When told that men desire full-bodied, voluptuous figures, women felt better about their own weight, say researchers at Southern Methodist University in the US.
"A woman's body image is strongly linked to her perception of what she thinks men prefer," says lead author and social psychologist Andrea Meltzer of SMU.
Heterosexual women, says Meltzer, tend to believe that men prefer the dieted-down, ultra-thin bodies that dominate the media.
"Consequently, this study suggests that interventions that alter women's perception regarding men's desires for ideal female body sizes may be effective at improving women's body image," she says.
This would be an important step for women's health and well-being because prior research has shown that women with a positive image of their physique tend to eat healthier, exercise more and have a superior overall self-image.
On the flipside, those who are unhappy with their body have less sex, less sexual satisfaction and less marital satisfaction.
"It is possible that women who are led to believe that men prefer women with bodies larger than the models depicted in the media may experience higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of depression," says Meltzer.
Together with her team, Meltzer conducted three separate studies that led her to this conclusion, working with a total of 448 women.
Spring-boarding on past research that says women who watch TV and read fashion magazines are likely to have a poor body image, they asked participants to look at pictures of plus-sized models wearing a variety of clothing including bathing suits.
Only their bodies were visible to keep participants from being influenced by their facial attractiveness.
Several control groups were included and their tasks included looking at pictures of full-figured women that were not portrayed as being considered attractive to men.
Another control group was shown pictures of very thin women and they were told that these are the kind of women men desire.
In all three studies, women were more positive about their bodies after looking at pictures of voluptuous women who were portrayed to being attractive to men.
Despite the positive results of her studies and their potential to improve women's health, Meltzer admits it's not clear how long the resulting positive body image lasts and the media remains a pervasive threat to un-doing them.
The research was published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science.