Many researchers argue that society’s current standards of the “perfect body” are unrealistic for the majority of women. “As images of the ideal shape presented in the media over the past few decades have progressively become thinner, actual women have become heavier.” (Spitzer, Henderson, & Zivian, 1999; Saltzberg & Chrisler, 1995, p. 306). What people perceive as beautiful or “the standard” constantly fluctuates. Paul Schilder (1950) calls this the “elasticity” of body image. It will constantly change because “the body image is not just a cognitive construct, but also a reflection of attitudes and interactions with others” (Rogan, 1995:1). Women have constantly struggled to keep up with these changing attitudes about what the body is supposed to look like.
“An ideal, by definition, can be met by only a minority of those who strive for it. If too many women are able to meet the beauty standards of a particular time and place, then those standards must change in order to maintain their extraordinary nature” (Freedman, 1986; Saltzberg & Chrisler, 1995, p. 307). Women unfairly have pressure put upon them to fit into these standards or else they are criticized by society. For example, women who choose to age naturally as they get older are seen as “letting themselves go” (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 2005:10). Especially today, with our rapidly developing technology, ideal body sizes and shapes can hit the public at greater extremes. We can see society’s idea of beauty everywhere: through the Internet, advertisements on the freeway, subway, buses, on television and in movies. By examining the evolution of idealized female body types, we can examine what Susan Orbach (1993) calls, the “constant improvement and resculpting” pressure on women (Rogan, 1999, p. 52).
It is no surprise that the idealized body image of today is something largely unattainable. According to Saltzberg & Chrisler (1995), the Chinese were the first to introduce the idea that “the female body can and should be altered from its natural state” (p.306). As early as the tenth century, Chinese girls bound their feet in an attempt to stunt the growth. Smaller, petite feet were considered attractive, even though the end result would essentially be a mutilated pair of feet that inhibited women from walking. “The practice of foot binding clearly illustrates the objectification of parts of the female body as well as the demands placed on women to conform to beauty ideals” (Saltzberg & Chrisler, 1995, p. 306). In the Middle Ages, painters such as Rembrandt and Courbet often used fuller, plump females as their subjects. Protruding stomachs were a “symbol of feritility” (Fallon, 1990; Rogan, 1999, p. 13). During the sixteenth century, corsets (which minimized the waist and enhanced the breasts) and farthingales (used to fan out dresses) were introduced and became widely popular as the “hourglass figure” became the aesthetic. “Ample breasts, hips, and buttocks became the beauty ideal, perhaps paralleling a generally warmer attitude toward family life” (Rosenblatt & Stencel, 1982; Rogan, 1999, p. 10). We can see how the female body is molded to reflect societal attitudes. For example, perhaps the Chinese foot binding was a way to subordinate women by prohibiting them from walking without assistance or by crawling.
It hasn’t been until the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that we’ve seen such a fluctuating state of bodily ideals. Flappers of the 1920s sported a boyish look with a “flat-chested figure”. To achieve this look, women often times taped their breasts, cut their hair into short bobs, and dieted into a slim figure (Rogan, 1999, p. 14). From the 1930s-1950s, “pin-up girls” became fashionable and Marilyn Monroe epitomized this fantasy: large breasts, tiny waist and slim legs. At the same time, Western culture saw a movement toward slim, petite figures. Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were sophisticated and “slimness became associated with the upper classes” (Mazur, 1986; Rogan, 1999, p. 15). In the 1960s, Twiggy became largely revered due to her slim frame at 96 lbs. (Freedman, 1986). Models in magazines were taller and slimmer during the 1970s and 1980s, though being “physically fit” and muscular was emphasized. “Waif models” emerged in the 1990s in the fashion industry: extremely thin models were made up to look like heroin users or “heroin chic” (Rogan, 1999, p. 15). Thin is still in, according to the fashion industry. Researchers on body image argue that fashion has become a driving force in the “standard of cultural beauty in the industrialized affluent societies of the twentieth century” (Gordon, 1990). It is no wonder that today’s culture has seen a tremendous increase in eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (starving oneself) and bulimia nervosa (purging what one eats).
To be accepted, or seen as beautiful, women are expected to change what they look like. “The ideal is always that which is most difficult to achieve and most unnatural in a given time period. Because these ideals are nearly impossible to achieve, failure and disappointment are inevitable” (Freedman, 1988; Saltzberg & Chrisler, 1995: 307). Our culture is all too happy to supply the necessary means for these changes to take place. Plastic surgery and dieting services pervade our culture, as well as hoards of ads for certain cosmetics and fashionable clothing. Susan Ogden (1992) explains that the success of these industries relies on their ability to create problem and offer a solution: “By creating a market for itself, it ensures that women will continue to feel fat and will continue to support the dieting industry” (Rogan, 1999, p. 54). An important aspect of these thin ideals is the underlying societal attitudes. The U.S. is known as “the most individualistic culture in the world.” We value our independence and rely on the idea that individuals are responsible for our own fates. Hence, we are responsible for weight gain and our body types. The media projects an image of fat people as being self-indulgent, lazy, and not as attractive as thin people. Perhaps the idea of staying slim (by dieting, through use of laxatives, plastic surgery) is all about control. By keeping one’s weight, or outward appearance, under control then the inside will be kept under control. Susan Brownmiller (1984) argues that “outward appearance of the body is seen as a symbol of personal order or disorder” (Rogan, 1999, p. 53). How you look like on the outside is a reflection of character, according to our culture. Take for example, the difference in appearance of the homeless versus someone on a job interview. Yet there is a fine line between making oneself presentable and conforming to fit into unrealistic standards of beauty just to be accepted.
One way to look at this incessant endeavor towards physical perfection is the distraction it provides for women. Brownmiller (1984) explains that women are “never quite satisfied, and never secure, for desperate unending absorption in the drive for a perfect appearance – call it feminine vanity – is the ultimate restriction on freedom on mind” (Rogan, 1999, p. 54). The basis of her argument that is women are held down by this standard and kept subordinate by men, who find it reassuring that females have “physical vulnerabilities.” Perhaps this is true in the sense that women are constantly being told, either directly or indirectly, that they don’t look right. This will ultimately lead us down a path of self-consciousness and body dissatisfaction, since we are trying to reach an unreasonable goal.
Comparing the strive towards “perfection” through past centuries to today’s culture will allow us to identify societal and cultural attitudes towards woman. By recognizing the unreasonable standards placed upon females to fit a certain “image”, we can gradually shift away from any attempts to put women in a specific place. Women themselves allow these stigmas and standards to mold them, instead of accepting the notion that females too can break the mold.
Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. (2005) Our Bodies, Ourselves. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Chrisler, J.C. & Saltzberg, E.A. (1995) Beauty Is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body. Women: A Feminist Perspective, 5, 306-315.
Lynch, J. & Tiggemann, M. (2001) Body Image Across the Life Span in Adult Women: The Role of Self-Objectification. Developmental Psychology, 37, 243-253.
Rogan, S. (1999) Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women, and Children. New York: Routledge.