Beauty is a valuable commodity in our image-obsessed society, so it’s not surprising that Miss Indias and Miss Worlds make headlines. These young women aren’t just beautiful; they’re most often thin too. But Chloe Marshall, the 2008 Miss England runner-up, was size 16 (“full-figured” or “ample,” to put it politely) and therefore made even more news.
A full-figured beauty pageant finalist creating a stop-the-press moment highlights the fact that larger women are not usually considered “the fairest of them all.” Indeed, pick up a magazine or newspaper on any other day and the message is loud and clear—thin is in.
With the average woman hovering around a size 14 or above, the comparison is odious. A recent survey revealed only six percent of women aged 18 to 64 were “very satisfied” with their looks. That leaves 94 percent of women critical of their appearance. In other words, the majority of the women sitting with you on the bus this morning woke up feeling judgmental and negative about their looks.
It’s a sobering thought and one that calls for questions: How did this fabulous, diverse sex become so obsessed with physical appearance? And why haven’t women wised up to themselves and shrugged off the stereotype?
“If every woman in the world woke up, slapped herself on the head and said: ‘I’m happy with who I am,’ entire economies would collapse,” says Jane Caro, an award-winning advertising writer and co-author of The F Word: How We Learned to Swear by Feminism. Caro believes the fashion and cosmetics industries have a vested interest in keeping women insecure by presenting an ideal that no one can ever achieve. “Advertising isn’t immoral, it’s amoral,” she says. “It responds to where the money and the desire is.”
Logically we know that many images of women in ads, magazines and films are idealized versions of reality, often airbrushed to perfection, but still we agonize over the difference between them and us, often in minute detail.
“Women see perfection around them, and do a social comparison bit by bit,” says Professor Marika Tiggemann, from FlindersUniversity’s School of Psychology in Australia. The dissection of the female form in advertising, where bottoms, legs, breasts and mouths are isolated and glorified, is known as “bodyism.” Women, too, single out aspects of their bodies, although usually for negative attention—a recent poll revealed that women are most critical of their bellies, thighs and bottoms.
The media is often portrayed as the bogeyman in the body-image debate, but experts such as Professor Susan Paxton from La Trobe University’s School of Psychological Science say it’s only part of the picture. Paxton notes women are getting messages from family from an early age. “There’s evidence that by age three, children prefer thin people to those who are not so thin,” she says. “When given the option of picking a picture of a plump child or a thin child to be their friend, they generally choose the latter.”
The way in which parents view their bodies also impacts on their children’s attitudes. “A mother who is always dieting or being critical of her body is sending a clear message to her daughters,” says Tiggemann. “That sense of body dissatisfaction is passed on.”
The anti-obesity push is also unhelpful. “It’s shifted the focus away from health and onto weight and looks,” she says. “It’s perpetuating the notion that fat is bad, thin is good, and thinner is better.” And it’s a notion that has recently been proved to be untrue.
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