In May 2000, The Guardia published an article (1) blaming the media for the rise in eating disorders and calling for increased regulations on the images presented to us. The article called particular attention to fashion models and movie stars with unrealistic body types as the main source of the problem.
The article caused a reaction; several European countries enacted laws against fashion models of certain BMIs, and research and education on the dangers of eating disorders is widespread. An increased focus by many media sources has been on health over skinniness, but still much of the media, particularly when related to fashion, continues to support too thin ideals.
There have been many factors over the years that have affected the fashionable dress size, many of which were economic. In the romantic period, women with larger frames were preferred for their ability to show off the excess fabric that their husbands could afford to waste on them. The expenditure of money to create the multi-layered garments was a way to demonstrate wealth, and the larger the woman, the more wealth she could display. (2) Once fabric was no longer as valued a commodity, the desire to display it decreased. Now it seems that the opposite is true; the less clothing that is worn, the better.
Another economic factor influencing size was the availability of food. When good food was something that only the rich could afford, the fashionable woman was plump. Excess body fat was encouraged as a way of showing off wealth. (2) Then, once food became something that was widely available, the fashionable woman was one who did not do as the masses did, but avoided excess food. This may explain the rise of the thin woman and the deglamorization of curves that took place in the past century. The household refrigerator was invented in 1927, and became widespread in the 1940s (3). With common people able to stretch their food budget in new ways by having food that kept longer, the wealthy needed new ways to demonstrate their wealth.
Economics may be a factor, but arguably the most easily seen factor contributing to the size issue is the media. Many people blame very thin models from the 90’s such as Kate Moss and Jodie Kidd for kicking off the “skinny craze”. The infamous Kate Moss quote, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, seems to incriminate her in corroboration of anorexia.
These models of the 90’s have been blamed for kick starting the current anorexia rates. The media claims that young girls see these extremely thin models and want to emulate them, believing as Kate Moss said that skinny is beautiful. Following this logic, the skinny = beautiful equation is a learned theory; therefore, one wonders where the waif models of the 90’s picked it up.
One has only to look as far as popular movies from the early 80’s to see that skinny celebrities have existed for far longer than since Moss issued that statement on her eating habits. Take a look at Julie Haggerty in Airplane!, or Lori Singer in Footloose, and then say that Kate Moss is responsible for the world’s body image issues. Both of these movie stars are tall, blonde, and skeletal. Sounds familiar, right? These are movies that the models of the 90’s would have grown up with; even if they never saw those 2 particular movies this was clearly already an acceptable body type. (The ladies of Flashdance, Sloane in Ferris Bueller, Iona in Pretty and Pink, Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon; the list goes on)
Going back even further, we see Twiggy in the 60’s, who influenced the popular silhouette of fashion, and through fashion, the necessary body type to pull of the look. This cycle of skinny celebrities goes even past the invention of the television, although the television and availability of home movies allowed for the spread of media. Queen Victoria, in her teen years, was depicted in pictures as a thin, waif like girl, tracing the skinny celebrity back to the 1830’s (2).
There have always been impossibly skinny women in the media, even before the media existed as we know it today. There have always been actresses and socialites that young girls looked up to, women who’s glamourous lifestyles seemed enhanced by their thinness. What it all boils down to is role models. The figures that are presented to us as good by the media is what girls try to achieve. It’s not necessarily that skinny is beautiful, the end, but that the “good” girl, the leading lady, is thin, and doesn’t everyone want to be on the good side?
The only way to reverse the skinny trend is to give people real role models. This doesn’t mean “healthy” skinny models, or healthy weight loss reality tv. This means mothers, aunts, uncles, and teachers stepping up and showing their children what beautiful looks like.
Personally, I struggled with body image for years; I never went so far as to be sick in my struggle, but I was unhappy. Then, last year, my entire extended family went on vacation together. With everyone walking around in bathing suits for a week, I made an observation: we all looked the same. Sure, there’s some variations on height and size and such, but the “defects” that I found in myself were present in most of my family members, too. I saw them all as beautiful, but not myself. Once I realized that, that I take after my mother, and my grandma, and all my aunts and my cousins do too, I stopped seeing those “defects” as such, and saw them more as characteristics that were unique to my family. They make us all beautiful, and unite us in a way that nothing can undo. Fast forward a year, and I’m proud to say that I look like my mother, and my grandma, and all my gorgeous cousins and my wonderful aunts.
Just saying that girls should look to real role models and ignore the media won’t make the problem go away. This is not saying that the media is off the hook. Celebrities still have a responsibility to present themselves in a way that is respectful to themselves. I wonder about the relationships that celebrities with too-thin frames have with their mothers. Did their mothers do the most toxic thing a mother can do, tell her daughter that she needs to watch her weight? Did the media just take precedence in their house growing up? Ideas about beauty are learned, and everyone’s education starts somewhere.
1. Gillan, Audrey. "Skinny Models 'send Unhealthy Message'" The Guardian [London] 31 May 2000. Print.
2. Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. New York: Random House, 1981. Print.