Emaciated Body Images in the Media

The pop culture industry's idealization of stick-thin body types has received a large amount of attention in recent years, especially due to increasing evidence that American women are less satisfied with their bodies than ever before. Eating disorders are commonly discussed in the U.S.A., and body image is distorted to the point that 45 percent of healthy-weight women believe that they are overweight (and many of those report being "on a diet"). The literature attributes a large portion of this problem to the extremely large number of airbrushed images of stick-thin models bombarding the American population every day. Considering that average model is 5 foot 9 inches and 110-15 pounds and the average American woman is 5 foot 4 inches and 138 lbs, none of this is very surprising (Rowland).

The issue has reached a point where even some fashion magazines have begun to publish articles condemning unhealthy-looking models, some even going as far as to employ "plus-sized" models. Hilary Fashion, North America's most popular online women's magazine since 1995, is an example of this new trend. In a recent article entitled "Obsessed with Thin: Has the Media Gone Too Far?" the author puts magazine covers featuring stick-thin models side by side with quotes from models and actresses testifying that the pictures are not realistic.

The irony in this idealization of an emaciated body image is that only a few centuries ago in Western culture, and continuing today in some non-Western cultures, a starving body was associated with disease and poverty. In every human population besides the one of rare overabundance in the contemporary Western world, to be fat was to flaunt one's wealth. The classic artistic representations of larger women by the seventeenth-century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) ("the Rubenesque woman") offered a very different body image that was equally idealized. His highly charged Rape of the Sabine Women represented exaggerated and sexualized female figures reflecting middle-class aesthetic norms of the day. In contemporary American culture, however, highly caloric food is inexpensive, and time has become far more valuable. Today, unlike in the age of Rubens, it is no mark of status for a woman to be able to be seen as (or to see herself as) overweight; to be thin shows she has money to buy the more expensive, lower caloric foods, as well as the free time to prepare it. Furthermore, few people can appear fit and thin without exercise, which takes up more time, and many forms of exercise require the luxury of a trip to the gym. The end result is that in the Western world, upper-middle-class women tend to be significantly thinner than women of lower socioeconomic status. The irony is that the "peasant" pictures of Flemish artists of Ruben's age, such as Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), do not reflect the exaggerated size of Ruben's idealized, erotic female figures. Thus, in his The Peasant Wedding, the festivities are presented without any reflection of exaggerated body types.

However, it is important to keep in mind that this phenomenon of a heavier lower class is confined to the modern Western world where food shortages are nonexistent. In much of the developing world, access to food is limited, leading to undernourished, thin people. However, overweight has also become a major problem in the developing world.

The greatest hypocrisy of all is that when Americans are bombarded with images of stick-thin models, they yearn to look like them, but foreign-aid agencies and news agencies use very similar pictures of people in developing countries for shock value. Fashion vs. Famine is a great contradiction in the world today, and one that has received surprisingly little attention.

SLG/Sarah Gardiner See also Celebrities; Developing World; Hornby; Media

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