In Pursuit of Thinness
Throughout history and through a cross-section of cultures, women have transformed their appearance to conform to a beauty ideal. Ancient Chinese aristocrats bound their feet as a show of femininity; American and European women in the 1800s cinched in their waists so tightly, some suffered internal damage; in some African cultures women continue to wear plates in their lower lips, continually stretching the skin to receive plates of larger size. The North American ideal of beauty has continually focussed on women’s bodies: the tiny waist of the Victorian period, the boyish figure in vogue during the flapper era, and the voluptuous curves that were the measure of beauty between the 1930s and 1950s. Current standards emphasize a toned, slender look, one that exudes fitness, youth, and health. According to psychologist Eva Szekely, “Having to be attractive at this time . . . means unequivocally having to be thin. In North America today, thinness is a precondition for being perceived by others and oneself as healthy” (19). However, this relentless pursuit of thinness is not just an example of women trying to look their best, it is also a struggle for control, acceptance and success.
In attempting to mould their appearance to meet the current ideal, numerous women are literally starving themselves to death. The incidence of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, has “doubled during the last two decades” (Comerci 1294). This increase is no longer limited to women in their teens and twenties, but is increasingly diagnosed in patients in their thirties and forties. “No doubt, the current sociocultural emphasis on thinness and physical fitness as a symbol of beauty and success has contributed to this age distribution” (Comerci 1294).
One of the negative psychological side effects associated with eating disorders is the patient’s distortion of their own body image,body image being defined as “the picture a person has in his mind of his own body, that is, the way his body appears to him” (Murray 602). For the anorexic this distortion is exaggerated, the patient feels fat even while emaciated, however, many women who are caught up in the relentless pursuit of thinness also experience some degree of disturbed body image. The experiences and practices of women who “simply diet” are not radically different from those who are diagnosed with eating disorders. For some women, achieving the “perfect” body form becomes the most important goal in life.
Feelings about body are closely related to a woman’s sense of self; the “body is perceived as acceptable or unacceptable, providing a foundation for self-concept” (Orbach 78). It is alarming, then, that almost 80% of women think they’re overweight (Kilbourne). Body image has very little to do with the way a person actually looks; many women who appear to fit the ideal body type are actually dissatisfied with their appearance (Freedman). Women with perfectly normal bodies see themselves as being heavy; so that the definition of “normal” becomes inaccurate and this perceived normalcy is represented by a very small percentage of women. It follows that if body image is so closely linked to self-image, it is important for women to learn to feel comfortable with the body they live in, despite any “imperfections”. Consistently aiming for perfection is a “self-defeating goal that only sets you up for failure” (Freedman 218).
All evidence indicates that “our sense of our bodies develops in the process of learning, and these are social processes, not psychobiological ones given at birth” (Szekely 42). So why is it that during this process of development so many women become dissatisfied, self-critical, and judgemental about their own bodies? One of the reasons may have to do with the media and various forms of advertising. Ads sell more than just products; they present an idea of normalcy, who we are and who we should be (Kilbourne). Advertising is a major vehicle for presenting images and forming attitudes. The majority of ads incorporate young, beautiful, slender models to present their products and services. While individual ads may not be seen as a big issue, it is the cumulative, unconscious impact that has an effect on attitudes toward women, and in women’s attitudes toward themselves. As women are consistently exposed to these feminine forms thorough both print and television, it becomes difficult to distinguish what is normal, and even more difficult not to compare themselves to this form. It is not just women who judge themselves, but also men who begin to liken these models to the women in their own lives and then make comparisons. Advertising creates an “ultimate standard of worth, so that women are judged against this standard all the time, whether we choose to be or not” (Kilbourne).
Throughout the media, there seems to be a “particular contempt these days for women who are fat or are in any way overweight . . . above all, we’re supposed to be very thin” (Kilbourne). This notion of the ideal body that is propagated by the popular media can be linked with economic organizations whose profit is solely gained through products that enhance this image (Szekely 103). The images that are presented in advertising are designed to create an illusion, a fantasy ideal that will keep women continually consuming. Advertisers are well aware of the insecurities that most women feel about their own bodies. The influential power of the diet, fashion, cosmetic and beauty industries??and their advertising strategies??target this, their “profits are sustained on the enormity of the body insecurity” (Orbach 79).
The effect of many current advertising methods is that the “body is turned into a thing, an object, a package” (Kilbourne). In many ads, bodies are separated into individual parts: legs, breasts, thighs, waists; the result is that the body becomes separated from the woman. It then becomes acceptable for the woman’s body to be scrutinized. Women’s bodies receive large amounts of attention and comment and are a “vehicle for the expression of a wide range of statements” (Orbach 13). Judgements may be made and opinions may be formed about a woman by her appearance alone. A woman who is judged as overweight is often thought of as a woman with little self-control, and from this premise further assumptions may be made. This type of generalization occurs on a daily basis, by both men and women, and it affects the way we behave towards one another.
Our preoccupation with appearance affects much more that the image that is presented on the outside. Feelings toward our own appearance affect the choices we make and the goals we pursue; “more than ever, it seems we are constricted by beauty standards . . .” (Freedman 3). The recent emphasis on fitness, youth, beauty and thinness has caused many women to try harder than ever to attain the current body ideal. The tremendous increase in plastic surgery operations??liposuction, breast implants, tummy tucks, and face-lifts, to name a few??attest to the extreme adjustments that many women feel they must make in order to attain the body ideal, in turn making positive adjustments to their own self-esteem. “One object of women’s hard work which, potentially is also a means of their success, is the body . . . women have been given the message that their efforts in improving and perfecting their bodies would be rewarded by success” (Szekely 191), on both a social and professional level. With that thought in mind, women have come to relate to their bodies “as their objects/tools/weapons in the marketplace of social relations” (Orbach).
Perhaps a woman’s ability to control her own body size and weight can be seen as a metaphor, a substitution for control that may be lacking in other areas of her life. While women continue to struggle for equality on an economic scale and within their relationships, they still maintain control over their own bodies. It is important that women begin to accept themselves for who they are, regardless of their body type, and to feel comfortable with the body they live in. If women continue to pursue the “elusive, eternally youthful body beautiful” (Orbach 13) they’ll only be setting themselves up for failure.
Comerci, George D. Medical Complications of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. The Medical Clinics of North America. Volume 74, No. 5. September, 1990.
Freedman, Rita. Bodylove: Learning to Like Our Looks??And Ourselves. New York: Harper, 1988.
Horne, R. Lynn et al. “Disturbed Body Image in Patients with Eating Disorders.” American Journal of Psychiatry. 148:2, February 1991: 211-215.
Kilbourne, Jean. Still Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. [Video] Cambridge Documentary Films, 1987.
Murray, Ruth L.E. The Concept of Body Image. The Nursing Clinics of North America, Volume 7, No. 4. December, 1972.
Orbach, Suzie. Hunger Strike: The Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age. New York: Avon, 1986.
Szekely, Eva. Never Too Thin. Toronto: The Women’s Press, 1988.