I can remember, many years ago when it was age-appropriate, reading an article in Seventeen Magazine. It was memorable, I suppose, because it was the first time I recall feeling a sense of outrage at the less-than-subtle suggestion that I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t look like the model on the magazine cover. I had been through a doughy phase at around 13-14, but I was back to a normal weight by 16. But still, I was a 16-year-old girl.
The article directed, “Stand in front of a full-length mirror naked. Frankly assess any less-than-perfect parts.” Excuse me? Did you just, actually, advise an entire class of the most obsessed-and-critical-of-their-bodies humans (teenage girls) to scrutinize every inch of those bodies, and judge them against a standard of perfection? Is this the article that launched a thousand eating disorders?
The Relentless Message That You’re Not Thin Enough
With a few well-meaning hiccups like the “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty” and Tyra Banks’ complaint that even her thighs had been airbrushed smaller for an ad, the media has been presenting us with unrealistic “standard” images for decades. It is incredibly ironic that the web address campaignforrealbeauty.com has been abandoned by the Dove folks and purchased by, you guessed it, a weight loss program. Sigh.
I’m not the first to point out that equating skinny with beautiful is a 20th-century concept. The painting above, Rubens’ Venus at the Mirror (1615), shows a vastly different standard of feminine perfection. Now I admit, Rubens was famous for liking some meat on his women, but art pretty much up to the 20th century depicted nude women as anything but skinny. The damsel in Millais’ Knight Errant (1870), below, looks a lot like me. A LOT. In fact, only the sure and certain knowledge that I was not alive in 1870 assures me that I didn’t have one too many and pose for it in a weak moment.
Somewhere between about 1910, when women had chucked their corsets and bustles and remembered what their bodies actually looked like, and the deprivations of the First World War and the 1918 Flu pandemic, women just got skinnier. Then the fashion houses started designing for that shape, and the new Hollywood cultural machine made it the look. And we, unfortunately, have never looked back.
The thing I find oddest in today’s world is the idea of implants. Butts and boobs are made almost entirely of fat, so women who starve themselves down to a size zero find that they no longer look like women. But instead of embracing the bean-pole look like our flapper forebears did, they have surgeons stick bags of fluid inside them to put back the lumps they dieted off. C’mon girls, eat a cookie and save yourself $15,000 and the risks of general anesthesia. Sheesh.
A New Message
So here’s my anti-Seventeen suggestion. After a nice, relaxing hot bath or shower, towel off and look at yourself in a full-length mirror naked. Not bad, huh? A lot of us forget that the rolls we notice and get depressed about when we undress at night are created or at least enhanced by the elastic in our bras and panties and the waistbands in our clothes and pantyhose. (Don’t get me started about those hideous sports bras and spandex cycle shorts The Biggest Loser has the women wear at weigh-ins.) The rope around the waist of the bound damsel is definitely accentuating her tummy pooch. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.) Give your body a chance to erase those “squish” lines and you may find that you don’t look nearly as bad naked as you might have thought. Consult your significant other– it might lead to an interesting evening.
If you look in the mirror and your first thought is still “Michelin Man,” it’s time to talk to your doctor. Studies continue to support the idea that carrying weight around your waist is an indicator for serious health problems. I know I am fortunate that owing to a certain Latin heritage, I put most of my excess weight in my rear (where happily, I don’t have to look at it very often). If you wear yours like an inner tube, you need to “woman up” and address it. Your doctor is the place to start; you may end up with a diet and exercise program, but there may be thyroid or other endocrine issues in play. Healthy first, shapely second.
“Perfect” has always been, and always will be, an unattainable standard. Not only does it change with the fashion of the day, but with the advent of PhotoShop, Perfect is now more than ever something completely unreal. Until some Matrix-esque future time when we’re all just lumps in a tube and our body images are avatars programmed inside a computer, we can’t look however we imagine. So it’s time we approach our naked selves not from the “God, my thighs are huge” end of the ratings continuum, but from the “If I were a guy, I’d tap that” end. Men are remarkably uncritical when presented with a slightly damp naked woman, and it’s about time we were, too.