A new study sheds light on how a person’s body type influences the way others perceive their sexuality. The findings, published in the Journal of Sex Research, suggest that fat bodies tend to be assigned more negative sexual traits (e.g., sexually desperate) than thinner bodies.
A number of social psychology studies have revealed that people make judgments about personality that are tied to a target’s body size. For example, fat bodies tend to be assigned negative personality traits, such as laziness and incompetence. As Western culture continues to idealize thin bodies and glorify fitness, there is some evidence that the stigmatization of fat bodies is actually growing.
“My human sexuality research lab became interested in this topic after reading a research article by Hu and colleagues (2018), who examined personality traits applied to a large variety of body shapes,” explained study author Cory L. Pedersen, a professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and director of the Observations and Research in Gender and Sexuality Matters Lab.
“Their results indicated that personality inferences were grounded in certain physical features of bodies, including body weight – fatter bodies were judged to be more disorganized and lazier than thinner bodies. However, no research (to our knowledge) had examined whether judgements of sexual traits were similarly grounded in body shape and size, though we hypothesized this would be the case.”
In the first experiment of its kind, participants were shown various types of bodies and asked to make inferences about that body’s sexual traits. A total of 891 individuals between the ages of 16 and 71 were shown realistic, computer-generated models of 10 bodies. The images were of 5 female and 5 male bodies that ranged from “very skinny”, “skinny”, “average”, “fat”, and “very fat.” The participants were shown a list of 30 traits and asked how well each trait applied to each body — 10 traits were personality traits and 20 were sexual traits (e.g., promiscuity, sexual aggressiveness).
The researchers found that certain groups of traits tended to be assigned to particular body types. These clusters of traits followed similar patterns for male and female bodies. For example, the fat and very fat bodies tended to be more strongly associated with personality traits over sexual traits. This was also true for skinny and very skinny bodies, though to a lesser degree. This finding falls in line with previous research suggesting that non-average bodies are perceived as less sexual than average bodies.
The data also revealed some interesting gender differences. The very skinny male body tended to be assigned negative, passive traits while the very skinny female body was given positive, passive traits.
Male bodies that were very skinny, fat, or very fat were less likely to be given extroverted sexual traits like sexual dominance and sexual confidence — again suggesting that these body types are not perceived as having ideal sexual traits. Instead, the skinny male body received the most attributions of extroverted sexual traits and was also rated the most sexually attractive.
Female bodies that were average, skinny, or very skinny, received the most attributions of extroverted sexual traits. For the very fat female bodies, there was instead a negative association with these traits.
“Our study demonstrates that people infer sexuality-related traits from body shape in systematic ways – in particular, that fat bodies are perceived less positively with regard to sexual traits (more sexually desperate and sexually repressed, among others),” Pedersen told PsyPost. “Further, we found that the attributions of sexual stereotypes operate within traditional notions of gendered sexuality (the men should be sexually aggressive and women should be sexually submissive).”
Interestingly, the researchers noted that all of the female body types were positively linked to sexual introversion. At first, this may seem contradictory, given that some of the female bodies were at the same time linked to extroverted sexual traits. “Though apparently paradoxical, considering the simultaneous positive association of some of these bodies with sexual extroversion,” the study authors wrote, “we suggest that this may be representative of the complex double standards society has for women’s sexuality.”
Given the physical and mental health consequences associated with the stigmatization of fat bodies, the researchers emphasize the importance of furthering the study of sexual stereotypes and pushing toward body positivity.
“It is our hope that the findings of our research be utilized to encourage deeper discussions of sexuality and physical body stereotyping and encourage initiatives for diversity, equality, and body positivity,” Pedersen said.
The study, “The Influence of Body Shape on Impressions of Sexual Traits”, was authored by Flora Oswald, Amanda Champion, and Cory L. Pedersen.