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Sex ratio: a social indicator of body image

A 2023 study by a University of New Mexico psychology professor states that women’s environments can have an impact on their self-esteem. The study had a few limitations in the form of its methods and theoretical framework per UNM professor analysis.

The study, titled “A Slim Majority: The Influence of Sex Ratio on Women’s Body Dissatisfaction and Weight Loss Motivations,” was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior by Tania Reynolds and four professors at other universities.

Reynolds hypothesized that when women are around more women than men in their environment, they respond with increased competition, which might correlate with more dissatisfaction with their bodies.

Reynolds’ hypothesis was supported, according to the study. The study was conducted through a mixture of self-report surveys and an in-lab experiment.

“The first three studies all use self-report, so that’s a limitation of those. And then the last study was an experiment, so the good thing about experiments is that randomly assigning people to conditions should be minimizing bias,” Reynolds said.

Self-report surveys can be limited by respondents providing untrue answers, especially to sensitive questions, according to the “Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology.”

Rinita Mazumdar, a philosophy and Women, Gender and Sexuality studies professor at UNM, said that other limitations of the study are based on the assumptions it made about relationships and gender construction.

The assumptions include viewing relationships as a market based on competition and gender as a binary, Mazumdar said.

The study assumes that the search for a romantic or sexual partner is based on a binary consumer and seller model wherein the sellers – women – are competing for consumers – men – Mazumdar said.

“This data assumes a uniform knowledge of competition in the market that is transmitted generationally between women. That a market to acquire goods and commodities or business partners – in this case, sexual partners – is necessarily based on competition,” Mazumdar said.

The study assumes that all women understand they are in competition with one another for partners, and that they are competing for the same types of partners. It does not account for diversity in taste or confidence, Mazumdar said.

The study also assumes gender as binary, which is an unnatural assumption that is often reinforced as binary in studies on dating and marriage, Mazumdar said.

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This fails to account for the cooperation and positive relationships between women, which can inform their identities and self-perception and lead them to search for a partner. Cooperation is often a stronger factor than competition, Mazumdar said.

Reynolds was inspired to conduct this research by recognizing patterns she had observed on reality TV shows and in her own life, she said.

“In reality TV shows like ‘Bachelor in Paradise,’ on the island when there’s more women coming in relative to men, the women tend to get anxious about their partnerships and tend to try more to maintain their relationship. Whereas when there’s more men on the island, the men get more anxious about ensuring that they have partnerships,” Reynolds said.

Studies have shown that body dissatisfaction disproportionately affects women. This difference emerges as early as childhood, according to the Mental Health Foundation, which found that 46% of girls worried often or always about their body image, compared to 25% of boys.

“(The study) may be particularly relevant on college campuses where populations are often heavily female-skewed,” Reynolds’ study reads.

58% of students enrolled at UNM Main Campus in 2022 were women, according to the Institute of Education Sciences,.

The study’s findings suggested that “women who are attending might be experiencing worse body image as a result of this composition,” Reynolds said. 

Environment is important to consider when studying body image, but it isn’t the only factor involved, Reynolds said.

While the research is important, reasons for searching for a partner are assumed and not explained in the study, which creates a limitation, Mazumdar said.

“The larger context in which the search of the sexual partner is happening is patriarchal, ideological, familial, historical and so on. The cooperation between women creates their identities and their self perception – including bodily perception – that leads them to the market,” Mazumdar said.

Arly Garcia is a freelance reporter with the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @DailyLobo

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