attain...

Do you have some comment that bears some relation to what I actually said?

I think another aspect should be brought into this. The effect of the ideals.



The ideals are a form of sexual selection. I think it's quite contra productive for a society to have ideals that will cause problems in the future. Runaway sexual selection is a rather destructive force. The ideals should reflect how we want the future of humanity to look. And I think there are more important characteristics than "less than 40 kg weight".



This opinion has nothing to do with the fact that I find intelligent, normal-weight, women more attractive... ;)

I question the assumption that body image happiness is a function of distance from the body image ideal. I've known some quite attractive people who are surreally unhappy with aspects of their physical appearance.

To clarify, then: if the women who argue for a more average consensus ideal for the female physique were truly concerned about maximizing happiness by bringing more women within striking distance of the ideal, then one would expect them to voice similar concern about politically powerful women whose prominence and popularity threaten to shift the ideal for female political power further away from the norm.

In fact, though, they typically laud the accession of women to positions of great political power. There are many possible explanations for this difference, but a natural one is that their preference for idealizing middling physiques and great heights of political power stems from a belief that they (the more prominent and influential among them anyway--those are the ones whose opinions we hear, after all) are much more competitive in the race for political power than in the race for emaciation.

Dan,

Thanks for fleshing out your comments.

I'm not convinced that your explanation is in fact the most plausible one. First, the politicians in question are actually real people. As I indicated in my post, one of the objections raised to the media's portrayal of body images is that the "ideal" image is not just extreme but actually unattainable. Now, you may argue that the same objections would be raised were the ideal image actually within the range of potential variation, but it's not clear that's true.

Second, I suspect that the desire to be physically attractive is rather more universal than the desire to have great political power. I certainly would be happy to be more attractive, but I have zero interest in being president. This naturally produces a different set of attitudes towards those who are successful.

Third, it's not clear to me that the group of people complaining about female body image actually *do* amass significant political power. In my experience they're more likely to be writers and "public intellectuals" rather than politicians.

Finally, dropping your body fat to extreme levels is probably a lot less safe than being a popular politician. If it weren't, you might see a different attitude towards body image.

I'm not sure what you mean by "actually unattainable". Since there are more real supermodels than real female US senators, the supermodel ideal appears to be more attainable than the ideal of female political power. (No doubt there's some media distortion in both cases, but I'm not sure how significant that is.)

Alfred Adler would likely have disagreed with you about the universality of the drive for power, but in any event we're talking about people who not only desire to be beautiful/powerful, but also have completely internalized the extreme cultural ideal to the extent that not attaining it generates unhappiness. I don't know in which case the percentage is higher, but it's not universal in either case.

As for political power, you might be surprised at how academics and public intellectuals think about it. I recall seeing a talk by Naomi Klein (of "No Logo" fame) back when she was a mere editor of the Varsity newspaper at the University of Toronto. She talked about being called in to the university president's office after having written an article that was displeasing to them, and what a wonderful feeling of power (her word) she had, knowing that although the president could bluster, there was actually nothing he could do about her writing. If you'd heard the giddiness in her voice, I don't think you would be able to doubt any longer that academics and public intellectuals can perceive themselves as wielders of great power.

Finally, measuring the effect on public health of the skinny-model ideal of beauty is a tricky business--one would have to weigh the likely deleterious effect of people close to that ideal getting even closer to it, against the likely beneficial effect of people far away from the ideal getting somewhat closer to it. And if health of the soul is taken into account, I'm quite certain that the idealization of power is much more pernicious than the idealization of thinness.

(Disclaimer: I don't particularly care for the emaciated look myself, and would be perfectly happy to see tastes shift. However, I'm deeply suspicious of movements aspiring to change mass tastes--especially sexual or romantic ones--to suit some supposedly higher public purpose. I feel similarly, for instance, about those who believe that gay men really "should" be attracted to women rather than men.)

I'm not sure what you mean by "actually unattainable". Since there are more real supermodels than real female US senators, the supermodel ideal appears to be more attainable than the ideal of female political power. (No doubt there's some media distortion in both cases, but I'm not sure how significant that is.)

You did actually read my post, right? The desire in question isn't to be a supermodel but rather to look like one. And that perception is driven almost entirely by media images of such women, which, as I said, are highly distorted. That's part of why, as Brian Korver pointed out, women who are already very attractive can nevertheless have severe body image issues.

As for the rest of your comments. Yes, I'm quite aware that some public intellectuals desire power, though I'm surprised you would think that a single anecdote about Naomi Klein would provide a particularly convincing argument. I was expressing a general opinion, which may of course be wrong, but your argument doesn't show it.

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