The Invisible Woman and the Thin Ideal

I doubt there is a single woman in the U.S. who hasn’t felt the need to be thin at some point in her life. The bombardment of thin ideology is impossible to escape. What’s worse, it’s being sold to women under the guise of having something to do with health, finding its way into children’s commercials like the Sketcher’s ad for girls in which their shape-ups keep Heidi fit so that the boys will follow her around to adult ads promising practically the same thing.

The reality is that the thin ideal has nothing to do with health.

The thin ideal is all about the dress size. Exercise is marketed to slim the body down. Foods are marketed for the ability to make a person lose weight instead of for their nutritional content.

It’s this thin ideal that drives people to criticize an Olympic athlete  for being “fat” and obsessively speculate about the few-pound weight gain of celebrities while ignoring the very serious and dangerous weight loss of models.

It’s the thin ideal that makes plus size models (and for the record, plus size in the fashion industry is now anyone size 6 or above) all but invisible in media. The only time they’re not invisible is when their “largeness” is being focused on—an anomaly of being comfortable with a body that doesn’t fit the thin ideal. Think about it. Do you ever see plus-size models on the cover of fashion magazines when their weight or body size is not the focus? When was the last time a female protagonist in a movie was anything but thin? For that matter, when was the last time a female background character was anything but thin?

While we’re on the topic of models, let’s not forget that even the “thin” models are photoshopped to be thinner… that is, if the body is even real.

The thin ideal sets an impossible standard, and it’s used to sell women products they’re told that they absolutely must have in order to achieve this impossible standard. It’s a marketing tool.

But it’s so much more than that too.

In one of my earlier posts, I pointed out how modesty is a tool of the patriarchy to keep women objectified. In a similar vein, I believe the thin ideal is a tool of the patriarchy to keep women invisible.

On the literal front, the thin ideal goes hand in hand with other gender norms—demure, dainty, delicate, frail, fragile. Being thin literally prevents women from taking up too much space or from being too obtrusive. The physical taxation on the body ensures that women remain weaker and in need of a “big strong man” to protect them. Morever, it pressures many women to choose to be weak because working out and eating healthy can cause a form of weight gain. A healthy weight is still too big for the thin ideal.

On a more metaphoric front, the thin ideal keeps women’s accomplishments and abilities invisible. By placing so much important on the body’s appearance, the thin ideal diminishes the importance of pursuing intellectual accomplishment, which means fewer women are a “threat” to men in cerebral fields. And if a woman says “fuck it” and breaks away from the pressure of the thin ideal, her accomplishments are still safely obscured by drawing attention to her body and its perceived flaws, thus people are more concerned with Ashley Judd’s “puffy” face than with her kick-ass activism and with Sandra Fluke’s sexual appeal than with what she has to say.

Lastly, the thin ideal keeps women invisible to themselves. When everything, including exercise and food, is marketed based on its ability to make a woman attractive to others, it becomes far too easy to forget that the body is the vehicle through which we live. Exercise shouldn’t be about keeping a firm butt and flat abs because that’s what others (e.g. men) want, it should be about keeping the heart healthy and the muscles strong so that women can experience life. The thin ideal distances women from their needs and desires for the sake of matching up to an arbitrary (or perhaps not so arbitrary) standard set by an obscure “other.” We’ve come a long way from the days when people thought a woman’s uterus would fall out if she exercised, but we have an equally long way to go to allow women to reclaim their bodies for their own use.

It’s time to change the conversation. We need to replace the thin ideal with a healthy ideal–one that acknowledges the body diversity that exists and that takes the focus off of a beauty standard that requires bad health to achieve. Women need to claim their right to care for their bodies’ needs for reasons that have nothing to do with anyone else. Women need to claim their right to take up space.

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9 thoughts on “The Invisible Woman and the Thin Ideal

  1. J Elisabeth says:

    Amid the change in conversation, let’s focus on the fact that a diverse range of body types are healthy. Some women, like me, are naturally skinny and not Photoshopped. Being called unhealthy, unnatural, or unqualified to participate in health/weight discussions can hurt my feelings and encourage unhealthy habits just as much as being called “fat” might hurt someone else.

    • I would never suggest that you aren’t able to participate. I have no desire to demonize women who are naturally small. Weight shaming is wrong whether it is a critique of large women or small ones. But if we can begin to focus on healthy ideals, I think size will matter much less. The problem isn’t being small; its the pressure that all women should be even when achieving that harms them.

  2. Lisa says:

    I actually spoke with a gentleman a day or two ago who was worried about his wife running, because it might cause “things to fall out”. The myth is still alive.

  3. beingmade says:

    Are you familiar with the book Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon? If not, I think you’d appreciate it. It changed my life. I’m still struggling on the road of being healthy and on replacing the old tapes of “fat = unhealthy, and unworthy,” but her ideas and the ideas of other health at every size advocates have been really freeing for me. I love your thoughts here.

  4. I love how you ended this, “Women need to claim their right to take up space.” Wonderful post!

  5. Cynthia Howell says:

    I am finishing my Master’s work in Addictions and Compulsive disorders such as eating disorders. I really appreciated your post and your comments about how advertisers keep us (women and men) chasing an the illusive ideal. They actually capitalize on and facilitate anxiety because that is what sells products. Fear and uncertainty has us looking for answers and so many are willing to pay any price in order to feel safe. I read that after 9-11 the sale of junk food skyrocketed! No wonder. People ran to the only safety nets they know. By the way, the most common eating disorder in the USA is binge eating disorder, which also has a lot to do with anxiety. Different personalities are at risk for differently disordered eating. Thanks for emphasizing that we should be focusing on heart health (the inside) before body shape and that staying healthy means we get to enjoy LIFE!

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