Image: Jennifer Aniston
Mario Anzuoni  /  Reuters file
OK, we know we don't exactly look like Jennifer Aniston, shown here at a premiere of "The Switch" last month. But most of us say we're at least better-looking than the next person, a new survey from msnbc.com and ELLE magazine suggests.
By Health writer
TODAY.com
updated 9/8/2010 8:25:12 AM ET 2010-09-08T12:25:12

We’re fatter than we’ve ever been; at the same time, our idea of the “ideal” body has gone from lean to impossibly leaner. Still, we’re pretty damn pleased with the way we look, a new survey suggests.

In an msnbc.com/ELLE magazine survey, about 60 percent of men and women alike said they were pretty satisfied with the way they look, thank you very much — even though many of them admit that they wouldn’t exactly call their bodies “ideal.” (It’s worth noting that’s about the same percentage of Americans who are overweight.)

In fact, most of us think we're better-looking than average — between a 6 and a 7 on a 10-point scale — according to the online survey of nearly 26,000 msnbc.com and ELLE.com readers, ranging in age from 18 to 75. The survey was conducted by UCLA and California State University, Los Angeles, researchers.

The under-30s are an especially confident group: 28 percent of young women and 30 percent of young men rate themselves between an 8 and a 10.

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Still, 62 percent of women feel pressured from magazines and TV to have a more attractive body — compare that to just 29 percent of men who said they felt the same way.

But there's some evidence that people are learning to judge themselves as compared to the peers that surround them — not the airbrushed celebs they see in magazines or on TV. That’s true for young girls at least, showed a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior earlier this year; instead of comparing themselves to models in magazines or celebrities on TV, teenage girls tend to compare their own bodies to their schoolmates’.

“Most people aren’t of that, ‘Oh my god, I have to be a size 2 or I look terrible!’ (mindset),” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a New York City psychiatrist and regular TODAY contributor. “Most people look … and see who’s around them. And most of the people around them aren’t models.”

Perhaps we’re finally starting to realize that so much of what we see on TV, in the movies and in magazines is actually fake. A few women’s blogs — particularly Jezebel — have become sort of watchdogs for Photoshop fakery in women’s magazines. Most recently, the blog attained an untouched photo of Jennifer Aniston, posting the untouched picture next to the airbrushed photo of the actress that appeared in an Australian magazine.

“I think those are great because they really remind people that what they’re seeing in the magazines isn’t reality,” says David Frederick, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who co-authored the survey along with researcher Kim Elsesser and professor Janet Lever of California State University, Los Angeles. “You’re taking someone who’s already considered really attractive, and then you’re saying, ‘She’s not enough; we have to do more to her.’ So you’re literally creating an impossible ideal. Even the perfect women aren’t perfect.”

And give the perfect body type a decade or two; chances are, it won’t be deemed “perfect” anymore. A 2002 study of nearly 50 years of Playboy centerfolds showed that the models’ curves had shrunk from 1953 to 2001 — the typical centerfold had become less “hourglass,” more androgynous. Or picture Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally” in 1989; if that movie were made today, she’d probably be cast as the romantic lead’s chubby best friend.

“Remember when size 6 was small? Size 6 was the size Cindy Crawford was,” says Stephanie Quilao, who’s 43 and lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. Quilao ran the blog backinskinnyjeans.com until a year ago, when she realized that constantly writing about body image was damaging her own.

Turns out, we may be in the middle of a cultural shift right now, the ELLE/msnbc.com survey hints.

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More than 44 percent of women and 31 percent of men surveyed expressed concern over their muscle size and tone, which surprised the researchers.

“We’re all much more fitness-aware. We understand that if you’re going to stay healthy-looking longer … you need muscle,” Saltz says.

The trend toward fitness is encouraging, but “in some ways, it reflects just another way that women are being told to control their bodies,” says Frederick. “You add thing after thing to the list, and this seems to be the new one.”

But can your body satisfaction ever be too good? Maybe, Saltz says; if, for example, someone needed to gain or lose weight for their overall health, a smug sense of self-esteem might hinder them from taking action.

“You can have anorexia, which is seeing yourself as fatter than you are. But you certainly can have a distorted body image in any way,” Saltz says. “There are probably quite a few people like this, who think they look sexy, curvy, but are really over the weight limit of healthy weight.”

On that point, Frederick countered: "I think it is very encouraging that some heavier women have started to embrace their curves, and are putting their focus on things like exercise and the positive feelings they have about their bodies, rather than focusing on what the scale says."

Regardless of what we think of ourselves, most of us think our partners have it going on. The majority of young women (85 percent) and young men (81 percent) were happy with their partner's looks.

“The majority of people, even people who were dissatisfied with their bodies, were satisfied with their partner’s body,” Frederick says. “There’s some degree of reassurance that we are our harshest critics.”

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Vote: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your appearance?

Video: What does 25 mean for young women today?

  1. Transcript of: What does 25 mean for young women today?

    HODA KOTB, co-host: You're mid-20s are a time of self-discovery and many ups and downs, but how do young women today feel compared to young women of past generations?

    GIFFORD: Elle magazine and msnbc.com paired up to take a look at where the 20-something mind-set stands today. Robbie Myers is Elle 's editor-in-chief and look at her wearing white after Labor Day .

    KOTB: See, you can.

    GIFFORD: We love it.

    Ms. ROBBIE MYERS (Editor-in-Chief; Elle Magazine): Let's break all the rules.

    GIFFORD: Let's break all the rules and have a little fun.

    Ms. MYERS: Those are old rules. And let me tell you, the 25-year-olds today, they don't believe in those old rules.

    GIFFORD: Yeah. Well...

    KOTB: Why did you...

    GIFFORD: ...they don't work, so that's good.

    Ms. MYERS: That's true. Right?

    KOTB: Why did you guys decide to -- because a lot of women who read your magazine are younger and a lot of them are older.

    Ms. MYERS: Yeah.

    KOTB: Why did you decide to focus on 25-year-olds?

    Ms. MYERS: Well, we're 25 this year.

    KOTB: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MYERS: Elle 's having its 25th birthday.

    GIFFORD: What's that like?

    Ms. MYERS: It's fantastic.

    GIFFORD: To be 25?

    Ms. MYERS: Well, yesterday it felt pretty great. Right now what it's like to be 25 is they're excited and they're nervous about what's going to happen to them next.

    GIFFORD: Well, the economy's a huge issue for them, isn't it?

    Ms. MYERS: Yeah. I mean, it's a problem for all of us. But as you know, they're coming out of college, they're knocking on doors.

    GIFFORD: They're moving in with their parents again.

    Ms. MYERS: Yes, they're moving back in with their parents and they're looking for love and I know we're going to talk about all these things.

    KOTB: A lot of people are worried about, a lot of young kids especially worry about how they look. They're very self-conscious. Does that...

    KOTB: Does that ever go away, you think?

    KOTB: I don't know, but it didn't seem like they were that self-conscious, the readers.

    Ms. MYERS: Well, it's a funny thing. It's the " Lake Wobegon " effect, which is to say that most of them think that they're above average.

    GIFFORD: Yeah.

    Ms. MYERS: Yet a large percentage of them, really, a large percent think that they're happy with the way that they look. However, one in three says they feel pressure. I mean, one of the three of us feels pressure to look better because of the media.

    KOTB: Mm-hmm.

    GIFFORD: See, I find it strange. I think most women that I know of have stuff they want to change about themselves.

    KOTB: Yeah.

    Ms. MYERS: They do, but I would say overall, especially with these younger women , they really think that they're pretty OK.

    GIFFORD: Well, they're still perky. If you know what I mean .

    KOTB: When it comes to love, how do 25-year-olds feel?

    Ms. MYERS: Well, they're looking for love, that's for sure.

    KOTB: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MYERS: Most of them say they haven't had -- found anybody they want to date.

    KOTB: Really?

    Ms. MYERS: And they're struggling with this. A large percent of them have been broken up with via a text message or an e-mail.

    KOTB: Oh, God.

    Ms. MYERS: Which is obviously totally new.

    KOTB: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MYERS: They're online daters. But you know, I think it's the same frustrations, they want to find somebody to love.

    GIFFORD: And many of the women regret their promiscuous behavior, I understand.

    Ms. MYERS: Well, they forgive it in others, but -- meaning that they don't judge other people who have had lots of partners.

    KOTB: Uh-huh .

    Ms. MYERS: But they, themselves, don't feel that it's right for them.

    KOTB: I like that you guys talked to men, too, and you asked them what they were looking for. And what were the traits men wanted in women ?

    Ms. MYERS: Well, pretty, sexy.

    KOTB: Oh, really.

    Ms. MYERS: And having a good body.

    KOTB: How odd. How crazy.

    Ms. MYERS: Those were the top three.

    Source: Elle / msnbc.com "Love, Sex Success" Survey

    GIFFORD: That's the exact opposite of the women , right? Pretty much?

    Ms. MYERS: Pretty much. I mean, the thing that interested us in desirable traits that women were looking for in men, the number one thing was just having a steady income.

    KOTB: Money.

    Ms. MYERS: It really wasn't -- a lot of money came down a little bit lower on the list.

    GIFFORD: Ah.

    Source: Elle / msnbc.com "Love, Sex Success" Survey

    Ms. MYERS: What they really want is a fellow who has a job.

    GIFFORD: Uh-huh .

    Ms. MYERS: Who is gainfully employed.

    GIFFORD: Judge Judy 's son, I'm telling you.

    KOTB: She's trying to set me up with Judge Judy 's son.

    GIFFORD: He is adorable.

    Ms. MYERS: Really?

    GIFFORD: Yes.

    KOTB: That's...

    Ms. MYERS: OK. And you have a job and he has a job.

    GIFFORD: It's a marriage made in heaven.

    KOTB: A match made in heaven .

    Ms. MYERS: It's kismet.

    KOTB: Well, there's a lot I know to get to. But it's all in the article in Elle magazine and congrats on your 25th birthday.

    Ms. MYERS: Thanks very much.

    GIFFORD: You look fabulous.

    KOTB: You really do. You look great.

    Ms. MYERS: As do you. You inspire us all.