Our new research paper published in the journal PLoS ONE, shows the potential impact of visual imagery on our preferences for female body shape. In previous research it has been shown that Zulus who have moved to the UK rate female body shapes for attractiveness in a manner which is intermediate between their compatriots in South Africa, and their hosts in the UK. It was hypotnesised that this could be because they learn a thin-is-good association in Britain. Alternatively, it could be because British media are saturated with thinner bodies and this biases their perceptions of 'normal' and changes their preferences accordingly.
In our experiment, we attempted to mimic both these possibilities. We found that presenting female participants with a series of 'thin' or 'large' bodies changed their preferences to be for thinner or larger bodies respectively*, suggesting that just the prevalence of low BMI bodies in our media could be enough to induce changes in migrants' preferences.
Importantly, we found these changes whether we used typical media images (models and beauty queens) or relatively unappealing images of women with very high or very low body weight. There have been recent campaigns against anorexia featuring images of very emaciated sufferers; however, our research suggests that such images would only increase, not decrease, a preference for thinness. They are not enough on their own to counteract the thin ideal.
In contrast we found that presenting aspirational and 'glamourous' large bodies (plus size models and beauty queens) alongside the plain images of underweight women in grey leotards did shift preferences away from thinness - this suggests that learning associations (in this case large-is-good) may also play a role in our body weight preferences.
*It should be noted that everyone in our study prefered thinner bodies than the midpoint on our scale, but preferences shifted up and down depending on what kind of images they had seen.