New ‘Exercising Woman’ Stereotype Has Surprise Benefits

Even overweight women are considered more attractive if they exercise, report researchers at Wake Forest University, who have found evidence of an “exercising woman” stereotype that may blunt some of the negative effects of America’s obsession with body shape and size.

In the study, presented June 11-14 at the annual meeting of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sports and Physical Activity in Chicago, Ill., Kathleen Martin and Mark Leary of Wake Forest found that overweight women who exercised regularly were rated more favorably by men and women than underweight women who did not exercise. And they were considered just as attractive as underweight exercisers.

“Our findings suggest that perhaps women should not focus so much on weight and pounds in trying to improve how others perceive them,” said Martin, an adjunct professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest and the study’s lead author. “It may be just as effective to focus on becoming a regular exerciser if you’re trying to improve the image other people have of you.

“On both physical and sexual attractiveness, overweight women who were labeled ‘regular exercisers’ were considered just as attractive as underweight women, whether they exercised or not, and women of average weight who were labeled ‘non-exercisers.’ This ‘exercising woman’ stereotype and effect were surprising.”

The findings were based on ratings of personality and sexual attractiveness by 164 male and female college students who read fictionalized descriptions of 18 year-old female freshmen who were 5’5″ inches and either 105, 132 or 162 pounds. The 5’5″ and 132-pound criteria was used as the average, Martin said, because that is the height and weight of the average freshman woman at Wake Forest.

Participants were told that the women exercised three times a week, did not exercise or were not told their exercise habits.

Martin and Leary, professor of psychology, also found that the “exercising woman” is perceived not only to be more physically and sexually attractive than non-exercisers, but also to be more active, healthier, neater, less depressed, more confident and more social than a woman who does not exercise.

With an even larger number of women falling in the “overweight” category because of the new federal weight guidelines approved earlier this month by the National Institute of Health, Martin said the Wake Forest study’s findings are good news to women struggling against negative body image stereotypes.

“Given our culture’s association of a pencil-thin body with sexual attractiveness and a highly favorable personality type, we wanted to see if a woman’s status as an exerciser moderated some of the negative effects of her weight on appearance and personality,” Martin said.

“These results suggest that there are positive stereotypes associated with exercising, and that heavier women may be stereotyped just as favorably as thinner women if they are labeled ‘exercisers’ and that they get this halo effect even before they’ve lost X amount of pounds.”

While the Wake Forest study did not find the same harsh stereotypes against being overweight as found in other studies, Martin cautioned that may be because the fictional women described as overweight in her study were only 162 pounds and not heavier. (Under the government’s new weight guidelines, a 5’4″ 145-pound woman is overweight — 10 pounds less than the old standard.)

The use of written descriptions of the women rather than photographs could have also had an effect, Martin said, but she noted other studies using photos have found similar stereotyped perceptions of a woman’s attractiveness based on her occupation.

In one such study, the same woman was dressed as a cook, model and student. Even though the same woman was pictured, Martin said that participants still rated the cook as the heaviest and least attractive, and the model, the thinnest and most attractive, of the three.

Editor’s Note: Martin is available for interviews and can be reached at (336) 758-7184.

Categories: Research, School of Medicine