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The Pressure to Be Thin: Males’ Influence on Female Romantic Partner’s Body Satisfaction

We’ve all been known to pack on a few extra pounds over the holidays. Not surprisingly, our weight, as well as our partners’ weights, can influence our romantic relationships. For example, when relationship partners’ weight levels start to diverge and become different from one another, leading to what researchers refer to as mixed-weight couples (think Peter and Lois Griffin from Family Guy or Oprah & Stedman), there can be problems. In fact, recent research1 and a recent article in the Wall Street Journal ("Put a Stop to ‘Do I Look Fat?'") investigate what happens in relationships where one partner, particularly the female, is less fit than the other. According to research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, relationships that pair an overweight female and a healthy weight male experience more conflict.

(You can hear more about the study in the Relationship Matters podcast here, or read a copy of the full article here.)

It is less clear, however, why this conflict in mixed-weight couples occurs. One possibility is that one dating partner may exert pressure on the other partner to be thin. A recent study from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology explores the possibility that one dating partner may exert pressure on the other partner to be thin, and that this pressure may vary by ethnicity.2

How They Did It

To test these ideas, the researchers conducted two studies. In the first study, 30 White and 30 Black undergraduate males rated how pleased they would be with their girlfriend’s weight in the context of several body parts (e.g., “large thighs,” “large stomach,” “large hips,” etc.). Participants also indicated their satisfaction with their current partners and to what extent they pressured their partners to be thinner (e.g., “I’ve teased my girlfriend(s) about being too heavy”). The second study assessed the female partner’s perspective by asking 67 White women and 38 Black women to report on their Body Mass Index (BMI), body satisfaction, perceived pressure for thinness, and dating experiences (e.g., ethnicity of partner, length and importance of the relationship). Thus, across these two studies, the researchers were able to test both what males were looking for, and females’ perspective on what their male partners wanted.

What They Found

In the first study White males were generally more likely than Black males to report being displeased by the idea of a large or overweight female partner. Specifically, White males expressed more displeasure with the thought of a girlfriend with large thighs, buttocks, and hips, whereas Black males were more displeased by the thought of a girlfriend with a large stomach. In terms of their partner’s ideal weight, White men preferred a lower weight partner (~126 pounds) compared to Black men’s ideal partner weight (~135 pounds). The men did not differ in preferred height in their female partners. Thus, in light of these findings, it should come as no surprise that White men were also more likely to pressure their partners to be thin. 

In the second study, Black women were less likely than White women to perceive body areas as being too heavy or too large. Women with who were less satisfied with their bodies also reported more pressure to be thin. Not coincidentally, White women reported a greater perceived pressure to be thin from their romantic partners. Specifically, White women thought their partners resented them if they were not thin, while Black women felt their partners approved of their weight. Given our tendency to date within our own racial group, this pattern of results makes sense. However, regardless of the woman’s own race, women with lower BMI reported having more White partners, and women who had a White male partner had a lower ideal weight, lower body acceptance, and a lower BMI.

What the Results Mean For You

These results suggest that women’s satisfaction with their weight and body may come down to who they date. Males’ preferences for their partner’s weight varies by ethnicity, but it would be an oversimplification to conclude that the answer to increasing women’s body satisfaction is to date Black men. Rather, it would be better to focus on the pressure for thinness from the male, and the female’s perception of pressure. In other words, women should be aware of how much their romantic partners value thinness, because it may contribute to lower body satisfaction on their part. Males should also be aware that pressuring one’s partner to be thin negatively influences women’s body satisfaction. In short, males should love their partners and their bodies for what they are, not what they’d prefer them to be.

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1Burke, T. J., Randall, A. K., Corkery, S. A., Young, V. J., & Butler, E. A., (2012). “You’re going to eat that?” Relationship processes and conflict among mixed-weight couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 1109-1130. [click for a PDF of this article].

2Roberts, A., Cunningham, M., & Dreher, L. (2012). Ethnicity of dating partner, pressure for thinness, and body dissatisfaction. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(6), 1415-1438. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.00905.x

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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