A recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s stunning exhibit “Exposed: The Victorian Nude” left this viewer with the distinct impression that current representations of the “ideal” female figure bear little resemblance to what nature intended our bodies to look like. All but two of the paintings depicted well-formed, well-rounded women — not fat (at least, not by Victorian standards) but not stick-thin either like today’s fashion models and movie starlets. The exhibit’s two paintings of skinny, bony women stood out as sickly looking. Indeed, one was described as a widow who, in mourning, looked as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks. Coincidental with this museum visit was the premiere of a network sitcom, “Less Than Perfect,” with a mate-seeking leading lady who wears size 12, and the continuing popularity of the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” with its winsome Rubenesque star, Nia Vardalos.
Something tells me that a subtle shift is in the works, which may result in a more reasonable feminine ideal — a figure that more than 1 percent of the population have hopes of ever achieving — and healthier women. Few doubt that the emphasis on bodies that could serve as anatomy lessons without dissection has caused widespread self-loathing among growing girls and women of all ages, sometimes bringing on eating disorders that grow out of a poor body image.
But yet another downside arises from the current ideal: difficulties in making babies. As Joann Ellison Rodgers, a medical correspondent for Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the author of a new book called “Sex: A Natural History” (Times Books, $32.50), points out, “In the course of evolution, the female body deemed most attractive has been the one that is reproductively most successful — that is, a woman who is neither too thin nor too fat.” Evolution, she explains, favored men who could assess in those first moments the likelihood that a woman could come through childbirth and pass on good genes to mix with theirs. Infertility is common among women who are very thin and lack body fat, a source of estrogen. They are often deficient in the hormones needed for ovulation and the estrogen needed to prepare the uterus for a fertilized egg.
As Dr. Rose E. Frisch, professor emerita at the Harvard School of Public Health, points out in “Female Fertility and the Body Fat Connection” (University of Chicago Press, $20), “Something so small as a five-pound weight loss or gain around the threshold weight can turn menstrual cycles on or off.” The brain says no to producing the hormones needed for ovulation, Dr. Frisch says, because “underweight women do not have the relative fatness necessary to have a viable infant.”
An Impossible Goal
Psychologists who treat eating disorders, especially the binge-and-purge syndrome bulimia, report that they often grow out of futile attempts to diet down to some perceived ideal. Dieters who cannot tolerate the prolonged deprivation suddenly fall off the wagon and gorge themselves, either swiftly regaining the weight or making the unhealthy discovery that purging (by forced regurgitation or excessive exercise) can prevent a binge from becoming body fat. An estimated 3 percent of young American women suffer from eating disorders, the National Institute of Mental Health says. The percentage may be five or six times as high among women of college age. Self-hatred is also a consequence of failed efforts to achieve a stick-thin figure. Experts who study body image report that among preadolescent and adolescent girls and young women, there is a growing dissatisfaction with appearance, which they link in part to the parade of reed-thin bodies in magazines, movies and sit-coms. Those with a poor body image are also more likely to lack self-confidence and self-esteem, which in turn can impede social, academic and vocational success.
A History Lesson
“In the past, beauty ideals expressed through art were romanticized and not expected to be attainable,” Dr. James Claiborn and Cherry Pedrick note in their comprehensive book on body image disorders (“The BDD Workbook: Overcome Body Dysmorphic Disorder and End Body Image Obsessions,” recently published by New Harbinger Publications, $18.95). “Today,” they write, “photographic editing, soft-focus photography techniques and air-brushing have blurred the line between fantasy and reality, making the ideals seem more attainable. “Many companies have a great interest in keeping us dissatisfied with our bodies. Companies don’t spend advertising dollars to tell you that you’re looking fine.” The authors point out that the definition of the ideal body changes with time and culture. When resources were scarce, they add, “a full figure was stylish because it indicated the ability to eat well” and suggested “probable health and fertility.” But now, in a land of unending plenty, thin is in. By today’s media-driven standards, Marilyn Monroe — at 5-foot-5 and 135 pounds — would be considered overweight for an actress, as would Mary Campbell, the only woman to win the Miss America title twice (1922 and 1923), who was 5-foot-7 and weighed 140. Models used to weigh 155 or more, obese by current standards. Today’s models and actresses “look the way they do because of makeup, designer clothes, special diets, and exercise with the help of personal trainers,” the authors wrote. “We don’t want to spend that much time on our looks, but we may feel that we should look just like a supermodel anyway.”
A Healthier Body Image
“Cultural beauty messages set the stage for body-image dissatisfaction, but it is the importance we give these messages that contributes to the anxiety, stress and depression associated with body-image problems,” write Dr. Claiborn, a psychologist in Manchester, N.H., and Ms. Pedrick, a registered nurse. “It’s time to accept and embrace the many wonderful variations of bodies, rather than strive to conform to the unrealistic ideals determined by the cosmetic, fashion and diet industries,” they wrote. “We are more valuable than our outer packaging.” The authors insist that improving self-acceptance and self-esteem, not achieving the “right kind of body,” is what makes us feel more attractive, confident and comfortable with ourselves and others. They suggest that people consciously change their response to the beauty culture and focus instead on their “minds and hearts, skills and talents” to find fulfillment. A more practical approach to physical and emotional well-being is to ignore cultural dictates and instead concentrate on taking good care of your body. “Educate yourself about fitness — not thinness, but fitness,” the authors state, by paying attention to measures like healthy eating and moderate exercise, adequate sleep, relaxation, recreation and spiritually uplifting activities. And remember too that while you may never be too rich, you can be too thin — too thin to be able to pass your genes on to the next generation.
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source:Adding Some Heft to the Ideal Feminine Form By JANE E. BRODY