From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Though her favorite actress is Julia Roberts, Merry Emil says that whenever she sees her picture, "I try not to look past her eyes." That's because at 5'5" and 190 lbs., the 47-year-old Virginia Beach, Va., stay-at-home grandmother doesn't want to measure herself against the sleekly toned Roberts. "I see myself as very fat compared to her," Emil says. "When I really took notice of her figure, I thought, 'Oh, God, I really do look like a slob.' "

She's not alone. In a recent telephone poll, PEOPLE asked 1,000 women about their bodies and how the images of Hollywood's svelte stars influence their self-esteem. The results? Only 10 percent of respondents said they were completely satisfied with their bodies, and 80 percent said images of women on TV and in movies, fashion magazines and advertising make them feel insecure about their looks.

How insecure? Enough that 93 percent have tried to lose weight, 34 percent have had or would consider having cosmetic surgery, and 34 percent said they would be willing to try a diet even if it posed at least a slight health risk. (For complete poll results, see pages 118-22.)

That comes as no surprise to Dr. Barbara Levy, 46, a Seattle gynecologist and cofounder of the Real Women Project, a resource center for self-esteem improvement, who says the average American woman—5'3¾" and 152 lbs.—just isn't reflected in the media. "We are looking at ourselves in the mirror," she says, "and comparing ourselves to women who are made up or on television having had the best of what Hollywood can do to make them look great."

But there were also signs that women are wising up. "Our culture places far too much emphasis on skinny," says pollee Sandra Todaro, 42, a Shreveport, La., psychologist who's 4'10" and 92 lbs. "All these skinny little actresses look like they came out of Hitler's concentration camps. Women were not designed that way. Everybody can't look like Calista Flockhart, and why would you want to?" Indeed, when asked which celebrity's body they would most like to have, only 1.5 percent of respondents chose Flockhart's. And over 50 percent believe Courteney Cox Arquette Arquette and Gwyneth Paltrow are too thin.

Who do women want to look like? Cindy Crawford was their first choice (21 percent), followed by Halle Berry (18 percent) and Jennifer Lopez (15 percent). "Cindy is tall, but she's also not too thin where you think something's wrong with her," says Laurie Ward, 25, a 5'3", 140-lb. mom in Louisa, Va. Crawford agrees. "I have a realistic body," she says. "People know I have to work pretty hard to keep in shape. A lot of models will say, 'I never work out and eat whatever I want and I don't gain weight.' I hate those people too!"

Adrienne Ressler, a body-image specialist for the Renfrew Center, a treatment facility for eating disorders in Coconut Creek, Fla., finds those choices encouraging. Crawford, Berry and Lopez all have "very curvaceous, womanly bodies," she points out. "They may be beautiful ideals, but they have breasts and hips. They look like real women."

Nor were all the favored bodies young. Asked to choose from a list of six famous women whom they'd like to resemble when they're over 50, more than a quarter picked Goldie Hawn. "She makes time for herself, cares about her appearance and doesn't mind growing older, but wants to do it gracefully," says Dee Middleton, 54, a legal analyst in El Cerrito, Calif.

For many respondents, Oprah Winfrey—whose weight battles 37 percent said they could relate to—is an even more plausible role model. "She's a real person like everyone else," says Becky White, 29, a 6'3", 300-lb. hospital worker from Cottondale, Ala. "She has her highs and lows. She'll do something really good, but like everyone else in the real world, she backslides a lot."

When asked which celebrity's body most resembles the average woman's, 30 percent of respondents cited Hillary Clinton's and 24 percent, Sarah Ferguson's. Like most of the pollees, Ferguson, Duchess of York, can critique her own body, though she clearly doesn't agonize about it. "I wish my hips were a size smaller," she says. But, she adds, "I feel really good, so I'm comfortable with the way I look."

For some women, though, body image can prove practically paralyzing. Some 28 percent of women polled admitted they'd turned down social invitations because of discomfort with their looks. "Just yesterday I was invited to a pool party," says Chicago optician Gina Grizzaffi, 35, who stands 5'7" and weighs 220 lbs. "I didn't bring a bathing suit. I didn't even wear shorts. I would have been too embarrassed." And nearly 10 percent have even avoided medical appointments because of their weight. 'If I can come up with any kind of excuse, I do," says Pam Cox, 43, who works in a corporate accounting department in Danville, Ill. At 5'4" and 200 lbs., she hasn't been to the doctor in almost five years. "I know I need to be checked," she says, "but it's just embarrassing to get on the scale."

Even women with near-perfect bodies can find something to dislike. "I deal with women every day who look pretty darn good but complain about cellulite around their waist and hips," says Dallas-based fitness guru Larry North. "They are their harshest critics." Elizabeth Harrison, 22, finds fault with her butt and upper thighs. "I know I'm at a reasonable weight," says the 5'10", 138-lb., Boston Skidmore College graduate, "but all the extra pounds are concentrated in that area, and I don't feel good about that."

Rhonda Norvell, 35, a full-time mother in Benson, Ariz., has friends who feel the same way. One "put a picture of herself on her refrigerator, along with a picture of a cow," says Norvell, who is content with her own 5'3", 154-lb. body. "It was to remind her she was overweight. And she wasn't. She was a little chunky, but she was very healthy."

Why do women obsess about whether their bodies measure up? "What we've seen over the years is that the bodies of models have gotten thinner and the number of diet articles has gotten bigger," explains Tom Cash, professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. "These messages increase the dissatisfaction of body image. It's almost an addictive relationship."

He's right, if Gina Grizzaffi is any indication. "I'm happy with who I am—or as comfortable as one can be in a society full of skinny people," she admits. "But all my life I've heard, 'She has a pretty face.' I know they're not talking about my body. So if someone said, 'This is a golden opportunity with this diet,' I'd try it."

Women Weigh In on Their Bodies—and the Stars'

PEOPLE'S survey of 1,000 women aged 18 to 55 was conducted July 21-27 by Marketing & Research Resources, Inc., a Frederick, Md.-based independent research firm. The results indicate that many women are unhappy with their bodies and acutely aware of how they compare with Hollywood's svelte ideals. "I think the study is right on," says Dr. Barbara Levy, cofounder of the Real Women Project. "I see women all day long, and they think they should be thinner.... We idealize perfection." but there is no perfection." Here's what women said:

Overall, how satisfied are you with your body?

Like the Rolling Stones, respondents can't get no satisfaction—or at least not very much. Only 9 percent claimed to be completely happy with their bodies, while 22 percent said they were not very or not at all satisfied. Almost half (48.5 percent) were somewhat satisfied.

With which body parts are you dissatisfied?

Think women hate their thighs the most? Think again. Although the thighs were a concern for 50 percent, the stomach was cited most often (69 percent). Other problem spots: hips (46 percent), butt (43 percent), arms (30 percent) and breast size (27 percent).

How does thinking about your body make you feel?

Not that bad, according to most pollees. In fact, 30 percent claimed to feel happy, while 36 percent said they're indifferent. But 30 percent feel stressed or depressed.

What causes you the greatest insecurity about your body?

Memo to Hollywood: you're not helping. The portrayal of women on TV and in movies distresses 37 percent of respondents. Smaller numbers of women are also bothered by images in fashion magazines (24 percent) and advertising (19 percent).

Whose criticism causes you the greatest insecurity about your body?

The pollees need only look in the mirror: Self-criticism (64 percent) had far more influence than anything said by spouses (13 percent), mothers (7 percent), or other women (6.5 percent).

Of all your women friends, how many are concerned about their weight?

How's this for female bonding: 77 percent of respondents said that at least half of their friends worry about extra pounds.

Has insecurity about your physical appearance ever prevented you from doing anything?

Many feel trapped by their poor self-image: 28 percent have turned down social invitations, avoiding the beach, for example, rather than risk being seen in a bathing; suit, while 14 percent have been reticent about speaking out at work or at school. Worse, 13 percent have remained in an unhealthy relationship, and 10 percent have put off medical appointments.

Are you dissatisfied with your overall weight?

Respondents didn't have to weigh this decision: 59 percent said yes.

Do you believe you are underweight, overweight or just the right weight?

Not surprisingly, the scales were tipped toward those who consider themselves overweight (62 percent)—71 percent of whom say they have 15 or more pounds to lose. A third believe they weigh about what they should, while 4.5 percent said they could afford to gain a few pounds.

How does your significant other feel about your weight?

"I love you just the way you are," 51 percent believe their significant others would answer. But 37 percent say their spouses would like them to lose weight.

Have you ever discussed weight loss with your doctor?

What's up, Doc? asked 40 percent of the pollees. For 51 percent of these, the doctor's orders were clear: They should lose weight.

What methods have you tried in an effort to lose weight?

Respondents worked up a sweat just listing their many weight-loss methods. Most (86.5 percent) have tried exercise, and 72 percent have dieted. Others tried portion control (60 percent), over-the-counter diet pills (35 percent), fasting (23 percent), prescription diet pills (16 percent), smoking (12 percent), laxatives (5 percent), purging (5 percent), hypnosis (4 percent), acupuncture (3 percent), surgery (1 percent).

If you've ever wanted to lose weight, what was your primary reason?

Yes, it would be nice to fit into those size-4 jeans, but 41 percent say they want to feel healthier. Another 41 percent want to look better, and 8 percent want to be more attractive to their spouses.

Have you been on a diet in the past 12 months?

Never say diet—at least not this year. Only 26 percent said yes.

How often do you currently exercise?

Let's get physical. Almost half (44 percent) work out three or more times a week. Another 37 percent exercise twice a week or less, while 19 percent never do.

What is your primary reason for exercising?

They don't call it working out for nothing. Only 12 percent said because it's fun, while 44 percent cited health reasons, 30 percent want to lose weight or not gain it, and 12 percent want to look more attractive.

Have you ever followed a diet because it was endorsed by a celebrity?

Just because women want to look like their favorite celebrities doesn't mean they want to eat like them: A whopping 96 percent said no.

Have you ever had cosmetic surgery to improve the appearance of your body?

It may be de rigueur in Hollywood, but most women aren't going under the knife. Only 4 percent answered yes. Of these, 42 percent had gotten breast implants, while 22 percent had breast reduction. Another 19 percent had nose jobs, and 8 percent had liposuction.

Would you ever consider cosmetic surgery?

Never say never. A third said that they would consider some procedures, including breast implants (27 percent of that third), breast reduction (16 percent), liposuction (45 percent) and a tummy tuck (49 percent).

What do you think of the confidence some overweight women have in their appearance?

You go, girls, say 35.5 percent, who find proudly plus-size women inspiring. But another 36 percent feel it's fine for others but not something they could do. Almost a quarter think such women's contentment is ill-advised for health reasons.

How does watching Oprah Winfrey's struggle with weight make you feel?

We feel your pain, say 37 percent of pollees who have watched the talk show host yo-yo anywhere between 142 and 237 lbs. over the past several years. Another 13 percent feel sorry for her, while 38 percent are indifferent and 7 percent say they get impatient when she doesn't keep the weight off.

If Oprah Winfrey had always weighed 110 lbs., do you think she would be more successful, less successful or just as successful as she is today?

Apparently, Oprah's success can't be measured pound for pound: 68 percent of the respondents said a thin Oprah would be no more successful, while only 5 percent said that she would be. A quarter believe she'd be less successful.

How does hearing about celebrities and their battles with weight problems make you feel?

Whether it's the struggle Growing Pains star Tracey Gold had with anorexia or the criticism Designing Women's Delta Burke endured for putting on pounds, celebrities' public weight woes have a positive influence, say 37 percent of the pollees, who think they make it easier for people with similar problems to seek help. On the other hand, 21 percent feel the issues raised cause people to develop eating disorders. Another 25 percent find that there is no impact, while 10 percent consider the stars' confessions mere publicity stunts.

Julie K.L Dam
Vicki Sheff-Cahan, N.F. Mendoza, Ulrica Wihlborg and Paula Yoo in L.A., Veronica Byrd, Lucia Greene and Nancy Matsumoto in New York, Barbara Benham and Sarajane Sparks in Washington, Chris Coats and Patricia Smith in Houston, Kristin Harmel in Gainesville, Denise Sypesteyn in Miami and Amy Mindell in Detroit

  • Contributors:
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
  • N.F. Mendoza,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg,
  • Paula Yoo,
  • Veronica Byrd,
  • Lucia Greene,
  • Nancy Matsumoto,
  • Barbara Benham,
  • Sarajane Sparks,
  • Chris Coats,
  • Patricia Smith,
  • Kristin Harmel,
  • Denise Sypesteyn,
  • Amy Mindell.