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They're Ideally Suited

The Perfect Woman Can Do It All, Survey Says

July 30, 1998|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She's not blond. She's not super-model thin. And she can do it all, balancing work and family.

She's the ideal woman, at least according to a new study by Mary Wolfinbarger, a professor of marketing at Cal State Long Beach.

Wolfinbarger and co-author Terrence Witkowski recently conducted a survey asking people which qualities they'd like to see in the ideal woman.

The good news? Most consider the ideal woman an attainable role model.

When women were asked how they measured up to their idea of the ideal woman on a 7-point scale, most thought they were just 2 points from perfection. Most men, meanwhile, agreed that "the woman closest to me" was pretty close to the ideal.

Wolfinbarger's study led her to conclude there's no single ideal woman, but there's a consensus of desirable traits. And she's considering giving equal time to the opposite sex.

"We're talking about doing a survey on the ideal man," she said.

The purpose of the study: Wolfinbarger thinks it could prove a useful marketing tool for advertisers, promoters and others who have something to sell. The study was not funded by a company, nor does Wolfinbarger have plans to sell it.

"This topic definitely has implication for advertisers," says Mary Gilly, a marketing professor at the UC Irvine who has collaborated with Wolfinbarger on past marketing studies. "Advertisers are concerned that the roles women portray in their ads not offend working women or homemakers."

Wolfinbarger has published a variety of journal articles on marketing topics and consumer behavior. She has studied the effects of advertising on employees (looking, for example, at how the accuracy of a company's ads affects their workers), and she's delved into the motivations and attitudes behind gift-giving, examining why people often give the wrong or inappropriate present.

Wolfinbarger and Witkowski circulated surveys among 334 male and female Southern Californians of varied ages, incomes and education levels. They asked everything from fluff questions about hair color to weightier issues about careers and community involvement.

Of all the questions asked, the one that raised the most ire among respondents: "How much should the ideal woman weigh?" Twenty percent of those polled refused to answer.

"A lot of them said they were offended by the idea of an ideal weight," Wolfinbarger said. Those who did answer put her weight at an average 127 pounds, but men thought the ideal women weighed 5 pounds less than women did.

"We weren't sure if they really wanted lighter women or that women routinely shave 5 pounds off when giving their weight," Wolfinbarger said.

Other appearance-related issues such as height (5 foot 6) and age (34 to 35) were less controversial. Hair color didn't seem to matter. Asked to rate the statement "the ideal woman has blond hair" on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), most disagreed, giving the statement an average rating of 2.

People also tended to disagree with the statement "the ideal woman is tall and thin like a model." That statement rated 2.9.

"We see so much in the media about this constrained idea of beauty, but when you talk with real people, you find a lot are fairly liberal about what an attractive woman should look like," Wolfinbarger said.

The ideal woman may not have a body like a supermodel, but she's no couch potato. Most people thought she should be involved in an exercise or fitness program and be concerned about her health.

"That's even more important to them than the ideal woman's appearance," Wolfinbarger said.

When it came to attitudes about work and family, most people thought the ideal woman could do it all.

"Maybe she doesn't have to look like a supermodel, but she does have to be great at work and family," Wolfinbarger said.

Most considered the ideal woman to be achievement-oriented and assertive. They did not believe a professional woman was "less feminine" and agreed that she wouldn't necessarily stop working if she didn't need the money.

When rating the statement "the ideal woman would sacrifice her career goals for her husband's," most disagreed. It scored just 2.6 out of the possible 7. But respondents over 50 were more likely to agree, giving the statement a 4.0 rating.

Those surveyed agreed that their ideal woman is also committed to taking care of the children, but age played a role in the answers.

"The wife is primarily responsible for the emotional well-being of the family" ranked a moderate 3.7 among respondents under 50. Those over 50 were more likely to agree; the statement rated 4.5 with older people.

Most agreed that the ideal woman "enjoys family," which rated a 5.6. Though that didn't surprise Wolfinbarger, she didn't expect so many people to agree that "the ideal woman would spank her child." The statement rated 3.5, half of the scale.

The ideal woman is also civic-minded. People thought she should vote, recycle and donate to charity. Most thought she should be proud to be an American.

She's a careful shopper, but here's where Wolfinbarger noticed a discrepancy between the sexes. Women thought it was OK for the ideal woman to pamper herself and make an impulse purchase; men disagreed. Men were more likely to disagree with the statement "the ideal woman sometimes spends more money than she planned," while women were neutral on the matter.

When asked which famous woman they considered to be "ideal," respondents submitted more than 80 different names. Many men named their wives.

"The diversity was amazing in terms of age and race. Oprah and Princess Diana were the top two, but after that you got everything. The variety suggests there's an awful lot of role models."

* INNER RESOLVE

Though there is no one ideal woman, there is one common denominator: strength. E5

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