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Is Skinny Really Just a Fashion Choice?

03/02/2015 14:38 GMT | Updated 05/04/2015 10:59 BST

Ideals for body shape in women have changed markedly over the ages, ranging from the not-exactly-svelte Venus de Milo of ancient Greece, to the very ample nudes by the Flemish artist Rubens, and then on to the stick thin, large breasted beauties typically featured in today's media. This much is well illustrated in a recent Buzzfeed video. So does this mean that there are no real advantages of one body shape over another? Do perceptions of what's attractive in a female physique just come down to what we get fed on our computer, TV or cinema screens? 2015-02-03-womanwithtapemeasure.jpg

Well, yes partly, but the pros and cons of different body types, and so their attractiveness, depend a lot on the situation you're in. In a modern western environment slender bodies can signal health and fitness, and also that you have the resources to eat well and join a gym, or at least have time to exercise. Being grossly overweight, on the other hand, is linked with all sorts of bad health outcomes. Too skinny isn't good of course, and in women a small waist but ample butt is a good thing biologically, since as we've seen recently, such an hour glass figure is perfect for supplying the lipids an unborn baby needs for brain development. That could go some way to explaining the underlying impetus for men desiring the bodies of curvy women like Kim Kardashian and Beyonce.

But can men's personal qualities influence what they think is a sexy and attractive body shape? I spoke to Viren Swami, researcher at the University of Westminster specializing in the psychology of physical attractiveness and he points out that a lot of what we find attractive comes down to our own personalities and attitudes.

Fat admirers, that is people who are especially sexually attracted to obese partners, tend to have personalities high in "openness to experience", he says. People with this personality type idealize a wide range of body shapes and are more likely to reject media ideals. And it turns out that men who have sexist attitudes and also those who are more open to casual sex are particularly likely to desire women with large breasts.

Stress and hardship are important too, and if you want to know what most men desire check out the models in porn magazines: One study tracking socioeconomic changes from 1960 to 2000 found that during economic hard times the waistlines of playboy centrefold models expanded.

Men who are hungry prefer bigger women: Research shows that all you have to do is remove a guy's lunch and his liking for fuller figured women in photos increases. And move to parts of the world where food is regularly in short supply and you won't find much desire for stick thin women. One such place, rural South Africa, has been ravaged by HIV and AIDs which tends to result in severe emaciation, and here it's the bigger ladies that are sought after according to Swami. After all, not only are they demonstrating that they're more likely to be free from the disease, but also that they have plenty of access to the food they need for raising babies, and biologically speaking, that's what counts.

But culture and the desire to conform to social norms also plays a huge role in what we're attracted to; other research by Swami and colleagues showed that men from rural South Africa who moved to the UK soon adopted preferences for body weight in women akin to their British counterparts.

It seems that right now cultural pressures may be pushing us too far.

"The preference that we find among most men in western societies is for a woman who's clinically underweight", says Swami. "So they're desiring someone who is technically unhealthy."

And if you think that's worrying, Swami says that women's idea of what men want is even smaller, so women think men want someone who's got a BMI of around 16 to 17. That's really really thin.

Swami thinks the primary driver of these ideals is our visual diet from the media. If you're continually bombarded with the idea that thinness is beautiful, feminine and healthy then of course you'll adopt these ideals, and preferences for thinness will emerge, he says. Evidence for this assertion was provided when his team looked at men's preference for body weight in women in different parts of Malaysia. They found a shift in the liking for women in the normal weight to heavy range in rural societies, towards underweight in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where men are exposed to western media.

So bring on the bigger ladies to our screens, bring on the models of all shapes and sizes. If we can see more women of healthy body weights in advertising, in films, on the catwalk, it's got to be a good thing for our well being and for our desires.

To read more of my writing visit sexyscience.co or follow me on facebook at sexyscience1.