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Body image and intelligence
December 20, 2002 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Brains vs. bathing suits. University of Michigan researchers gathered men and women together and had them try on either a bathing suit or a sweater to see which they preferred for 20 minutes. Then they were asked to take a math test to "pass the time." The results? No appreciable difference for men while women scored considerably lower while in bathing suits. Could obsession with appearance be holding our girls back?
posted by hipnerd (37 comments total)

 
i'm sorry, but it's not right to draw conclusions from a study like this. a sample size of a mere 82 people, with an unspecified number in swimsuits versus sweaters? this could merely be random chance.
posted by moz at 9:45 AM on December 20, 2002


(well, ok. the study probably specifies more numbers, as it's the report that failed to, but still -- low sample size. this study would need to be repeated.)
posted by moz at 9:46 AM on December 20, 2002


I'd like to see another study where people are shown the results of this study and asked whether they're more likely to conclude that "bathing suits cause low self esteem" or "bathing suits make you stupid".
posted by Armitage Shanks at 9:51 AM on December 20, 2002


Why are the pretty ones always insane?
posted by Pretty_Generic at 9:52 AM on December 20, 2002


Hipnerd: interesting study. But obsession with appearance isn't the only thing that holds women back. Little things like calling them "girls" instead of "women" have an effect, too.

Moz: you're right that a small sample size might not be statistically significant, but you can't dismiss it without seeing the numbers, eh?

Armitage: Ha! :)
posted by jdroth at 9:55 AM on December 20, 2002


Maybe they were cold.
posted by tommasz at 9:56 AM on December 20, 2002


When people of certain ethnicities are primed with their own ethnic identity, they typically perform according to the general stereotype. IE: Give a person a test, get their base levels. Then remind them of their racial identity, and they'll perform like the stereotype (African Americans tend to perform worse, as was done in the study).
posted by gramcracker at 9:58 AM on December 20, 2002


The girls that chose the sweater were probably smarter on average. Choosing to sit around in a bathing suit, you don't own, in a store for 20 minutes over a sweater seems like a dumb decision right off that bat.

Its not like the study first proved that all of these men and women had the same abilities.
posted by Recockulous at 10:01 AM on December 20, 2002


Interesting.
Now put the sweatered men in the room with the bathing suit clad women and watch male scores plummet.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:03 AM on December 20, 2002 [1 favorite]


"Could obsession with appearance be holding our girls back"? Didn't seem to create much of a burden for Janet Reno, who became a fine Attorney General after her prostate surgery.
posted by Mack Twain at 10:03 AM on December 20, 2002


But the thing about it is this : What if the ones that would choose a bathing suit are the ones that want to look good and care less about academice. The ones that choose a sweater are the ones that just would like to have something comfortable to study in. Besides, there's a big difference between a woman's bathing suit and a man's. Men's feel like shorts, and I guarantee every guy in college has studied in his shorts in his dorm room--feeling comfortable. Women's suits are only for that purpose, they're restrictive and uncomfortable... when was the last time you saw someone studying at their desk in a bathing suit? Never.
posted by psychotic_venom at 10:04 AM on December 20, 2002


Besides, there's a big difference between a woman's bathing suit and a man's. Men's feel like shorts,

Good point. I'm sure I would score much higher in boxers than a banana hammock.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 10:06 AM on December 20, 2002


I didn't get the impression that the test takers were asked to choose which they'd rather wear. The test administrators chose for the individuals then told them to wait 20 minutes to see if they liked the garmet better after wearing it for a while.

I wonder if the gender of the other people in the room (the test administrators) would have impacted the results at all.
posted by willnot at 10:08 AM on December 20, 2002


The men should have been given speedos, not "swim trunks", if they wanted to make this an equal study.

The girls that chose the sweater were probably smarter on average. Choosing to sit around in a bathing suit, you don't own, in a store for 20 minutes over a sweater seems like a dumb decision right off that bat.

I'm sure it was a random selection. The wording of the article is ambiguous but it's the only way the study would have made sense.
posted by mdn at 10:09 AM on December 20, 2002


Ignore my second graph. Assuming I read the story right, it looks like they were alone in the dressing room while taking the test, so it wasn't concern that somebody was watching them.
posted by willnot at 10:12 AM on December 20, 2002


Women are not being "held back". Females are the majority in most American colleges including top universities, grad-schools and law schools.
posted by spork at 10:20 AM on December 20, 2002


"Math is hard."
--Barbie
posted by Fabulon7 at 10:27 AM on December 20, 2002


I always have a hard time doing math when there's a half-naked woman in the room. Maybe it's the same for women, even if the half-naked woman is herself.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:32 AM on December 20, 2002


Maybe they were just cold?
posted by kickingtheground at 10:34 AM on December 20, 2002


Another possibility to consider is the fact that it is very hard to find the right fit in a woman's suit. You normally have to try on 20 or so to find one that suits you. So if the women were not allowed to choose one the fit them personally, wearing ill fitting or unflattering swimsuits, they may be distracted by that alone. I know if it were me it would definitely make a difference.
posted by SweetIceT at 10:42 AM on December 20, 2002


Spork - I think it depends on the discipline. I can't find my favorite stats page on this, but the NSF does have some interesting figures and so does this . Women are NOT the majority in any science, engineering, or math field from college up except for the biological sciences. And the test that these people took was a math test.

I'm not agreeing with the results of the study. But whatever the reasons, women are still the minority in several traditionally male disciplines.
posted by synapse at 10:43 AM on December 20, 2002


Are women traditionally encouraged to become a part of "traditionally male disciplines?"
posted by agregoli at 11:08 AM on December 20, 2002


Women are NOT the majority in any science, engineering, or math field from college up except for the biological sciences. And the test that these people took was a math test.

but the study compared the results of women asked to wear a sweater with women asked to wear a swimsuit, not those of men v women. It doesn't matter whether women as a group did better or worse than men as a group, but rather whether what they were wearing had an impact on their performance, which apparently it did:

So if the women were not allowed to choose one the fit them personally, wearing ill fitting or unflattering swimsuits, they may be distracted by that alone. I know if it were me it would definitely make a difference.

as a woman right here admits. I can't imagine personally being affected by being asked to wear something unflattering while taking a math test, though if it were uncomfortable that could be an issue, and women's swimsuits generally aren't all the comfortable. I wonder if it could be as much an issue if it were especially flattering though - more people choose to study in sweatpants than in sexy dresses, after all...
posted by mdn at 11:10 AM on December 20, 2002


By "unflattering" swimsuit, think "Tight speedo cutting into some sensitive areas and overly exposing other areas that would be better off hidden." Not, for instance, the wrong shade of blue.
posted by occhiblu at 11:23 AM on December 20, 2002


It doesn't matter whether women as a group did better or worse than men as a group, but rather whether what they were wearing had an impact on their performance, which apparently it did

You're right. I shouldn't have added that last "And . . . " I do, however, think that there is some importance to the comparison with men in as far as the men were not affected by their apparel. And for the sake of good controls I would have liked to see results on a verbal or "social IQ" test under these conditions as well as the data for M v. F. Anyway, I'm not a huge fan of the study, my main point was that I felt Spork's comment was misleading.

Are women traditionally encouraged to become a part of "traditionally male disciplines?"

I don't know. I was, but I would doubt that many women are, (I assume this was your point). There are tons of subtle as well as blatant ways to disencourage girls/women from particular subjects. ("Math is HARD!") But isn't that at least tangentially related to the point? Anything that drops performance is going to have a greater impact on situations/subjects that women (as a stereotype) don't feel comfortable in.

I'm going to shut up now. I really just started out wanting to qualify the "more women in academia" comment.
posted by synapse at 11:38 AM on December 20, 2002


Let's see...

Each group is assigned a water-appropriate costume whose current design has been validated by its marketability.

One group feels reasonably comfortable.
One group feels pinched, crimped, vulnerable, exhibited, posed, and possibly stubbly.

Which group appears to be most susceptible to appearance-driven self-encumbrance?
posted by Opus Dark at 12:28 PM on December 20, 2002


I'm just pleased as punch to have finally found something MetaFilter-worthy.

As for the "girls" comment at the end of the original post, I should have chosen a better word, I suppose. I was thinking about younger women in the education system who lose interest in math. I would have referred to men the same age as "boys."

I have six older sisters (Catholic). I can't afford to be sexist. The will gang up and kill me.
posted by hipnerd at 12:37 PM on December 20, 2002


As mentioned before, they gave the guys trunks and the women probably a one-piece. Trunks are not likely to ride up your crack, but i have yet to meet a one-piece swimsuit that doesn't give me a wedgie within minutes, especially if I sit down. If I had to keep pulling the suit out of my ass, I'd probably do less well on a test of any sort.

In short, the study is a piece of crap. This sounds like a silly project some undergrad designed as their senior thesis.
posted by meep at 12:52 PM on December 20, 2002


the classic test to decide whether or not the differences in test scores are significant is the "student t test", but we can do a simple ballpark calculation to see whether the sample size is too small.

presumably the groups were divided fairly evenly between swimsuits and sweaters (this is generally the best approach). so each "population" would consist of about 20 people. let's assume that the test gives a score that is (or can be transformed to) IQ (the transformation can be arbitrary, this just gives us something easy to work with). now IQ has a distribution that's more-or-less gaussian with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of about 15 (so 2/3 of people have an IQ between 85 and 115).

ok, so for each population we calculate the mean IQ. in each case, the expected standard deviation is about 15, and the population size is 20 so the standard deviation of the mean is reduced by a factor 1/sqrt(20). so the standard error in the mean IQ will be about 3.3.

it's normal for a significant result to be one that's 3 standard deviations different, and there's an extra sqrt(2) because we're looking at the difference between two values each with the standard deviation given, so they'd need to find a difference in IQ of about 14 before they could be certain that the test was true.

by chance 14 is almost equal to the standard deviation of the original population, so that gives you some idea of the sensitvity of the test: the average scores of the two groups would have to be at least as different as a "typical" difference between two people picked at random.

to make that a bit more concrete, try to pick two people at random - say the two people in front of you at the shop last time you bought something. how different would you expect them to be? that's about the level of sensitivity that this test has.

to me, that seems borderline - the effect would have to be pretty big, but not so big that it was impossible. so it's not obvious whether the sample size was too small or not...
posted by andrew cooke at 1:29 PM on December 20, 2002


On second thought why didn't they just compare by having the test subjects clothed or completely naked? Most guys I have known are completely comfortable when wearing shorts or even underwear....but seem to feel really different when naked. What I mean is they seem more self conscious that way judging by thier posture and such. Wouldnt this have been a more fair evaluation? Oddly enough I think I would have done much better on the test naked as in a bathing suit. Isn't that strange?
posted by SweetIceT at 2:31 PM on December 20, 2002


dress for success!!
posted by suprfli at 3:42 PM on December 20, 2002


I wouldn't know about ugly girls, so I'm not going to offer my input on this thread.

o< QUACK! PSYCHE! Or Syke??
posted by KettleBlack at 4:00 PM on December 20, 2002


Could obsession with appearance be holding our girls back?

Our girls? Whose girls? Am I one of your girls? Were you talking TO me or ABOUT me? (Clue: women belong to Metafilter too).

Everytime a man mouths off about how Western society is supieror to Arabic/Japanese/blah blah blah society because of its more enlightened attitude to women, I wonder if they ever look at their own attitudes to gender. We still have a long way to go.
posted by Summer at 10:47 AM on December 21, 2002


time of the month, Summer?
posted by andrew cooke at 4:31 PM on December 21, 2002


Girls who are ...
who like ... to be girls
who do ... like they're girls
who do girls like they're ...
Always should be someone you really love...
posted by DaRiLo at 7:05 PM on December 21, 2002


Ack ... train wreck.
posted by DaRiLo at 7:09 PM on December 21, 2002


time of the month, Summer?

Ho ho. No, just a weak brained woman incapable of cool rational thought.
posted by Summer at 2:09 AM on December 22, 2002


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