An eating disorder specialist weighs in on the mental health ramifications of a recent survey
It’s probably not a huge surprise that men and women have different ideas about what constitutes the “ideal” body for women. Now, a recent survey is spotlighting just how different.
The survey, conducted in January on behalf of RiverMend Health and Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders, revealed that women are more likely to describe the “perfect female body” as athletic, while men prefer a curvy body type. More than half of the 1,004 respondents–54%–agreed that an athletic physique, like David Beckham’s or Michael Phelps’s, is the ideal for a man. The results for a woman’s body, however, varied. Forty-nine percent of women said an athletic body type (think: Jennifer Lopez or Gwen Stefani) is ideal, but 38% of men voted for a curvier frame (like that of Kim Kardashian West or Mariah Carey).
Certified eating disorder specialist Dena Cabrera, PsyD, executive clinical director of Rosewood, tells Health women’s critical approach may boil down to a marketing problem. “Women are inundated with pictures of the ‘ideal,’ and we tend to view ourselves in a way that taints how we see ourselves and the way we’re valued,” she says. “Women put a lot of value into body shape and size and weight.”
But women weren’t the only ones concerned with their appearance. More than 75% of survey respondents said they would give up something they love if it meant they could achieve the “perfect” body overnight. Those sacrifices included cutting out fried food, alcohol, social media, and even sex. A small percentage of people–3%–said they would go so far as to give up their homes, and 2% said they would give up a relationship with someone they love for that idealized physique.
Unsettlingly, the survey also found that men were more likely to want their partners to take extreme measures to achieve what they believe to be the perfect body. Thirteen percent of men said they would want their partner to exercise to the edge of their physical limits every day regardless of pain compared to just 5% of women; 5% of men said they would want their partner to skip meals compared to 1% of women; and 3% of men said they would want a partner to consume laxatives or to throw up after eating compared to zero women.
Cabrera, also author of the book, Mom in the Mirror: Body Image, Beauty, and Life after Pregnancy, doesn’t think men necessarily mean any harm. “I don’t think they’re equating it with negativity,” she says. “They’re not connecting it with self-esteem or self-worth.”
Still, she says she’s had at least one patient with a partner who was so aggressive about her body, the romance became abusive. “The relationship became about fulfilling [the man’s] needs and negating [the woman’s] own needs, self-worth, and value,” she says. “A relationship should be about two equal partners and about connection, not about looks.”
Some eating disorder signs are obvious: dramatic weight loss, a refusal to eat, retreating to the bathroom for long periods after meals. But anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder also reveal themselves in more subtle ways. How can you tell if a friend or family member is at risk? There’s no surefire way, since people with eating disorders display a wide range of symptoms. (Not to mention personal characteristics: Eating disorders, once associated almost exclusively with adolescent girls, are now recognized more frequently in younger children and adults.) That said, these easy-to-overlook signs may help you spot an eating disorder—or disorder in the making—sooner.