Playboy and Body Image

Andrea Kozak

In an Introduction to Psychology course lecture, I learned some interesting information that may help explain some of Colgate’s greatest problems concerning body image and eating disorders. Professor Carrie Keating, who teaches Psychology courses at Colgate, presented my class with an interesting study that was done in 2004. The study hypothesized that, in Western cultures during more economically and environmentally secure times, people have tended to consider the feminine ideal to be one of a smaller, thinner stature. The study, interestingly, looked at Playboy magazine issues from 1960 until 2000, comparing the “security status” of the United States with what Playboy considered to be the ideal feminine form.The correlation between body image preferences is referred to as the “Environmental Security Hypotheses.” Terry F. Pettijohn II and Brian J. Jungeberg, who noted these correlations and named the hypothesis, found that “Playmate of the Year age, body feature measures, and facial feature measurements were correlated with a general measure of social and economic hard times. When social and economic conditions were difficult, older, heavier and taller Playboy Playmates of the Year with larger waists, smaller eyes, larger waist-to-hip ratios, smaller bust-to-waist ratios and smaller body mass index values were selected. These results suggest that environmental security may influence perceptions and preferences for women with certain body and facial features.” These issues were brought up in my psychology lecture: why would smaller females be preferred in more secure times while larger, older, more masculine women are the “ideal” in Playboy magazine during times of economic stress? From a psychological perspective, the hypothesis proposes that bigger statures often suggest safety and protection, which has evolved over long periods of human history. When times aren’t as difficult, this security is not “needed,” which may be why during these times thinner women emerge as aesthetic ideals. Furthermore, larger, more curvaceous women may appear, from an evolutionist standpoint, as a “threat” to others during times when life is otherwise comfortable and stable. Here is an interesting example: The Playmate of the Year during the Vietnam War period in 1966 was Allison Parks. Her measurements were 36″, 24″ and 36″ (for bust, waist and hips, respectively). These measurements are considered to be significantly larger than Jodi Ann Paterson’s 32″, 23″ and 34.5″ measurements as Playmate of the Year in 2000, when times were considered to be more secure. Two or three inches may not seem like much, but the differences in the way the girls were posed in the magazines tended to accentuate Parks’ more voluptuous features and more masculine traits in the face (such as protruding jaw-line and cheekbones). In startling contrast, Paterson posed in a fashion that made her appear slimmer and more frail and feminine. In the study, “hard times” were measured based on sociological factors including birth and death rates, divorce rates, average household incomes (which were adjusted for the times between 1960 and 2000), unemployment rates, suicide and homicide rates, and consumer prices (once again, adjusted for the time periods). These measurements were carefully looked at and measured according to the “General Hard-Time Measure.”I propose that this information could be very interesting to take into a more focused scope, such as looking at Colgate students and the exceptionally high rate of eating disorders present on Colgate’s campus. Sophomore Amy Mastrocinque, a Member of Colgate’s Body Image Network (BIN), explains, “there are very few overweight people at Colgate, as you can see when you walk around campus. Even girls that are noticeably on the ‘heavier’ side here would be considered normal weight by medical standards, and probably in other places besides Colgate.” Mastrocinque went on to explain that “it is proven that eating disorders are predominantly white, upper class, female problems” and many Colgate females fit this profile. It is no secret that the majority of Colgate students come from financially stable households, though I want to point out that not all students fit this profile. I merely want to propose an idea that seems interesting to me. Sociological studies show that people of a higher socioeconomic status have the most exposure to and are most targeted by advertisements and the media. This may be the reason why a source of competition among middle and upper class females has to do with appearance (and inevitably) weight. It is also no secret that Colgate is academically competitive, and from academics students may derive this competition. Mastrocinque says, “I think a lot of girls at Colgate have trouble adjusting to the college lifestyle: you are coming from living at home into a place where you don’t know everyone. I think food can be a source of personal control for people who are trying to ‘stack up.'” So why does Colgate appear to be a much “healthier, fit and beautiful” campus than many other schools? BIN, along with campus services such as the Counseling Center, recognize that Colgate’s rates of eating disorders among women are higher than what it should be and that many girls here are underweight. This could possibly have to do with the fact that many of Colgate’s students do come from wealthy and/or stable financial backgrounds, and as found in the study of the Environmental Security Hypothesis, may prefer smaller females (or to be a smaller female) because there is less of a “need” for security. Furthermore, students who have graduated from Colgate in the past have had great success in finding jobs, making money right from graduation or getting into graduate school. Even for students at Colgate who do not come from financially stable backgrounds, as was suggested, prediction of future success after graduating from Colgate proves to be very promising. These issues concerning the amount of females who have developed eating disorders at Colgate is not a hidden issue on campus, but what about the men here? Studies from the Environmental Security Hypothesis show that male body ideals and trends have changed very little over time in the United States compared to the ever-changing and drastic female ideals. However, “there is probably almost as much pressure on boys here as on girls…there is pressure to be fit and good-looking on both ends,” Mastrocinque said. She then adds that the pressure of a “hook-up” culture at Colgate seems to distract people of both sexes from “getting to know one another personally, getting to know someone’s personality and develop a connection and a relationship.” Mastrocinque notes that this may be why there is so much stress placed on outward appearances at Colgate, rather than on individual interests and personality, which essentially (psychologically speaking) are the traits that draw two people together for a deep, meaningful connection. Another interesting hypothesis related to the Environmental Security Hypothesis is that perhaps many people who come from more secure backgrounds or attend school with a promising future are likely to feel more personal security in life, and therefore do not actively seek it as much in the form of romantic relationships. I do not necessarily attribute these claims as the source of Colgate’s eating disorder problems, but rather I am merely presenting it as an interesting idea that I hope some of you find worthy of further contemplation.