bmi chart
Source: Partnership for Healthy Weight Management

Many women know firsthand that the expression "you are as beautiful as you feel" can also apply to weight, as a new study demonstrates. But they may be surprised to learn that other women also often appear only as beautiful or thin as their beholders. Martin Tovee, Joanne Emery and Esther Cohen-Tovee of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne draw this conclusion from interviews with 204 women--a sixth of whom were anorexic; another sixth, bulemic; and the remaining unaffected by an eating disorder. They report their findings in the October 7 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

The scientists asked all of the women to first approximate their own body mass index (BMI), a measure of size that equals a person's weight in kilograms divided by their height in meters squared (see chart). Then they asked them to estimate the BMIs of other women in photographs and, finally, to appraise the attractiveness of these women. Tovee and colleagues discovered that, not surprisingly, the subjects with eating disorders overestimated their own BMI, as well as those of the women in the photos. But they also found that the normal women, too, deemed the women in photos to be heavier for their height than they really were. Overall, the thinner the subject, the fatter she judged the photographed women to be--and the more she found the thinnest women most attractive. The researchers suggest that this trend could in part help explain the origins of eating disorders: as a woman loses more weight, her notion of what is attractive also becomes increasingly slender, creating a dangerous feedback loop.