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?
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.