WEDNESDAY, Oct. 30 (HealthDay News) -- For many women, the real trouble with having curves is that it's sometimes tough to get other people to look up.
Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College, recently revealed that she had breast reduction surgery at age 21 so she could succeed in her career.
"Every time I was interviewing with a man, or talking to a man in any position of authority, he was always looking at exactly the same place. It was just really uncomfortable in conversation," she said in a Sept. 13 interview with The New York Times.
Now, a new study has confirmed what Spar and other well-endowed women have long noticed: People spend more time focused on their bodies than their faces.
Researchers had 65 men and women wear headsets that tracked even the tiniest flicker of their eyes while they looked at a series of photos.
The images -- of 10 different women dressed in tank tops and blue jeans -- were digitally altered to play up or play down their natural shapes.
Each woman was presented three different ways: with large breasts and defined waists that gave them hourglass figures, with average cup sizes and waists for "normal" proportions, or with flatter chests and thicker waists for a straighter appearance.
Study participants were split into two groups. The first group was asked to rate how each woman looked on a seven-point scale. The second group was asked to rate how positive each woman's personality was based on her picture. They had about five seconds to weigh in.
Across the board, study participants glanced at the faces first. But their attention quickly shifted to the women's chests and waists. Both men and women spent more time sizing up a woman's body than they spent looking at her face, though men's gazes skipped to the body more quickly.
And curiously, when people were asked to focus on personality, women didn't really distinguish between the different body types when it came to how positive another woman might be.
But men gave curvy women better personality evaluations.
"The more attractive women are being regarded by men at least as having more positive personalities," said researcher Sarah Gervais, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Gervais said the study marks the first time anyone has measured the so-called "objectifying gaze."
"It's a subtle behavior, and some women view it in a flattering way -- they think it's kind of nice to be objectified, but it's still distracting, and when it happens in the workplace that's really a problem because we should be focused more on women's competence and intelligence in those situations rather than their appearance," she said.
An expert who wasn't involved in the study praised the experiment for shedding light on how ogling can be an equal-opportunity pursuit.
"I thought it was interesting that it was both men and women who did this," said Stefanie Johnson, an assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver. "I thought maybe it was because women are engaging in social comparisons: 'Let me look at that woman compared to myself.'"
The researchers agreed. And they added that their next steps will be to see what happens when both sexes look at similar pictures of men.
They're also starting to repeat the experiment, this time adding the influence of alcohol to the mix.
The study was published online Oct. 29 in the journal Sex Roles.
For information on sexual harassment, visit the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
SOURCES: Sarah Gervais, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Stefanie Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor, management, University of Colorado Denver; Sept. 13, 2013, The New York Times; Oct. 29, 2013, Sex Roles, online
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