Shocking: Playboy Playmates Represent Increasingly Impossible Sexual Ideals

by Cara on February 3, 2009

in beauty myths, media, objectification, pop culture, pornography, sexism

playboyIn what comes as a surprise to absolutely no one who pays attention to media representations of women and sexiness, it looks like the overall BMI of women featured as Playboy Playmates has dropped dramatically over time.  Indeed, according to Wired Magazine (who did the analysis), “While real American women have steadily eaten their way up the BMI slope — just like American men — Playmates have gone from a sylphlike 19.4 to an anime-ideal 17.6.”

Of course, as previously covered, BMI is on many levels bullshit.  But I think that these numbers do still tell us something, when the graph shows such a steadily increasing disparity between the playmates and average American women.  Further, the stats go beyond mere BMI.  Wired explains:

Playboy’s Playmate data sheets (you know, where they claim to enjoy cupcakes and The Deer Hunter) provide height and weight, among other stats. Our analysis shows that models are shedding pounds and gaining altitude at an alarming rate. To be fair, Playmates provide their own measurements, so they could be exaggerating. Plus, we wouldn’t put it past the editors to stretch the truth (i.e., Miss March 2008 may not actually want to write “comedic short stories” — or have a 21-inch waist). But who cares? What’s interesting isn’t the veracity of the numbers, it’s what the magazine thinks its readers will find ideal.

They further touch on the delicate issue of breast size (while acknowledging that whether or not there is an increase in breast implant rates among playmates is unknown). While overall bust-size, or the measure of the chest circumference at its fullest point, has fallen dramatically, the cup size remained the same. What this means is that the breasts of women featured in Playboy are not necessarily getting larger overall, but they are getting dramatically larger relative to the size of the woman who has them.

What does this tell us?  Nothing particularly shocking.  Only that standards for women’s sexual attractiveness are getting more and more unrealistic as time passes, and steadily so.

However, Playboy does have a unique and firm place in our society as both pornography and pop culture, and that makes these trends particularly dangerous.  And I do have to smile a bit when a non-feminist and fairly mainstream magazine like Wired calls out this kind of bullshit for what it is — even when they include problematic statements such as those which suggest that women with similar measurements to the playmates aren’t “real,” and that the playmates likely don’t have interesting hobbies.

They’ve also put together a pretty nice graph — complete with (censored but still possibly NSFW) pictures which illustrate from older issues of Playboy that sexiness really is relative with the standards of the time.  If still almost always white, thin and existing solely for the male gaze.

Perhaps someday, we’ll look at today’s issues of Playboy and also marvel that their pages helped to set the ideal for female sexual attractiveness, only with much  more positive implications.  Here’s to hoping.

Thanks to Ian for the link.

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{ 13 comments }

1 Renee February 3, 2009 at 12:25 pm

I am not at all shocked to find that playboy is promoting an unrealistic ideal for women. The magazine is not woman friendly and from the very beginning it was meant to satisfy the male gaze. In fact Hefner saw himself as a revolutionary who was freeing men from the “flannel suit” phenomenon. It was his entire goal to encourage to encourage discord between the sexes.

2 Isabel February 3, 2009 at 12:48 pm

I agree that it’s nice that Wired, of all places, is calling attention to this. This is news to me, whereas the Playboy bit wasn’t, so weirdly, I find this a net gain in my own personal outlook on the world.

3 kate.d. February 3, 2009 at 2:08 pm

a commenter at the wired piece makes the fair point that cup size isn’t static, but reduces relative to the reduction in band size – e.g., a 32C bra has less cup volume than a 34C. so the breast size thing probably isn’t quite as pronounced as it may seem.

nice find, though!

4 AshKW February 3, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Cheers for Wired. I find Playboy to be the most ridiculous of all the skin magazines, because it’s still the “golden standard” while it has tried to transform itself into something more acceptable, with articles and features not necessarily tied to sex. A guy I dated once tried to tell me this was very progressive of Playboy and this was why it wasn’t anti-feminist. *Snort*

5 Cara February 3, 2009 at 6:08 pm

a commenter at the wired piece makes the fair point that cup size isn’t static, but reduces relative to the reduction in band size – e.g., a 32C bra has less cup volume than a 34C. so the breast size thing probably isn’t quite as pronounced as it may seem.

Kate.d., yeah I saw that comment. I think that the commenter was criticizing the finding as s/he thought it implied that breasts were getting larger overall. Which, as I noted, isn’t true . . . I think the point that Wired was trying to make, and that they should have been making, was about proportionality. If cup size is staying the same while band width decreases, it means that the breasts are getting larger for the woman’s frame, if not larger overall.

At least that’s how I’ve always been taught to understand how bra sizing works! Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!

6 hexy February 3, 2009 at 7:43 pm
7 Ashley L. February 4, 2009 at 3:34 pm

As you point out, it’s interesting how the actual validity of the measurements isn’t even as telling or interesting as the fact that even printing them at all is supposed to help in the tittilation factor.

It’s almost as if the editors and writers for the magazine are given a spreadsheet of what is and isn’t acceptable for the female body. This cupsize, this weight, this height. These are what’s “attractive” and these are what people (but mostly men) want to see.

And of course, every single photo in Playboy is airbrushed (whatever that even means anymore) beyond all recognition. At this point, mainstream eroticism is almost as boring and regulated as a math formula or chemical equation. It can be taught as a skill. It is no longer the realm of poets and artists to try to replicate or honor, it’s the perview of technicians to create and edit. Depressing.

8 Frank February 6, 2009 at 4:12 am

Sex today is little more than a medium of exchange anyway. It’s a bartering chip for women, a status reward for men, and a commodity for the media. So why should any of this surprise us?

9 Jambo February 9, 2009 at 12:26 am

“If still almost always white, thin and existing solely for the male gaze.”

Were you expecting pornographic depictions of women in a magazine marketed to men to not exist solely for the male gaze? For what other gaze can women exist sexually? Can we really even elaborate any differences between the male heterosexual gaze and the lesbian gaze?

10 Cara February 10, 2009 at 10:15 am

For what other gaze can women exist sexually?

Okay, I’m going to explain this very, very carefully.

There is such a thing . . . wait for it . . . as a woman’s sexuality . . . no really, take a deep breath . . . that doesn’t exist solely for men. There is, in fact — even more shocking! — such a thing as a woman being sexual on her own terms and not existing sexually for anyone but herself!

Whew! I know, that was hard.

11 Jambo February 11, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Well. To begin, I’m not disputing your claims that women can exist sexually “on their own terms,” but lets leave your decision to assume I’m an idiot aside. The question I’m asking is whether women can really appear as sexual objects for any gaze other than the male heterosexual gaze (leaving the aforementioned “lesbian gaze” aside for now – “sapphic gaze” = male heterosexual gaze? I don’t know. I guess it couldn’t…exactly). Who are you going to appear sexually for, God? Some Panoptic gaze? Some Superego gaze? Yourself? The first option really just boils down to the fourth, the second opens up a whole (potentially interesting) Foucauldian can of worms, I don’t know enough about psychoanalysis to really effectively discuss the third (though I bet it would be really fascinating), and the fourth option, to me, seems…narcissistic, and, I guess, pretty much perfect for our stupid monadic contemporary American culture.

The final option is to not appear sexually for any gaze, which I think is pretty much impossible. We’ve seen fundamentalist Islam try that one, and I know from personal experience that it just ends up with the son of the local guy who’s in charge of the mosque shamefully asking you to buy him a prostitute in a dark alleyway for 20 durhams while some pimp is punching some guy.

12 Cara February 11, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Why the hell are we leaving aside a lesbian gaze? What about the bisexual woman’s gaze? The bisexual man’s gaze? The straight woman’s gaze? After all, studies have shown that straight women are in fact very regularly turned on by images of other women. There’s also the idea of straight women looking at sexualized images of other women and seeing a part of themselves, or what they think they should be, meaning that these images matter a lot to women on multiple levels.

Nah, let’s stick to talking about the straight men! Why? Just ’cause Jambo said. And because he decided that women looking at themselves and seeing themselves as sexual beings is just narcissistic. And obviously the only way that those animalistic straight guys could not objectify women is by veiling them.

13 Jamboo February 13, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Well, my point is that everyone has an objective component, and that that’s unavoidable…at least until we can evaporate into pure energy or download our consciousnesses completely into whatever the internet becomes in a hundred years. I don’t think there’s any reason to try to purge the objective, physical assessment of bodies based on the sex drive. In fact, I think it’s impossible. People will always be checking me out, and I will always be checking people out. Its part of being an animal. Rather than trying to stomp out this inevitability we should be focusing more on embracing and enhancing the role of subjectivity in our culture. You know, maybe aesthetics and substance can compliment one another?

Anyways, to conclude, I’m pretty sure its impossible to not objectify others. And you know what baffles misogynists? A woman who is hot and intelligent and full of subjective depth. They hate that shit.

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