Butterfaces And "Size Zero Girls:" The Morality Of Female Attractiveness

A recent study shows that men may be just as interested in a woman's body as in her face when pursuing a short-term relationship, news that True/Slant's Ryan Sager helpfully frames in terms of the charming moniker "butterface."

Sager begins his post pretty annoyingly, saying, "At the risk of alienating any females in the audience, today we're going to discuss… the science of a butterface." Starting off a sentence with "at the risk of" in this way is basically like saying, "no offense" — that is "I'm about to say something really offensive, but I'm acknowledging it, so now you can't get mad." And did Sager really need to commit the language foul of calling women "females?" No, nor did he need to link us to his Google image search for the word "butterface," or indeed, mention the word at all. The actual research goes something like this: 375 college students, male and female, were asked to evaluate potential dates of the opposite sex for either a long-term or short-term relationship. They could choose to see a photo of the date's face or body, but not both. Everyone was more likely to choose the face, except for men deciding on a short-term relationship. Sager writes,

For a short-term relationship, men were as likely to say they wanted to see the face as the body. 50-50. For long-term, 75% of men wanted to see the face.

Frankly, this is probably "better" than most people would expect men to do on such a measure, given cultural jokes about how men think about women.

I'm not really sure there's any need to attach a value judgment to this research. We may think of faces as more individual or expressive than bodies, and thus a "better" basis for making relationship decisions, but is this really true? Or does it just reflect a puritanical view of the body? I remember when a boy in high school told me I had a nice ass, and my friend retorted, "He shouldn't like you for your ass! He should like you for your eyes!" Well, if that boy and I were actually going to have a long-term relationship (we didn't), he probably would have needed to like me for my brain in addition to whatever physical qualities he was into — despite windows-to-the-soul stereotypes, eyes aren't any less superficial or any more related to inner beauty than asses. They're just considered less sexual, and therefore somehow more acceptable in a rather outmoded view of human attraction.

A similarly misguided view of the interplay between women's looks and men's desires is at work in the BBC coverage of a study about women's weight. Apparently a group of male students rated "normal weight" women as both healthier and more attractive, based on photographs, than either underweight or overweight ones. The BBC titles its article "Size zero girls 'less attractive' " (seriously, could we retire the phrase "size zero" in all cases not specifically referring to clothing?), and the study authors manage to insult both underweight and overweight women. Study supervisor Prof. David Perrett says,

This sends a strong message to all the girls out there who believe you have to be underweight to be attractive.

The people making judgments in our study were all between the ages of 18 and 26 and they did not rate underweight girls most attractive. They preferred normal weight girls.

That's right, girls, quit having that eating disorders so that boys will like you! I'll admit that it's probably good for heterosexual young women to know that the men in their lives expect them to diet themselves down to nothing. But most people who develop eating disorders don't do it so that guys will like them, and invoking the generalized sexual preferences of a group of men in their teens and twenties isn't exactly a great way to instill healthy habits in women. Of course, neither is fat-shaming. Lead researcher Vinet Coetzee said that overweight women in the study had higher blood pressure and more colds and flus than their normal weight peers. She added,

Even at this young age, their health was already suffering because they were overweight, and what is more, other people can spot this in their face.

She seems confident that the men in the sample rated overweight women as less healthy not because of cultural mores that equate fat with omgdeath, but because they could totally tell that the women probably got the flu a lot. This seems Specious, but more than anything, it's unhelpful — being told that guys can tell they're unhealthy isn't going to make anybody lose weight, especially since anyone who's considered overweight is already bombarded with the message that they're unhealthy anyway.

I'm not against studies about human attractiveness per se — I just wish those who report on such studies could stop linking them to health or morality. Anybody who's been on the Internet knows that sexual attraction isn't always healthy or moral. And just as a man who ogles your ass is no better or worse than one who gets lost in your eyes, a woman is no more sound in body or soul because a panel of men deem her doable.

Image via Flickr.

The Science Of A Butterface [True/Slant]
Size Zero Girls 'Less Attractive' [BBC]
A Pretty Face Or A Hot Body? [Scientific American]