Body Size, Physical Attractiveness, and Body Image among Young Adult Women: Relationships to Sexual Experience and Sexual Esteem

Article excerpt

It has been well-documented that women are objectified more than men: Women's bodies are more often looked at, evaluated, and sexualized (see Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997, for review). Correspondingly, men place greater emphasis on a potential mate's physical attractiveness than do women (for reviews see Buss, 1994; Feingold, 1990; Jackson, 1992). Given the apparent links between women's physical appearance and sexual desirability to men, how is women's attractiveness related to their own sexuality?

Although links between women's sexuality and physical attractiveness and body image make sense conceptually and are supported by everyday observation (Daniluk, 1993), this has been a topic infrequently studied. Those researchers who have considered potential relationships between women's sexuality and physical appearance and body image typically have done so in specialized populations. For example, researchers have considered body image and sexuality among women with gynecological disease (Andersen & LeGrand, 1991; Bellerose & Binik, 1993), cancer (Vaeth, 1986), eating disorders (Wiederman, 1996), or serious psychopathology (Money, 1994), as well as among women who have recently given birth (Reamy & White, 1987) or undergone mastectomy (Kriss & Kraemer, 1986). However, very few have considered typical, young adult women. Those studies that have explored sexuality and attractiveness or body image among nonclinical samples of women have done so in limited ways, sometimes with contradictory findings (Feingold, 1992).

For example, some researchers have found that self-rated facial attractiveness (MacCorquodale & DeLamater, 1979; Murstein & Holden, 1979), general body satisfaction (Faith & Schare, 1993; Trapnell, Meston, & Gorzalka, 1997), and experimenter-rated physical attractiveness (Stelzer, Desmond, & Price, 1987) were positively related to the amount of lifetime sexual experience for women (but see Walsh, 1993, 1995, for contradictory findings with regard to self-rated attractiveness). When such relationships have been found, however, the correlations have been quite modest, so it is not surprising that other researchers found no relationship between self-rated attractiveness and sexual experience for women (Curran & Lippold, 1975; Feingold, 1992).

These past studies have been limited to examining general attractiveness or overall body dissatisfaction (or simply facial attractiveness) as related to general sexual experience (i.e., typically virginity status or lifetime number of sexual intercourse partners). In a time when writers have called for increased investigation of individual differences in women's sexuality (Anderson & Cyranowski, 1995), physical appearance and body image have been neglected topics. In this study we explored several aspects of attractiveness and body image as these attributes and perceptions might relate to women's sexual experience and sexual esteem.

First, we assessed women's body size as a potential correlate of their sexuality. Although a small minority of men prefer large or obese women (Goode & Preissler, 1983), American males generally find relatively thin women most sexually desirable (Harris, Walters, & Washull, 1991; Spillman & Everington, 1989). Heavier women are generally stigmatized (Crandall, 1994; Harris, 1990; Harris et al., 1991; Miller, Rothblum, Felicio, & Brand, 1995), especially with regard to issues of sexuality and courtship (Regan, 1996; Sobal, Nicolopoulos, & Lee, 1995), and may have decreased opportunities for heterosexual dating (Kallen & Doughty, 1984; Schumaker, Krejci, Small, & Sargent, 1985; Tiggemann & Rothblum, 1988).

Facial attractiveness is also a relevant variable to assess when examining links between physical appearance and sexuality. Facial attractiveness appears to be an important determinant of male romantic and sexual interest in a particular female (Gangestad, 1993; Symons, 1995). …