The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, yet residents of this bountiful country are denied the simple right to adequate nutrition. Citizens are forced to abstain from basic human needs to be accepted members of society. Popular culture suggests that emaciation is not only a fashion statement, but an expected lifestyle choice. The past hundred years have seen the rise of a startling and horrific trend; the thinning of the nation’s young women. One in five college women suffers from a severe case of either anorexia or bulimia nervosa. (Schwitzer et al. 165) With a death rate of up to 15%, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate among psychological disorders. Those dying are not the poor and ignorant unfortunates from the slums and ghettos of the inner cities–they are the best and brightest of the young generations. They are the future leaders of this country, and they are, literally, wasting away. Yet this epidemic has never made the cover of Time. There is no national council to fight this war against the body. The issue is relegated to daytime talk shows between cheating lovers and make-overs. I maintain that western civilization has knowingly manifested an atmosphere of hostility towards women and their bodies.
95% of those who struggle with eating disorders are female (Wolf 183).
The small percentage of men who suffer are almost exclusively athletes or homosexuals. The situation is most prevalent among male wrestlers and dancers who feel extreme pressure to keep their weight low. So, why women? In her book, Beauty Bound, Rita Freedman writes, “A five-year-old confidently tells me that ‘girls play at being pretty, but boys play cars…’ The socialization of gender begins in infancy and involves almost every aspect of experience.” (118).
... ever depicted as beautiful or ideal but all were women. Some Greek women were also rebellious in nature, like Herea who was ... forms. As society changed so did the depiction of women in art. Women have graced writing in many forms and visual art ... , although their significance held very different meanings throughout history. Women have held different purpose and significance throughout all of history ...
A little girl learns early that her aesthetics are her definition. She understands that to be a woman is to be attractive, to be attractive is to be thin, and to be unattractive is to be unwomanly.
The twentieth century brought remarkable technological advances, but it also gave rise to an attitude of unimaginable consequence. Young women are taught that exterior beauty is more relevant than any other aspect of their lives. Female role models teach that young women can achieve anything, if only they’re first thin enough to be seen in public. The average actress, model or dancer is thinner than 95% of the female population (Levine and Smolak 472).
In effect, popular media has decreed 95% of women unacceptable. These disorders are nonexistent in third world countries. Only in wealthy, western nations do we see the deliberate starvation of millions of young women.
The first identifiable modern trend toward female thinness can be traced to the United States. The country had been swept up in the European Romantic Movement and its emphasis on gentility and ethereality. The ballets, operas and plays of this era presented heroes of unearthly passion and heroines of unearthly beauty. Thus, while men were striving to improve their mental strength and vigor, women were pursuing an unnatural physical standard. At this time, the American fashion magazine made its debut in 1828 with Godey’s Lady’s Book. The publication set standards in all aspects of a woman’s life. The steel-engraved illustrations were of young, pretty women with tiny features and rosebud lips. She was slender and willowy with a tiny waist, and had become the dominant ideal women chose to emulate.
Early feminists were strongly opposed to the “Steel Engraving Lady” and the standards she set for the modern woman. Of most concern were the unrealistic aesthetic ideals women were expected to fulfill. In Never Too Thin, Roberta Pollack Seid quotes early women’s rights activist Harriet Beecher Stowe as angrily observing that “we in America have got so far out of the way of womanhood that has any vigor of outline, when we see a woman as a woman ought to be, she strikes us as a monster” (61).
... Chanel not only came up with new ideas for women’s fashion, she also came up with a few ideas ... by Coco Chanel have had the greatest impact on women’s fashion. Her designs are classic, timeless, and still ... only did she have an impact on fashion, she also helped women to believe that they are capable of ... start a completely new trend in the fashion world, but for women of all sizes across the world to ...
This, in 1850, was an early herald for the devastation that would soon engulf the psyches of American women.
In 1908 fashion designer Paul Poiret was credited with a transformation in American women, which he believed to be both natural and liberating. By introducing a sleek, natural look he took much of the emphasis off the waist and bust, choosing, rather, to flaunt a woman’s legs. He silhouetted them in long, simple skirts and proclaimed breasts to be unfashionable. Women were metamorphosed as the hourglass figure fell quite suddenly out of favor. The lower body that was once kept so hidden was now exposed and glorified. Fashion critics everywhere were describing the wearers of these new clothes as slim and graceful. Women were now required to be thin in order to be elegant. For the first time, a slender body had to be achieved, and without the aid of rigid, body-shaping undergarments.
What had provoked this change in women’s fashion? If we take a look at America herself at this time, we see a country on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Machinery had become commonplace and emphasis was on efficiency. How could technology make our lives easier? How could our machines run better? There was no patience for excess and human bodies were not excluded. They were to be as beautiful as sleek machines. Women’s magazines began to advocate thinner figures. Excess flesh was considered untidy, for it made a woman cumbersome and awkward.
It was also at this time that women were gaining more freedoms in society. They were attending universities, and were, in small numbers, entering professions such as medicine, journalism and law. Young ladies were joining the work force as nurses, teachers and secretaries in triple the numbers of the previous generation. Large petticoats were awkward in cramped working spaces. Decorative dress seemed exude a femininity inappropriate for the workplace.
... Ussama Makdisi, anti-Americanism is a recent phenomenon fueled by American foreign policy, not an epochal confrontation of civilizations. Thus Samuel ... and utilizes readily available technology to wage its war. Thus unlike the Cold War, where policies were for more selfish reasons, ... differs most significantly from the strategy employed in the Cold War due to globalization and the nature of the enemy. ...
After World War I, all the modern trends that encouraged women to lose weight were intensified. Poiret’s slender style evolved into the carefree look of the flapper. Breasts were bound, waistlines were lowered to hide hips and skirts were shortened to expose the claves. Perhaps most significant, was that women were discarding the most cherished aspect of their sex by cutting off their long hair. Fashion had suppressed the female shape, opting for a boyish, prepubescent look. Modern young women were either free-spirited college students or cynical sophisticates. They were rebelliously casting off the shackles of gentility and hitting the dance halls to flaunt their newly exposed knees. They smoked cigarettes, drank bootleg liquor, participated in provocative dances, and were even wearing makeup. They were vamps, seeking to cultivate the mysterious eroticism exhibited by their idols on the silent screen.
The newly emancipated woman was to be athletic, intellectual, and a competitive equal to her husband. She was not simply his wife, but his companion. She was young and did not wish her body to portray the image of her older, more mature maternal predecessors. She was her husband’s vibrant lover. In her book Fasting Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes, “A woman with a slender body distinguished herself from the plump Victorian matron and her old-fashioned ideals of nurturance, service and self-sacrifice. The body of the ‘new woman’ was a sign of modernity that marked her for more than traditional motherhood and domesticity” (245).
The swinging twenties offered women countless new freedoms, but with athleticism and exposing new clothes came critical judgments about weight and beauty. The first Miss America pageant, flaunting women in bathing suits, was held in 1921. The winner’s physical measurements were held in such high regard, that the numbers have been carefully preserved.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s Americans were heavily consumed with such issues as the Great Depression and World War II. Women involved themselves with matters of survival, protection and work. After waiting in line for a weekly ration of butter and sugar, these items were likely to be cherished rather than rejected. A preference for slenderness remained, but it was essential to avoid the look of a deprived individual. Screen stars such as Joan Crawford and Ingrid Bergman were no doubt thin, but were not skinny. The war and mid-forties brought the buxom pinup girl. Christian Dior introduced his “new look” featuring shapely women. The ideal figure was again hourglass shaped with a full bust and hips, and a small waist.
... Gannett was one of the bravest and most interesting women of the American Revolution. She was five foot eight inches, which is ... . She was not a beauty (all the woman that fought or helped in the American Revolution were described as ugly). The same ... Hart, and Mammy Kate are just three of the many women who contributed greatly to the success of the American Revolution..
Modern women might have been able to regain their bodies from the grasp of the thin ideal at this pivotal time. But as men returned from the war, finding their women independent and relatively self-sufficient, interest in weight loss crescendoed. For more than fifty years, ambivalent ideas about thinness had coexisted, but the preference for a slim figure prevailed and women’s magazines began publishing almost ten times more articles related to weight control.
In the 1950’s, television became a member of the nuclear family. Images of societal ideals were invited into homes and thrust upon Americans. The television stars, Miss Americas, and movie actresses such as Doris Day and Sandra Dee were put into settings and situations similar to those of normal, middle-class American women and girls. The effect was that the looks of professional beauties appeared to be the norm. These images were all the more important as new standards for the ideal woman emerged. In the 1940’s, women had been empowered by the war effort. They were proving their worth and were considering purposeful careers. The return of the hourglass figure seemed to again firmly draw the line between the sexes. It also made appearance more forward on a woman’s mind as the men came home and other interests were set aside. Women who exhibited “aggressive” traits, such as careers instead of children, were considered maladjusted and suffering from Freudian penis-envy.
The 1960’s presented an era of change. Thrust in by the glamorous Kennedy presidency and closed with the militant demands for an end to the war in Vietnam, and political upheaval, the decade was revolutionary in every sense of the word. Sexuality was transfigured with the availability of contraceptive pills, and “free love” and nudity were becoming more common and acceptable. The absence of clothes, however, required the absence of extra weight.
... sharp contrast and overall differences clear between Russian/European women and American women. While I do not wish to focus on ... better at maximizing their appearance with clothes/cosmetics and unlike American women, they love wearing skirts and high heels, which ... 6 Major Advantages of Russian/European Women Over American Women (What the average American doesnt know and will never hear from their ...
Bohemian cultural leaders were turning a generation into folk musicians, painters, writers…etc. They fought against American policies and The Establishment. Poverty had become chic. There was no single look anymore, as wild pyschedelic styles coexisted with jeans and miniskirts, and those with a “natural” look simply paid no attention to their appearance. The fashion world was unsettled. They had lost their grip on its rules, and were desperate to bring structure to the anarchy of the young.
It was in 1965 when Twiggy, at 5’7” and 97 pounds first appeared on the pages of Vogue. Naomi Wolf writes of her in The Beauty Myth:
…she was double edged, suggesting to women the freedom from the constraint of reproduction of earlier generations (since female fat is categorically understood by the subconscious as fertile sexuality), while reassuring men with her suggestion of female weakness, asexuality, and hunger. Her thinness, now commonplace, was shocking at the time; even Vogue introduced the model with anxiety: “Twiggy is called Twiggy because she looks as though a strong gale would snap her in two and dash her to the ground… Twiggy is of such meagre constitution that other models stare at her. Her legs look as though she has not had enough milk as a baby and her face has the expression one feels Londoners wore in the blitz.” The fashion writers language is revealing: Undernurtured, subject to be overpowered by a strong wind, her expression the daze of the besieged, what better symbol to reassure an establishment faced with women who were soon to march tens of thousands strong down Fifth Avenue? (185)
There was resistance to the Twiggy look. Many sex idols still had their curves, and the Miss Americas of the sixties remained stubbornly like their fifties counterparts. The counterculture rejected the skinny look as another drift towards The Establishment, but resistance was eventually eroded and the style adopted. With Twiggy, fashion magazines had successfully bridged the gap between themselves and the chaotic counterculture.
... portray the negative treatment of all women throughout society during the nineteenth century. Many women characters throughout American literature reflect the same conflicts ... Intemperate." Solomon 1: 70-85. Solomon, Barbara H., ed.Rediscoveries: American Short Stories by Women, 1832-1916. New York: Penguin Group, 1994..
It was in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that severe prejudice against the overweight began to take root in American culture. New studies and understandings about cholesterol brought insights and advise about the amount of fat in the American diet. Foods began to be classified as “good” and “bad”, and fat was disgusting. Overweight women became horribly ashamed of their eating habits as authorities pronounced that the obese had no physiological need for food. Overeating (whatever brought one above a desirable body weight) was self-destructive behavior. Gluttons were defined by their body size, not their appetites. Roberta Pollack Seid writes in Never Too Thin that, “the cruelest–and ultimately most damaging–aspect of fashion’s lust for slenderness was its insistence that women could achieve it, regardless of their genes or age” (149).
Fashion proclaimed that slenderness could make one part of a world filled with beautiful people. It was believed that everyone had a thin person, a beautiful, sexy, intelligent person, waiting to burst forth. The svelte were considered quicker, more competent, better adjusted, and more disciplined and moral than the fat.
Health was redefined in the seventies and eighties. One not only had to be thin, but fit. Cellulite could flaw even the lightest body. Everyone wanted to be athletes–or, at least, look like them. Americans had become so phobic about fat, they could easily buy the idea that not eating was healthier than eating. There were liquid protein diets for those who had trouble fasting. These semi-starvation regimes were blamed for over 60 deaths, and the Center for Disease Control issued warnings, but Americans were undaunted (“Body Project” 107).
Better dead than fat.
These attitudes have all accelerated through the 1990’s to present. Fitness routines are more strenuous, and the most minor flaws are intolerable. Levine and Smolak found that the average fashion model weighs 23% less than the average woman (473).
Their surveys show that 75% of women aged 18-35 believe they’re fat, while only 25% are actually overweight (the same percentage as men).
45% of underweight women think they’re too fat, and women cite losing ten pounds as more desirable than success in work or love (473).
Yet, there is little evidence to support the claim that being mildly overweight causes poor health in women. Studies suggest that women may live longer if they weigh 10-15% above life insurance standards and refrain from dieting (Freedman 237).
If not for health reasons, why this persistent pursuit of impossible ideals? If we examine the evolution of women’s body standards over the past 150 years, we are able to recognize certain trends. The first major thinning of American women occurred in the 1920’s as women were liberated from many societal expectations and attained the right to vote. The preference subsided as the Great Depression and World War II occupied their lives. In the 1950’s, when women were quiet and domesticated, voluptuous figures were acceptable. It wasn’t until the revolutions of the 1960’s that women gained a freedom similar to men’s, and again began to attenuate their bodies. It seems the more power women have, the more slender their bodies become.
Women are “safer” to our society when their minds and bodies are weakened. Rita Friedman writes in Beauty Bound, “The female body represents fertility and mortality. The flapper or Twiggy look strips it of its fleshy , fruitful dimensions, and hides a woman’s reproductive powers behind a neutered image. When fashioned as a boyish imp, or most recently as an angular jock, the fearful mother figure is deflated and safely disguised” (149).
In The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf states, “In the regressive 1950’s, women’s natural fullness could be briefly enjoyed once more because their minds were occupied with domestic seclusion. But when women came en masse into male spheres, that pleasure had to be hidden by an urgent social expedient that would make women’s bodies the prisons their homes no longer were” (184).
She goes on to argue, “The great weight shift must be understood as one of the major historical developments of the century, a direct solution to the danger’s posed by the women’s movement and economic and reproductive freedom. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one… Concern with weight leads to a virtual collapse of self-esteem and sense of effectiveness” (187).
Again, Wolf writes, “Prolonged and periodic caloric restriction results in a distinctive personality whose traits are passivity, anxiety and emotionality. It is those traits, and not thinness for it’s own sake, that the dominant culture wants to create in the private sense of recently liberated women in order to cancel out the dangers of liberation” (188).
Over one million young women do irreversible damage to their bodies and psyches annually as a result of eating disorders (Wolf 181).
The notion that this devastation was engineered by powerful members of our society is almost too ridiculous–and too evil–to conceive. Yet, somehow, young, western women have fallen victim to the unattainable ideal of someone else’s beauty. If history is any indicator, the epidemic will progress unrestrained. In the meantime, 150,000 American women will die this year of anorexia and bulimia nervosa (Wolf 180).
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project. New York: Random House, 1997.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Freedman, Rita. Beauty Bound. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1986.
Levine, Michael P. and Smolack, Linda. “The Relation of Sociocultural Factors to Eating Attitudes and Behaviors Among Middle School Girls.” Journal of Early Adolescence November 1994: 471-475.
Schwitzer, Alan M., et al. “The Eating Disorders NOS Diagnostic Profile Among College Women.” Journal of American College Health January 2001: 157-167.
Seid, Roberta Pollack. Never Too Thin. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1989.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. New York: