Images of models are everywhere. Women’s bodies are used to sell everything from coffee, cellular phones to yachts. Actresses and models are becoming thinner and thinner as well as younger. Magazine articles have
reported actresses fainting while on the set from lack of food. Television commercials promote the next magic wonder diet pill, diet centers and the promise of a perfect life after they lose those last nagging five pounds. Few realize that these perfect bodies are created by younger and younger women and with the creative help of retouched photographs. The number of women and girls who look for an underweight body is reaching epidemic proportions and they risk potentially lethal health consequences.
History of Body Image and Obesity
1908: A body-revealing style is introduced for women by French designer Paul Poiret. This sends a body fat is unfashionable message.
1940s: Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. publishes new height-weight tables, sending the message that it is unacceptable to gain weight with age.
1945: The bikini is invented by Lewis Reard, a Paris fashion designer. Bikinis grow in popularity throughout the year, culminating in the ‘90s TV show “Baywatch.”
1951: The US government begins a campaign against obesity.
1956: Fitness becomes popular with the Jack LaLanne show premiering on television.
1960s: British fashion model Twiggy begins a new rain-thin faze with fashion. This later revitalized in the 1990s by Kate Moss.
1968: Erwin Stillman and Samm Sinclair Baker begin the first of many diet fads with the best selling book “The Doctor’s Quick Weight Loss Diet.”
1972: Robert C. Atkins becomes a best selling author of the “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.” This book begins the extremely popular low-carbohydrate diet.
1983: Karen Carpenter a 32 year-old pop idol dies of anorexia nervosa.
1994: 51,072 liposuction procedures are conducted as reported by The American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons.
1996: It is estimated that 8 million Americans suffer from anorexia, bulimia or both as reported by National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated.
1996: The Body Mass Index (BMI) becomes the set definition of obesity.
Images of the ideal female beauty are unattainable for all but a very limited number of women. When surveying women in college about their attempts to manage their weight through dieting, 91% admitted to attempting to control or manage their weight and 22% dieted always or often (Kurth et al., 1995). Often-times these college women use unhealthy methods of weight control including starving themselves, limiting their number of meals, excessive exercise, diet pills, laxative abuse, and self-induced vomiting. This preoccupation with being super skinny is not exclusive to adults either. Statistics show that 42% of the 1st-3rd grade populations of girls want to be thinner (Collins, 1991). Additionally, 81% of 10 year-old girls are frightened of being overweight (Mellin et al., 1991). These efforts are supported by the front covers of magazines that include messages about how to change a woman’s bodily appearance, whether by diet, exercise or cosmetic surgery. We have been taught that the only beautiful figure is one with less than 10% body fat. Research reveals that the average American woman is on average 5-6 inches shorter and 15% – 23% heavier than actresses and models. Given these startlingly statistics, it is no surprise that an approximate 95% of women are anxious or depressed about their weight.
The issue of models becoming alarmingly thin has made it to the runways of Madrid. There are now requirements that state a model must be at least 16 years of age with a body mass index (BMI) of at least 18. BMI is a calculation that measures body fat based on height and weight. The ban on skinny women has come as runway organizers move toward a healthier image. This move has been celebrated by new and upcoming models who are literally starving themselves to death as they work toward becoming the next top model and achieve a multimillion dollar contract. The Madrid council, who instituted these changes, has also arranged for medical treatment for those models that have a BMI of 16 or less. Brazil and Argentina have followed suit and London is expected to do so later this month.
The decision to ban ultra thin models is a positive move for teens everywhere, as these role models present an unrealistic and unhealthy body image for teenagers. Dr. Cynthia Kapphahan of California’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford advises that, “Kids are incredibly affected by media images, and models are still held up as the “perfect’ standard.” When teenagers by pass their family and look to models as role models, an unrealistic and perhaps unachievable standard is set.
Within the United States, over 60 million adults are considered to be obese. This means they are at least 20% above their ideal weight. Obesity is caused by controllable factors such as lifestyle and environment as well as physiological factors like genetics. “Genetics helps determine your natural weight range, but you have some control over where you fall within that range,” says Edward Abramson, PhD, an expert on obesity, dieting, and weight disorders and the author of Body Intelligence. Studies have determined that genetic factors are not the lone cause of the large increase in childhood obesity; however they are believed to influence one’s weight much like environment. A person reared in an environment of little exercise, high-fat foods and a genetic disposition towards obesity, is likely to become obese. This is why obese parents often have obese children. Studies conducted with identical and fraternal twins raised separately, suggest that 70% of the variation in BMI may be genetically based in origin.
So do not aim for a size 0, aim for health: if obesity is a family trait, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses could be as well. Exercise is fundamental to maintaining a healthy body weight, try using the stairs instead of the elevator, and make it a point to get up and move around every hour. In short, take care of the body that one was born with. A healthy body is not necessarily a thin body, these are two different distinctions. Research shows that overweight people who are physically fit can live just as long as or longer than those who are at the ideal weight and not physically fit.
Anorexia, a Psychiatric Disorder
Anorexia is an eating disorder where people literally starve themselves, sometimes to death. One percent of teenage girls develop anorexia; up to 19% of which may die as a result of anorexia. Anorexics strive for a super thin body due to the warped body image they see in the mirror rather than outside pressure from society. Individuals suffering from anorexia typically experience weight loss that is 15% below their normal body weight. These individuals are very skinny but are convinced that they are overweight, even obese. This weight loss is obtained in many ways, excessive exercise, starvation, laxatives and more.
These individuals have an intense fear of becoming fat and as a result their dieting habits take on extreme measures. Typically, adolescent girls are most affected by anorexia. Even after obtaining an extremely thin body, anorexics continue to think that they are overweight. An anorexic will prepare a large meal for family and friends and refuse to eat any of it.
The disorder is thought to be most common among people involved in dancing, theater and running. These are activities were thinness is an advantage and highly sought. With proper treatment, anorexia can be overcome. While some peoples desire to be super thin may be explained by anorexia, this alone is not the sole cause.
Healthier Food Choices
Women’s thinner bodies can also be attributed to the prevalence of healthier living and the significant food choices available today. Previously, fast food restaurants did not provide alternative options such as salads, grilled chicken, milk and juice. These options have far less calories and fat than the typical burger, fries and soda typically offered. Changes such as this may seem small; however combined with the opening of other healthier fast food restaurants such as sub sandwich shops and Chinese food, busy families now have choices and options that were previously unavailable to them. These subtle changes can be attributed to women’s body image changes.
Healthier food options combined with effective dieting centers like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig have aided many women across the US in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. This success is due to their holistic approach, support system, weekly weigh-ins and nutritional advice. These programs have also been proven effective in achieving long-term weight loss success and may influence body image perceptions as well.
A woman’s body image comprises her shape, size and physical appearance. Body images are formed from our experiences, parents, peers, role-models, models, and friends who provide an idea and value of body images. An image is formed from the positive and negative feedback received from people whose opinions matter to us. The way we perceive our own body to fit the cultural image is incorporated as well.
Many women have a distorted perception of their bodies. They may look in the mirror and see an overweight body or slightly larger body than what is there. Large thighs, extended abdomen, and a larger buttocks may lead to distress for some women.
James Rosen, Ph.D. from the University of Vermont has done studies indicating that women are “most dissatisfied with the parts of their bodies between their waist and their knees.” Cosmetic surgery and liposuction are the fastest growing medical specialties within cosmetic surgery.
Young girls are repeatedly told that they must adapt to so-called “feminine” qualities: skinny, nice personality, perfectly proportioned, nurturing of others, supporting male figures, glowing skin, fabulous makeup as well as model perfect clothing styles and dress. A women’s sense of self is so influenced by others opinions and how she sees herself, she puts extra effort in to being the perfect person.
Body image includes much more than just weight. Women are constantly bombarded with products that are designed to appeal to vanity. Skin tone, hair color, and hair style are common products. In addition, we are conditioned through the clothing industry to purchase expensive clothing from designers such as Juicy Couture.
Americans are completely obsessed with diet and weight and this obsession has reached an all time high in magazines, movies, and runaways around the world. The pressure for models and actresses to be super thin is the latest trend. This is a trend that has come and gone throughout the years but is now at a fever pitch. There is no easy answer to the obesity epidemic and maintaining a healthy body image. Body image begins with learning to love what is seen in the mirror, a celebration of our bodies, nourishing our bodies, and the decision to change one’s body image not one’s body. With a positive body image, one will have a realistic view of size, shape and is therefore more likely to be comfortable with their body. Satisfaction with one’s body image affects more than body weight alone, it affects emotional health, self-image, stress management, and self-esteem. Essential to developing and maintaining a healthy body image are eating healthy, regular exercise and receiving plenty of rest. Building a healthy lifestyle includes physical activity. Healthy bodies come in variety of sizes and shapes should be nurtured and valued for their individuality and uniqueness. When looking in the mirror appreciate the image and resist the urge to compare oneself to societies and culture’s ideal of beauty, look to family and friends for a positive and reinforcing body image, and trust the health advice of medical personnel on obesity. Resist the temptation to use models and actresses as the ideal body and beauty standards. Body images should be a result of an individual’s perception of beauty based on their experience with family, friends and not media images. Unrealistic and unattainable are words that can be used to describe images in the media. Full-bodied is fabulous; it is time to change the perception of beauty! Here’s to seeing more natural models in magazines, television and movies.
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