• Composite bodies showing the average fat and muscle mass chosen as the most attractive for women and men. (Dr Ian Stephen)Source: Dr Ian Stephen
Both genders think women with an unhealthily low body fat content are attractive while healthy-looking men with a normal level of fat are the most likely to turn heads, a new study reveals.
Yasmin Noone

7 Jun 2016 - 4:01 PM  UPDATED 7 Jun 2016 - 4:09 PM

Men and women both think females with an unhealthily low body fat content to are more attractive than females with a normal body shape and healthy levels of fat, new Australian research shows.

A study released by Macquarie University earlier this month finds that both genders perceive adult men (aged 30 or under) with a healthy body fat content of eight-to-21 per cent to be the most attractive of their sex. Unfortunately, this same standard does not apply to women.

The research, published in PLOS ONE,shows that both genders think females aged 18-to-30 who are skinner than what’s considered a healthy body fat percentage are the most attractive.

While the study’s participants judged women with 16 per cent body fat as the most attractive, they thought women with 19 per cent fat looked the healthiest.

However, both of these figures are below the healthy body fat range for young Caucasian women, which is 21-33 per cent of total body weight.

The study’s lead author, Mary-Ellen Brierley from Macquarie University’s Department of Psychology, says the study’s results shows there is a significant difference in the way we judge healthy-looking male and female bodies.

“In this study, we found that both male and female participants chose significantly less fat mass to optimise the attractiveness of women’s bodies than to optimise the healthy appearance of women’s bodies,” says Ms Brierley.

Having 16 per cent body is not ideal, health-wise, for a woman.

“Whereas for men’s bodies, participants opted for a similar amount of muscle and fat mass to optimise attractiveness and healthy appearance.”

Research-group leader and senior lecturer from Macquarie University’s Department of Psychology, Dr Ian Stephen, explains that the team began their research on the evolutionary assumption that facial and bodily features, which indicate good health and fertility, are generally more attractive.

“We predicted that what will be perceived as healthy and what will be perceived as attractive for both men and women would reflect what is physiologically healthy,” says Dr Stephen.

“The results for men’s bodies were pretty much what we expected them to be. The amount of fat and muscle perceived as healthy was what was considered to be attractive for a male.

“So the best way for a man to make himself look good to women or other men is to actually be healthy, which is quite a positive finding.”

However, Dr Stephen adds that the study shows that most people don’t equate perceptions of health with attractiveness in young adult females.

More research is needed to determine why our perceptions of female attractiveness and health do not align. However, Dr Stephen believes it could be due to social views, which see ‘thin as good’, cultural norms, or a reaction to thin and unhealthy looking female idols in pop culture.

“Either way, I wouldn’t recommend anyone go on a diet or exercise to get their weight down beyond what’s healthy. Having 16 per cent body is not ideal, health-wise, for a woman.”

People shouldn’t think that thinner is better.

Dr Stephen says the team opted to measure body fat to represent health over Body Mass Index (BMI) because “one problem with BMI is that it doesn’t separate out fat and muscle”.

“If you have a high BMI, according to the measure, you are very fat. But if you are a very muscly rugby player, your BMI measure will show you to be obese, which is obviously not the case because you are just very muscular.

“…It’s not bad for you to have large amounts of muscle but it is bad to have large amount of fat.”

The research involved 30 female and 33 male participants of Caucasian appearance, aged between 18 and 30 years old.

They were instructed to manipulate 30 images different male and female body shapes by adding or removing body fat to a shape they found the most attractive.

Dr Stephen stresses that participants had the option of selecting much thinner and much larger female body shapes to represent what they thought was attractive, but they didn’t. Instead, he says, they chose bodies that were “just below the healthy range”.

“People shouldn’t think that thinner is better. Although you start becoming less attractive if you go over a certain body size, falling below 16 per cent body content was also less attractive.” 

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