Ideal to real: What the 'perfect' body really looks like for men and women

Ideal woman (left) and the average female body for women in the UK
Ideal woman (left) and the average female body for women in the UKNickolay Lamm

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By Brian Alexander
Each set of 3-D illustration images shown was created for TODAY to reflect the body size and shape dimensions from a study in 2012. Above is the "ideal" body of a woman (left). On the right, the average body of a young woman, based on BMI. Today

If each of us could design our ideal body, what would it look like? How do we develop these ideals and how close do our own bodies come to them? Does that ideal really matter?

As part of the "Love Your Selfie, Reclaiming Beauty" series, TODAY wanted to visualize how far we are from what we imagine is the ideal figure and our average bodies. Pittsburgh artist Nickolay Lamm — who previously showed the world what Barbie would look like as an average 19-year-old woman — shows our "real" selves in a set of 3-D illustrations for TODAY, based on recent British study. 

British researchers gave young heterosexual Caucasian men and women a chance to design ideal bodies, one for themselves and one for a hypothetical mate. The study used 40 female and 40 male heterosexuals with an average age of just over 19 — university students, mainly. They presented each person with 3-D computer representations of bodies. Each participant could adjust the images in many different ways until they arrived at the ideal body for their gender, and the ideal body of the other gender. These ideals were then compared with the participants’ own bodies. 

The results of this study revealed a couple of surprises. First, the ideals ran across genders. Men and women barely differed in their opinion of what an ideal body looked like, whether the ideal was for a male or a female. 

Essentially, the male ideal is an inverted pyramid with broad shoulders and small waist, while the female ideal is an hourglass with a small waist-to-hip ratio. Second, both women and men preferred slimmer female bodies than the real female participants possessed. 

Men and women were also pretty close in agreement on ideal male body shapes. The images you see at the left of each pair, above, were designed by women. They set a preferred ideal man at a BMI of 24.5, a waist-to-hip ratio of .86 and a waist-to-chest ratio of .77. The ideal set by the men (not shown) was a BMI of 25.9, a waist-to-hip ratio of .87 and a waist-to-chest ratio of .74. Today

The twist: women preferred a larger bust size than the men did.

The "ideal" female on the left -- bigger breasts, obviously -- compared to the "average" female, based on BMI. Today

“We were a bit surprised,” senior author of the paper, Martin Tovée a professor at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University told TODAY via email. “It is possible that the female participants were exaggerating a feature they felt was particularly important.” 

Men “also exaggerated their upper body shape…relative to the ideal set by women,” said Tovée.

The "ideal" man on the left -- bigger on top -- compared to the real shape of average man -- wider in the hips.Today

Some experts believe we evolved these "ideal" preferences as signals of health and fertility. Others believe that culture, especially media representations, has more influence than genes or evolution.

"What struck me from these illustrations is that even though the ideal bodies are 'ideal,' and are the type of bodies people spend hours in the gym for, the bodies based on the participants of the study still look good," said Lamm, who developed the 3-D illustrations for TODAY. 

"Part of the reason for the divide between ideal and reality may be due to what we see in the media," added Lamm, who recently completed a crowdfunding campaign to create a new doll, Lammily, based on the average measurements of a 19-year-old American woman.

Both the culture and genetic views are likely correct.

Tovée who has spent years studying in this field, believes “we probably have a default setting to pay attention to certain physical dimensions like overall body mass… but there will be no preset values along the physical dimension.”

He’s done some cross-cultural comparisons and found differences that appear linked to wealth and food availability. The tougher food and resources are to come by in a society, the more men prefer plump women.

Kerri Johnson, an associate professor in the departments of communication studies and psychology at UCLA, thinks it’s likely we’ve evolved to have certain preferences, but that culture mediates those preferences. When she asks people to pick out how their mind’s eye sees the “average” woman, test subjects choose thinner women with smaller waist-to-hip ratios than reality.

The ideal female body according to the men (the one shown on the left in each pair, above) had a BMI of 18.82, a waist-to-hip ratio ratio of .70, and a waist-to-chest ration of .67. The men in the study designed a very similar female ideal (not shown): 18.8, .73, and .69 respectively.Today

“Our mental representation of the average woman is more extreme than anything you will see in Vogue,” she said. “And this happens by age 5.”

Still, context matters.

When UCLA researchers asked to select among a number of possibilities, men entering a university dining hall — presumably hungry — preferred slightly heavier women than did men leaving — and presumably no longer hungry. Similarly, men with more money in their wallets — and so “resource rich” — preferred thinner women than did men who had no money in their pockets.  

When we are establishing ideals for body shapes, Johnson said, we may actually be seeking strong cues for masculinity and femininity. For example, in her studies, people often say smaller is better for a woman’s waist.

“At some point you’d think that a very small waist-to-hip ratio would be seen as unnatural and unattractive, but we have not hit that lower boundary. In fact, people tell us they look natural and very attractive even when shaped like Barbie.” That holds true across genders.

Mental representations of the average man, she said, are not far off from reality, and you can see that holds up in the 3-D images here. 

Again, the ideal for men differed from reality, though not by as much as ideal v. reality did for the women. The forty men averaged out to have a BMI of 24.54, a waist-to-hip ratio of .87, and a waist-to-chest ratio of .88 as reflected in the image on the right in each pair, above. The U.S. BMI average for adult men and women is 28.7, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today

But why do both men and women prefer more extreme female bodies?

“Media exposure does not account for everything,” Johnson said. Rather, our preference may be about survival.

When confronted with an ambiguous body shape, our default setting is to assume we’re looking at a male. Males can represent danger, which may be why most men and women think hyper-masculine men are not as attractive as men with somewhat softer features.

Perhaps, Johnson suggested (and she is beginning to research this idea), both men and women prefer more extreme female body shapes out of self-protection. Barbie, after all, doesn’t look dangerous, though she could break your heart.

And maybe the very idea of an ideal doesn't matter. 

"Even though we are aware of ideal bodies, it's not like we reject people if they don't have perfect bodies," Lamm said via email. "We decide our life partners on many factors (personality, character, etc). Whether or not someone is an ideal body type is not that important at the end of the day."

Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”