Cross-cultural differences in the idealized body image of women


Idealized body image group (from left to right -- Emma Craige, Kate Tucker, Leslie Tucker, Colin Wilson)

Idealized body image group (from left to right — Emma Craige, Kate Nelsen, Leslie Tucker, Colin Wilson)

Idealized Body Image as a Function of Gender Gap: How Do Women’s Magazine Covers Differ Across the World?     Emma Craige, June 2015

Research Question:

Does a country’s placement on the World Economic Forum’s 2014 World Gender Gap Index correlate with female idealized body image as portrayed in women’s magazine covers in that country?


Our group chose this topic in order to better examine how standards of women’s beauty change depending on the gender inequality in the country in which they live. As fitness industries grow larger worldwide and the incidence rate of eating disorders steadily increases (Hudson et. al, 2007), it is critical to know how the idealized body image changes as the status of women changes within a nation. This topic will also provide insight as to the shared cultural values on beauty in gender equal and unequal societies.

Magazine covers


Countries with more gender equality (e.g. “low gap” countries) would have magazine covers with predominately “rectangle” shaped models, whereas “high gap” countries would have magazine covers with predominately “hourglass” shaped models. Our rationale for this thinking is that women in high gap countries are more valued for their skills as homemakers and mothers, therefore their idealized body image will emphasize more traditional feminine assets, such as wider hips and larger breasts. Conversely, as women in low gap countries are expected to achieve outside the home just as men do, a more athletic, “active” body type will be valued. We also hypothesized  more diversity in body shape preferences in low gap countries, as more gender equality could mean more acceptance of many different female forms. Finally, we also predicted more photo editing (“Photoshopping”) in low gap countries to satisfy these idealized body image goals.

(For more information about the WEF Gender Gap see:


  1. Selecting countries to sample from
    1. We utilized the WEF Gender Gap data to select two countries with a low gender gap and two countries with a high gender gap that did not differ on other factors (GDP per capita,form of government and majority religion).
    2. The countries we eventually chose were Sweden (ranked #4 lowest gap), Australia (#24), Russia (#75), Greece (#91), out of 142 countries ranked.
  2. Selecting magazine covers
    1. We decided to look exclusively at female models on the covers of magazines marketed towards adult women, predominately focused on lifestyle and beauty (as opposed to fitness, home décor, etc.).
    2. We sampled covers both from the country-specific version of US magazines (e.g., Cosmopolitan Russia) and magazines marketed only within their country (e.g., Dolly in Australia), because in-country editors ultimately have the final say on how images are edited and posed for a photo shoot.
    3. Fifty covers were selected from each country using Google Image Search, and resulted in a total of 200 magazine covers.
Measurements example

Measurements example — coded as rectangle

  1. Taking measurements from covers
    1. The “actual” bust, weight and hip measurements for each model (in cm) were researched so that we could compare these ratios to what is presented on the cover, to account for “airbrushing”.
    2. Models were assigned a shape of either “hourglass”, “rectangle”, “apple”, “pear” or “inverted cone” based on how their body presented in the magazine.
    3. Rulers were placed on computer screens to get the measurements for each model on the cover; we compared only bust/hip ratios, hip/waist ratios, etc. in order to account for differences in computer screen sizes among group members.

We conducted a pilot study using US and Brazilian magazine covers in order to rate our inter-rater reliability of body ratio measurements and coding of body shape. Inter-rater reliability was high for both sets of measurements.


Statistically significant differences between high gap and low gap countries were found in the shapes and measurements recorded from the magazine covers, but not the “actual “ measurements of the models featured. Statistically significant differences in cover measurements for hip (t = 2.37, p <. 05), bust-hip ratio (t = -4.46, p < .001), and hip-waist ratio (t = 3.75, p < .001) were all found.

magazine resultsThe table to the left shows that while both high gap and low gap countries value a rectangle shape, low gap countries disproportionately favored the pear shape, while high gap countries disproportionately favored the hourglass shape.

In summary, the differences in idealized body image as displayed on magazine covers stems from the different ways countries airbrush and pose their models, not in the selection of models themselves.


  • There are clear differences in how low gap and high gap countries edit models on women’s magazine covers, but not in the way we expected (the popularity of pear in low gap countries was a surprise).
  • American and Caucasian models are extremely popular in the magazines in all four countries analyzed in the current study.
  • The models did not differ greatly in their “actual” measurements as found on modeling agency websites, all differences stemmed from posing and editing.

Avenues for further study:

  • How does the idealized body differences between low gap and high countries vary as a function of the age of the magazine’s intended demographic  (e.g.,, Teen Vogue vs. Vogue)?
  • Are the same shape differences seen in video media as in print?
  • How do idealized shapes differ in non-majority Christian countries?
  • How does the age of the model affect the presented body shape?

body type cartoon