"No living woman actually looks like Kate Moss": The unattainable thin ideal

When my daughter was at her sickest, her impossibly thin body looked normal to me. Larger bodies looked grotesque

By Harriet Brown

Published April 18, 2015 9:00PM (EDT)

Kate Moss    (AP)
Kate Moss (AP)

Excerpted from "Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It"

“I wondered if I could truly see myself at all. One day I found myself all-right-looking and relatively slim . . . and the next day I saw a sagging, bulbous grotesque. How could one account for the change except with the thought that self-image is unreliable at best?”

—Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

“If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business.”

—Gail Dines, professor of sociology and
women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston

One of my favorite assignments in the class I teach on body diversity comes early in the semester. I ask students to bring in media images of bodies they think are thin, fat, and “normal.” They usually press me to define those three categories, and I tell them to use their judgment.

For the thin category, they bring pictures of celebrities considered not just thin but beautiful. For “fat,” they often wind up with the kinds of unflattering pictures used to illustrate news stories about obesity—Charlotte Cooper’s “headless fatties.”

It’s the “normal” category that stumps them, and that is of course the point of the assignment. They bring images of bodies ranging from slender to solid. But the most revealing part of the class is what they say about those “normal” bodies. They nearly always feel obliged to explain, in great detail, why a particular body fits the “normal” paradigm. They get defensive, as if the rest of the class is waiting to pounce on their choice and rip it to metaphorical shreds. When I point out to them that that’s exactly what happens—metaphorically and literally—to real bodies, that the threat of being critiqued, dissed, dismissed because your physical being doesn’t meet the standards of the day is something we all fear and all experience, I can see the penny drop. And that’s usually the beginning of a lively and enlightening discussion.

When we talk about the assignment, my students steadfastly deny that their ideas about body size are affected by what they see online and around them. They tell me they’re smarter than that; they know all about advertising. They tell me they’re digital natives who grew up in this media-drenched world, and they know how to navigate it. They insist their opinions are their own, that they’re not influenced by the onslaughts of the beauty industry.

I tell them that, on average, women in North America say their ideal body weight is 13 to 19 percent below their medically ideal weight. I tell them about the work of German neuroscientist Dennis Hummel, who came up with an illuminating experiment a few years ago. He showed young women photographs of themselves that had been digitally manipulated to make their bodies look subtly heavier or thinner. Then he put the women through a series of visual tasks that asked them how realistic they thought their bodies looked in a series of photographs that were also subtly altered.

Hummel found that after the women were exposed to a thinner image of their bodies, they judged everything else they saw during the test as fatter, and vice versa. When they looked at images of other women’s bodies, they then judged their own differently. In other words, what they got used to seeing all around them influenced their sense of their own bodies and other people’s.

Which explains, in part, why, if I asked you which of the two bodies below was the most attractive, we all know which one you’d choose. Which one most of us would choose.

The image on the left, which you’ve probably seen before, is a four-inch-high statue known as the Venus of Willendorf, carved about twenty-seven thousand years ago. The image on the right shows American model Marisa Miller.

We’d choose Miller over the Venus for two reasons: because we’re human and because we live in this time and place. What I mean is because of both our hardwiring and our environment. Nature and nurture. Our preferences grow out of both the need for the species to survive and the ideals and standards of our particular culture, which, whether we internalize or reject them, still affect us.

Let’s start with nature. In her book Survival of the Prettiest, evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff argues that beauty is a necessary element in human survival. “The obsession with human beauty is, at rock bottom, an evolutionary adaptation for evaluating others as potential producers of our child,” she writes. She believes specific perceptions of beauty—what we as individuals find attractive—are hardwired into the species as a kind of biological adaptation, driving both reproduction and pleasure.

The evidence supports this idea—up to a point. For instance, we tend to find symmetrical faces and bodies more attractive than asymmetrical ones, maybe because physical symmetry correlates with genetic resistance to disease and parasites. This “good genes” theory suggests that our looks advertise our underlying biological health. A symmetrical face, then, advertises a strong potential mate. Other physical traits—firm breasts, strong cheekbones, and wide hips for women, and height and musculature for men—are consistently seen as attractive across cultures and over time for the same reasons.

There’s less evidence for Etcoff’s insistence that beauty has little to do with culture, especially when we’re talking about weight. Our judgments about beauty may feel like they’re hard-wired—doesn’t everyone find Marisa Miller more attractive than the Venus of Willendorf?—but in fact if you’d lived twenty-five thousand years ago, you’d likely prefer the image on the left. Its pendulous breasts, fleshy stomach, detailed genitals, and covered face signal sexuality, fertility, and health. Food could be scarce back in the Paleolithic period, and nothing said “healthy and fertile” like a fleshy body with clearly delineated feminine attributes—breasts, hips, bottom.

But to us, Miller’s flat stomach, round breasts, slender thighs, and protruding collarbones epitomize feminine beauty. We live in a culture where food is abundant, it’s easy to gain weight, and fertility isn’t a matter of immediate daily survival. Like most societies, we typically prize what’s rare and dismiss what’s commonplace. And what’s rare in twenty-first-century America is a body like Miller’s, which by some estimations is achievable by maybe 5 percent of the population. At most.

Which, of course, we know, just as we know the earth is round and revolves around the sun. We still experience the earth as flat (unless you live in the mountains), though, and it still looks like the sun rises in the morning and sets at night. And we still buy into the notion that we can, and should, sculpt our bodies to look like Miller’s.

We also seem to believe that our current cultural body ideals represent the culmination of some forward-moving process of development—an evolution of sorts toward a higher plane. That we have these ideals in the first place because, damn it, that’s how we’re supposed to look. We think our preferences around beauty and bodies are innate and inevitable, that we’re immune to outside influences. We just happen to like the way Miller’s body looks, that’s all.

But even a cursory look back suggests otherwise. Italian researcher Paolo Pozzilli studies paintings and sculptures for clues about diseases through history. For instance, he says, if you look closely at some of Michelangelo’s figures, you’ll notice that their eyes are bulging, a classic symptom of the thyroid disorder Graves’ disease. Or look at Madonnas from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who were often portrayed with goiters, a common sign of iodine deficiency.

Pozzilli has paid particular attention to the way weight is portrayed in art, looking for clues to the prevalence of type 2 diabetes over time. “The women in Renoir’s paintings were seen as beautiful, and their BMIs were about 29,” he explains. As recently as 125 years ago, what we would now call overweight and even verging on obese was considered desirable and attractive.

American beauty ideals have clearly been constricting over the last hundred years. In 1894, a medical professor named Woody Hutchinson wrote an article for Cosmopolitan magazine extolling the aesthetic virtues of plumpness, and advising readers that no matter how much they dieted or exercised they were unlikely to change their body size much.

The winners of the earliest Miss America pageants in the 1920s, for instance, had BMIs around 22. By contrast, a contestant in the 2014 Miss America pageant, Indiana’s Mekayla Diehl, has been praised for having a “normal”-sized body, visibly fleshier than those of the other contestants; she wears a size 4 and her BMI is around 18, which makes her underweight on the BMI chart. But she’s positively glowing with health compared with other contestants, whose average BMI these days is a dangerously low 16.9.

As recently as the 1950s, one of America’s most glamorous stars was Marilyn Monroe, who wore a size 10 and was at the time considered one of the sexiest women in the world. At five foot five and 140 pounds, her BMI hovered around 23—a far cry from today’s much skinnier standard.

So yes, the cultural norms for women’s bodies have shrunk over the last hundred years, especially in the West. That fact alone supports the idea that body image is culturally constructed, that we learn body-size preferences, and that those preferences can change. But where do they come from in the first place? It’s not like there’s a committee in a closed room deciding what the ideal women’s dress size will be this year.

That’s where the “nurture” part comes in; the environment we are born into, raised in, observe, and learn from.

Our daily lives are filled with hundreds, thousands, millions of images depicting the unattainable thin ideal. We see women’s bodies that look like Marisa Miller’s, and those that are much, much thinner. We also, increasingly, see images of the unattainable buff ideal for men. Bodies like, say, Channing Tatum’s are no more “normal” than Miller’s. (In fact, Channing Tatum’s body isn’t even normal for him. In 2012 he told a reporter from People magazine, “When I’m not training, I get really round and soft.”)

Frankly, it’s a little scary to realize just how much what we see shapes what we think. And it doesn’t take long: one minute of exposure to an image of a thinner-than-average woman is enough to shift our perceptions of attractiveness to a thinner ideal.

It’s also scary to understand how changeable those thoughts and perceptions are. When my daughter was at her sickest, her gaunt face and impossibly thin body came to look normal to me. Other people’s bodies began to look too large, oddly distorted—especially my own, which came to feel grotesque. I avoided mirrors for years during and after her illness. I tried consciously reminding myself over and over that my body hadn’t changed size, and that the emaciation of anorexia was abnormal, not my own body. But I couldn’t talk myself out of my feelings any more than patients with the aptly named Alice in Wonderland syndrome can talk themselves out of the feeling that various body parts are shrinking or growing. (Both Alice in Wonderland syndrome and body dysmorphic disorder involve a part of the brain called the parietal cortex, leading some researchers to believe the disorders are related.) We are fundamentally visual creatures; there aren’t enough words in the world to cancel out the effects of so many thousands of pictures.

Culture shapes our body image in other ways, too. Humans are social creatures, biologically designed to rely on other people to help us survive a hostile world. Early humans had to evolve mechanisms for telling friend from foe, for quick categorizations of the people around us—what Polish-born social psychologist Henri Tajfel described as in-groups and out-groups. In-groups are people we perceive as like us in fundamental ways; they share basic characteristics and identities. So some of my in-groups are Jews, women, people with curly hair, New Jersey natives, college professors, and people classified as mildly obese on the BMI chart. Out-groups have identities we don’t share; some of mine are heavy metal bands, California natives, and people who believe in alien abduction.

We develop our social identities—our sense of ourselves and where we belong in our families, communities, and societies—by comparing ourselves with others. On a fundamental level we need to fit in, to belong, to conform. Maybe that’s why parents google “Is my daughter overweight?” twice as often as “Is my son overweight?” despite the fact that in reality, more boys are overweight than girls. Maybe they know the world is harder on girls whose looks don’t measure up than on boys. Parents are also three times likelier to ask Google if their daughter is ugly than their son. (“How Google is expected to know whether a child is beautiful or ugly is hard to say,” wrote Seth Stephens-Davidowicz, an economist who covered these analytics, with great restraint, for the New York Times.)

And research shows that the more we want to conform, the more likely we are to internalize cultural norms, to not just buy in to them but to defend them with the passion of the true believer. We’ve invested in them; we may have spent months or years of our lives trying to achieve those norms. They damn well have to be true.

In twenty-first-century Western society, those norms are communicated in large part by heavily manipulated images in advertisements, magazines, websites, TV, and movies. We know intellectually that no living woman actually looks like Beyoncé or Katy Perry or Kate Moss. You’ve probably watched the Dove “Evolution” video, which shows a beauty ad being created from start to finish, including extensive photoshopping. Or maybe you saw the 2012 video showing how the image of actress Sally Gifford Piper, wearing nothing but red bikini bottoms, was tweaked and transformed until the final image looked much more like a typical model than like her.

We all know images are altered. We know they embody the ideal—at least someone’s vision of the ideal—rather than the real. And like my students, we think knowing makes us immune to their effects. Which is why in recent years advocates have proposed a number of legislative fixes for the photoshopping problem. Israel was the first and, as of this writing, has been the only country to pass a bill requiring advertisers to label images that had been retouched to make models look thinner. In 2011, British MP Jo Swinson made news by forcing beauty company Lancôme to take down billboards featuring heavily photoshopped images of celebrities, including Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts.

On this side of the pond, former marketing executive Seth Matlins helped put together a bill known as the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014, which charges the Federal Trade Commission with regulating the way images are digitally manipulated in ads (though not in editorial spreads). Matlins told Fashionista.com he didn’t realize how harmful marketing could be until his three-year-old daughter asked him if he thought she was ugly. Better late than never, I guess, though I have to wonder why Matlins and so many others become alarmed about the effects of marketing only when it affects their own children. As I write, the bipartisan bill has been introduced in Congress.

Unfortunately such efforts, while good at raising awareness, are unlikely to bring about real change. Knowing that images have been retouched doesn’t diminish their power or change the way we react to those images, according to several recent studies, including one by Marika Tiggemann, a psychology professor at Australia’s Flinders University. Tiggemann and her colleagues found that young women who saw fashion-shoot images that were labeled as having been digitally altered reacted with the same levels of body dissatisfaction as those who saw unlabeled images.

No wonder two out of three thirteen-year-old girls are afraid of gaining weight. No wonder body dissatisfaction rises exponentially (especially for girls) from childhood right on through adulthood. (Boys’ body dissatisfaction rises, too, but seems to level out after high school.) No wonder 90 percent of adult British women feel body-image anxiety, and many continue to feel that anxiety into their eighties. No wonder half of the women who took one Esquire magazine poll said they’d rather be dead than fat.

Feminist scholar, filmmaker, and former model Jean Kilbourne has spent her career looking at the connections between images of women in advertising and issues like distorted body image, disordered eating, and violence against women. She’s one of the most media-savvy people on the planet. But she admits that even she’s vulnerable to the power of those doctored images. “I don’t know any woman who isn’t,” says Kilbourne. “It’s impossible to be in this culture and not be to some extent made to feel bad about yourself because you’re not perfect looking, you’re aging, whatever.”

After forty years of teaching media literacy—helping people understand that what they’re seeing on the screen and in magazines isn’t real—Kilbourne says the climate has not improved. “The images of women in popular culture have gotten monumentally worse,” she says with exasperation. “Marketers have even more power than they did before. They have a lot of control over what goes into media, more than they used to. Sometimes it’s subtle but it’s there.”

There’s more of it, too. A lot more. On grocery-store carts, on billboards, on websites and social media and in elevators. Sometimes it feels like everywhere you look, someone’s trying to sell you something. (Because, well, they are.) In 1964, the average American saw around seventy-six ads a day; today we’re exposed to over a thousand, more if we spend lots of time online. And America has no corner on the marketing market. When researchers from the International Body Project surveyed more than seven thousand people from around the world, they found an interesting pattern: in countries and regions where people had more money and higher socioeconomic status, they also had a stronger desire to be thin and were less pleased with their appearance. Which jibes with the scarce-resources theory: in wealthier societies, where it’s easier to put on weight, there’s more prestige attached to being thin. In poorer regions, heavier people are seen as having more access to scarce resources, and therefore hold more status.

That makes sense. But the International Body Project researchers suggested another possibility: people living in wealthier cultures are exposed to more marketing and advertising as well as more media in general. And their research also showed that the more exposure people had to Western media, the more dissatisfied they were with their bodies. So maybe the sheer volume of images that pass before our eyes—whether we think we take them in or not—affects us more deeply than we know.

A now famous study of teenage girls in Fiji examined their attitudes around eating and body image just after television was introduced to the country, and then again three years later. Psychiatrist and anthropologist Anne Becker, currently a professor at Harvard, chose Fiji for several reasons: large bodies were considered aesthetically pleasing there, dieting and disordered eating were relatively unknown (there’d been only one documented case of anorexia in Fiji, ever), and the advent of television in 1995 offered a unique chance to explore its effects.

Becker and her colleagues saw profound differences in teen girls after Western television was introduced. Before TV, no girls vomited to control their weight, and few reported dieting or body dissatisfaction. Only three years later, 11 percent of the girls said they vomited for weight loss; 69 percent acknowledged dieting at some point, and a full three-quarters of them said they felt too big or too fat at least some of the time. As one 1998 study subject told researchers, “The actresses and all those girls, especially those European girls, I just admire them and I want to be like them. I want their size. Because Fijians are, many of us, I can say most, we are brought up with those heavy foods, and we are getting fat. And now, we feel that it is bad to have this huge body. We have to have those thin, slim bodies [on TV].”

Becker’s study was the first, and pretty much the only one, to explore how media affects eating behaviors and body image in a population. And given the sheer ubiquity of the internet and other media, it’s unlikely there will ever be another study like this. Her findings reinforce the idea that, as media scholars say, we’re living in a media panopticon, named for the giant Panoptes from Greek mythology who had a hundred eyes, some of which were always open. A panopticon is literally a prison building where inmates can be observed any time; because they never know when someone’s watching, they assume they’re always under surveillance. The arrangement is an architectural solution to the problem of how a handful of people can control a much larger group.

The media panopticon isn’t a literal construct, of course, but more of a context—the media context we all live in. The ideals and assumptions of the culture surround us, holding us constantly to those values and beliefs. We’re more apt to conform, internally as well as externally, when the cultural norms are reinforced everywhere you turn.

And boy, are they ever. The panopticon now extends deep into our everyday lives, thanks to smartphones and social media. Everything we say and do has the potential to wind up online, forever, without our consent, for all the world to see. Facebook is for the moment the most popular social network; the average American now spends forty minutes a day on the site—more time than we devote to checking personal e-mail. Then there’s Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Ello, and, no doubt, new platforms by the time you’re reading this. The way we consume and interact with social media has the power to affect the way we think and feel about ourselves as well as others. How exactly it affects us depends on age, gender, where we live, and a host of other factors we don’t understand yet. We know that for women, especially young women, time spent on social media is linked to lower self-esteem and body confidence, and higher levels of depression and loneliness.

We also know that platforms like YouTube and especially Twitter perpetuate what Wen-ying Sylvia Chou, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health who has studied obesity and social media, has described as “acts of toxic disinhibition.” She and her colleagues are referring to comments, “jokes,” rants about fat and fat people (especially women), and cyberbullying that tends to happen less often face to face or on more nuanced platforms like forums and blogs. “‘Fat’ has become this catchall word for all the various hot-button issues we as a culture are metabolizing and dealing with,” Chou told the New York Times.

New technologies bring the panopticon closer in other ways, too. At public bus shelters in Moscow, for instance, anyone who sits down to wait for a bus will get a rude surprise: his or her weight will be displayed in large numerals for the world to see, along with nutrition information and—wait for it—advertisements for the gym that’s sponsoring these so-called weighing benches. Some government officials clearly thought this was a good idea, and probably a lucrative one. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen here.

Of course, media and social media aren’t the only culprits. Plenty of real-life interactions reinforce the sense of being judged, watched, critiqued. Jason Seacat, a professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts, set out to explore how often women in particular experience these kinds of judgments. He asked fifty women, all of whom fell into the overweight or obese BMI categories, to keep a journal for seven days, recording every instance when they felt insulted, bullied, or judged for their body size. The women reported an average of three incidents a day—every day. Some of those involved inanimate objects, like turnstiles and bus seats that were too small. But many involved interactions with other people. One woman said a group of teenagers made mooing noises at her in a store; another said her boyfriend’s mother refused to feed her and commented that she was so fat because she was lazy.

Seacat was inspired to do the study after watching a group of teens at his gym loudly harassing a fat woman, who eventually gave up and left the gym. His findings shouldn’t come as a surprise to any woman, because body surveillance affects us all, whether it’s “positive” (catcalls, innuendos, public comments from men) or more like the experiences of the women in Seacat’s study. I’ve endured my share of humiliating experiences, including being barked at by a group of young men while riding my bike. Whether we’re young, beautiful, and thin, or middle-aged and overweight, or—let’s not mince words—old and fat, our bodies are fair game for anyone who cares to comment. And a lot of people apparently do.

Obviously we’re not in prison; we’re free to turn off the TV and step away from the smartphone. But to do that is to cut ourselves off. Our need to belong, to be part of our community, makes us vulnerable to the power of our culture’s ideals. Our need to compare ourselves to others, which in turn helps us survive and thrive in a hostile world, makes us susceptible to anxiety about every aspect of our selves, from how we look to how much money we make to how many friends we have.

 Excerpted from "Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It" by Harriet Brown. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Harriet Brown

Harriet Brown is associate professor of magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. The author of the award-winning "Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia," she has written for the New York Times Magazine, O Magazine, Psychology Today, and Prevention, among others. She lives in Syracuse, New York.

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