Why are so many of us still so desperate to be thin?
With ninja-like stealth, the Barbie movie knocked unsuspecting cinema-goers out of their seats with some serious feminist messaging this summer.
But there one was one scene that really struck a nerve – and created memes-a-plenty – as America Fererra’s character Gloria spooled off the many impossible double standards faced by women.
One in particular felt jarring – especially in the face of today’s body positivity movement: ‘You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.’
Such a statement showed that no matter how hard we’ve worked – and are still working – to help women embrace and love the skin they’re in, the message is falling miserably short.
So, why are will stil hung up about being skinny?
Sophie Hughes is now in her thirties, but says she spent most of her teenage years and twenties desperate to be thin and battling eating disorders.
Her ordeal began when she was just 13 and got her first boyfriend.
Feeling the heady rush of love and excitement typically associated with someone’s first crush, Sophie was keen to spend as much time with him as possible – and that included lunch breaks.
Previously, the teenager would sit with all her friends in their form room, happily eating and chatting. But for some reason, Sophie felt an innate sense of shame to be seen eating in front of her new boyfriend.
So she started skipping lunch. She’d still sit with her friends in her form room, just without her packed lunch astride her lap. No-one thought this was odd. But for Sophie, things escalated. She started skipping dinner, ignoring the crying pangs of hunger from her protesting stomach.
‘If I ever ate, I would punish my body afterwards,’ Sophie, now 32, explains to Metro.co.uk. ‘I could never be small enough. If I wasn’t as slim as I could possibly be, I wasn’t lovable. I really believed that.’
Sophie’s attitude followed her well into her late 20s, with huge levels of reconditioning needed for her to stop hating her body.
However, her story is far from unique, with many people (women in particular) recognising the unexplained urge to be slim when it’s not their natural body shape.
While curvier bottoms and brazilian buttlift surgery (albeit paired with a tiny waist) might have boomed in the last decade, recent conversations have done a u-turn focusind once again on ‘heroin chic’ – the extremely thin physique popularised by the models of the 1990s.
It may be easy to dismiss the language around women’s bodies as unimportant, but the impact of seeing certain body types lifted and celebrated cannot be ignored.
UK GPs have recorded a razor sharp rise of teenage girls in the UK developing eating disorders during the coronavirus pandemic, with eating disorder support charity BEAT reporting a 300% increase in calls to its helpline during that period.
However, you don’t necessarily have to look at the extreme end of disordered eating to see the impact a slimmer idealised body shape may be having on young girls and women. Research from This Girl Can found 45% of women are worried about showing their body while getting active in the summer.
Michelle Bliss has been dieting on and off over the years and found herself turning towards the weight loss drug du jour, Ozempic, after reading about its growing popularity on social media.
The medication is only available in the UK to control Type 2 diabetes, and only prescribed for those with a body mass index of 30 and over. However, it can also can be acquired fairly easily off-prescription from online pharmacies.
While it’s been rumoured that many celebrities are prolific users, others have spoken openly about trying the medication to lose or maintain weight. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has publicly said he injects the drug, while former Prime Minister Boris Johnson also confessed to using Ozempic to curb his frequent ‘cheddar and chorizo’ fridge raids.
‘I went to an online pharmacy,’ Michelle, 28, tells Metro.co.uk. ‘They asked for a BMI and a picture of myself, and it was posted to me. I was on and off it for around four months.’
Having always been quite petite as a child, as well as exhibiting eating disorder tendencies, Michelle says she noticed a change in her body after having a baby.
She had previously tried quite extreme diets to drop the pounds, including juice cleanses and one particular regime that saw her only eat six boiled eggs and a few apples a day.
‘I initially wanted to lose the mum pouch,’ she explains. ‘I put more pressure on myself as I always had a smaller frame.’
However, it’s when Michelle’s mother passed away last year that she noticed a significant change in her weight.
‘I used to be really active, eat well and go to the gym,’ she says. ‘But then I became quite sedentary. I wasn’t exercising as much. I didn’t have the motivation – I was grieving. I was staying at home and eating. In the space of three months, I went up 15kg. I had no clothes fit me. I’m two dress sizes bigger. That’s when I went on Ozempic.’
Staying on the drug was difficult though. While Michelle lost around 5kg, the medication’s side effects, which include vomiting, nausea and fatigue, made it hard for her to keep working on top of being a mother.
‘I’ve come off it now as it just didn’t work, she says. ‘It drains the life out of you.’
Michelle, who works as a personal development coach, admits that like most women she’s still after the holy grail of a quick fix to help keep the weight off – and is open to other options such as a gastric balloon. Although she wishes life wasn’t like this.
‘It’s hard to get out of the mindset that has taught us being slim equals success, acceptance and attractiveness,’ she explains.
‘We’re like sheep. If everyone around me, from celebrities to real life, were bigger then I would be happier going up a size too. But it’s the norm to just want to be like everyone else – so while the majority of us are still desperately trying to be slim, that’s not going to change. We are literally being influenced by other people in every aspect of our life, not just on social media.’
While the thin ideal may seem like it has always been the most coveted body shape, historically this hasn’t always been the case. In the 17th and 18th century, artists depicted the ideal woman as curvy and voluptuous, with the term Rubenesque entering the lexicon after Peter Paul Rubens’s numerous depictions of fuller-figured women.
‘Idealised body shapes have changed throughout history,’ explains counselor and psychotherapist Cate Campbell. ‘Being pale and large was once a sign that someone had enough money to eat and avoid outdoor work. Not much more than a century ago, body shape was still created by clothes (think puffy sleeves, voluminous skirts and corsets), but after World War I, when women began entering the workforce and participating in sport, clothes became less restrictive and more revealing of body shape.’
Slimness as the ‘ideal’ became increasingly popularised in the 1920s onwards, with the growing availability of mass media and marketing. According to a study published in the journal Sex Roles in 1986, the bust-to-waist ratios among women featured in the magazines Vogue and Ladies Home Journal dwindled by about 60% between 1901 and 1925.
The study reads: ‘Such findings would constitute empirical support for the hypothesis that the mass media play a role in promoting the slim standard of bodily attractiveness fashionable among women.’
While popular media has been influential in how we perceive our bodies, Cate adds there’s additional psychological pressures for women to remain petite.
‘We’re all aware that food and fashion are money spinners but, because women are still socialised to be caring and helpful to others, we feel guilt and shame about appearing to be more interested in ourselves and what’s sometimes perceived as gluttony,’ she explains.
‘In my work, I see many couples where both partners believe they should work hard at keeping in shape – and, therefore, desirable – for the other. Keeping in shape and being fit also projects an ability of control. For many people, being out of shape can mean slovenliness and lack of willpower, which is really not the case and this societal construct around body image needs to continue to be challenged.’
It’s easy to pin the blame on social media, especially as one study published in 2017 found a direct link between Instagram usage and increased symptoms of the eating disorder orthorexia nervosa. However, we’ve long been yearning to be thin way before the World Wide Web struck.
The infamous diet culture of the 80s introduced us to the cabbage soup diet andads asking if you could ‘pinch more than an inch?’, while in the 90s it was the norm for magazine covers to scream ‘drop a stone in six weeks!’ or ‘lose that belly!’
Even when we entered a new millennia, we remained under the spell of fad eating regimes, with The Special K diet being another Kellogg’s case in point – something currently being dragged by Gen Z on TikTok. Established in 2004, the cereal makers promised that women could drop a jean size in two weeks by swapping a meal with a bowl of cereal.
However, as social media arrived from just around the corner, it brought with it a viisibility never experienced before – and with that the beginnings of a newfound acceptance of differing body types.
Even so, more than a decade on from the advent of Insta, the body positivity movement is still fighting an uphill battle.
According to psychiatrist, aesthetic doctor and body specialist Dr Galyna Selezneva, the blame for many’s inescapable desire to be thin lies at the door of both Hollywood and the fashion industry, thanks to ‘decades of imprinted messages’ that skinny is sexy.
‘The most common size in the UK is a size 14 to 16. But there is still this idea that skinny is fashionable, acceptable,’ she says. ‘When the reality is just that a smaller body needs less work creating a garment.’
Howeverm Dr Selezna admits there is a deep societal misunderstanding around weight and health. ‘From a medical perspective, fat is light, muscle is heavy. If anything, we should be looking at the scales and thinking we want to increase muscle weight, to become stronger and get more functional benefits,’ she says. ‘But still we see weight increase as a negative.’
Dr Selezneva adds thatthe age-old message of ‘if you want to be a successful, career driven woman, somehow you had to be skinny’ is being perpetuated today by filters on social media.
‘Just as people want to appear to have smooth skin, they want to appear smaller,’ she says. ‘There must be a reason why a tech company has decided to make a filter to make you look thinner. Why would they even think about it? Even they are driven by this trend.’
However, Sophie Hughes believes social media can be used to encourage positivity and hope amongst its younger userbase.
Unlike the mass media of the early aughts, social media can be curated and tailored to each user’s needs. Removing more toxic body images, and replacing them with more positive role models, is something she found helped her change her attitude towards her own body.
‘We have to take responsibility,’ Sophie explains. ‘For me, social media transformed the way I see my body. It also destroyed the way I saw my body when I chose to follow smaller bodies with toned abs. But when I flipped that and unfollowed people who made me question my self-worth, and started to follow inspiring people who are so confident in themselves and took charge, my social media is positive, inspiring and diverse space.
‘It can be used for so much good for women to support and encourage each other in the body positivity space if that’s what you choose it to be.’
Sophie, who now works as a curve model, also goes into schools to speak to teenagers about developing a positive body image.
‘We’re having more conscious conversations about it. I think that’s how any change comes about,’ she continues. ‘No one came into my school and spoke about body confidence, it just wasn’t a thing. The fact we’re also seeing more diverse bodies amongst brands, even if they are accused of “box ticking”, is important. We’re slowly seeing people being represented. It may be slow, but things are changing.’
Whether the desire for the thin ideal will ever truly go away is uncertain. For Michelle, who worries about her own daughter, she hopes people will learn to love their bodies and accept what they look like regardless of size.
‘I always encourage my daughter to be accepting of her body and be happy with herself,’ she says.
Meanwhile Sophie says we should be moving towards body neutrality – simply being at peace with your appearance – in a bid to help women shake off the burden of generations of body hang-ups.
‘When I first started looking at body positivity, I thought it was about learning to love every inch of myself,’ she explains. ‘I’ve come to the point where it’s about just living a peaceful life without thinking about my body too much.
‘It’s about being in a space where I genuinely grasp that my body is the least interesting thing about me.’
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