March 24, 2020
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New Kenyon research suggests college students who prefer casual hookups to committed relationships judge the bodies of possible partners more harshly, seeking someone thin with a big chest.
And here’s a twist: Women seem to think more like men in a hookup culture, more readily objectifying potential partners, said lead researcher Sarah Murnen, the Samuel B. Cummings Jr. Professor of Psychology. The study, researched and run by Kenyon students with Murnen, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Body Image.
“The extent you’re in one of these more objectifying cultures, the more you’re going to be judged by your body and the more you’re going to be judged,” said Murnen, who noted that this culture of sexual permissiveness favoring hookups and swapping stories about experiences has become more common on college campuses.
Men who watched more TV, especially sports and reality shows, chose slimmer and bustier silhouettes more often when considering ideal partners, according to the survey of 487 heterosexual Kenyon students.
“The more they’re involved in sports media, the thinner the ideal body type they chose for women,” Murnen said.
In fact, men’s media consumption was one of the strongest predictors of how they judged women. The possible link was one of the study’s most novel findings, Murnen said.
“There’s a lot of research on how media affects ideals we have for our own bodies, but not so much on the ideals that we have for romantic partners,” she said.
The idea for the study came out of a research group of students who have since graduated. They helped administer the survey over two years and write the article. The Psychology Department offers these kinds of opportunities to students who want to learn upper-level research methods.
Karen Huntsman ’13, who works near Detroit, said she has a greater appreciation for research after working with classmates to focus varying ideas, to research gaps in previous research, and to conduct the survey. Seeing the research in print is one of her most rewarding experiences, she said.
“It is important to recognize that every article we read with a new scientific development, and every off-handed science fun fact we share with friends or co-workers took years to develop and, most likely, the collaboration of many people,” she said.
Students who took the online survey chose among simple silhouettes of men and women that depicted varied weights, chest sizes, and, in women, hip-to-waist ratios.
While the study doesn’t make definitive conclusions about the causes of behavior, Murnen said she sees a greater willingness of people to judge others based on appearance.
For women, the strongest predictor that they would have a stricter body ideal for partners was feeling that relationships between men and women are typically adversarial. These women, who indicated they believed ideas such as men and women can’t really be friends and men are out for only one thing, are more likely to be judged by their bodies and, in turn, judge men that way more often, Murnen said.
“People with those attitudes think the only thing they can do is hook up,” she said.