For the first time, to advertise my yoga business, I got lots of professional yoga photos taken this year. I thought I had developed body-acceptance through my yoga practice and personal development work, but when looking at photos for inspiration I was still overwhelmed by how thin the models were and some of my old feelings of insecurity resurfaced. I don’t look like those women. Thankfully my hippy photographer, Alan Thomas gave me a reality check and reminded me that I am simply a ‘human doing yoga’ as I like to point out and I decided to stop worrying about whether my stomach was round and I had love handles and we just got creative. I’ve since been trying to purposely notice if I reject a photo if it’s not the best angle and post the video or photo anyway. The whole thing got me thinking about this ‘thin ideal’ that is portrayed whenever people are trying to sell something to women (yes, even yoga) and more importantly, how we change it.
The thin ideal
A study by the American University’s Department of Psychology found that the body size of fashion models has decreased over the last fifty years, indicating that the “thin ideal” has been steadily getting thinner. The study also found that there were more pictures showing the female body, suggesting that even more value is being put on the way the female body looks. (1)
The images of the female body portrayed in the media have been linked to body dissatisfaction, depression, obesity and extreme dieting. (2) Society’s standards for beauty emphasize the desirability of thinness at a level impossible by most women to achieve in a healthy way.
A recent survey carried out by Edelman Intelligence for the 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report (3) found that only 46 per cent of girls globally had high body esteem, while the figure was even lower in the UK (39 per cent). Of the countries included, only China and Japan fared worse.
Seven in 10 girls (nine out of 10 in the UK) with low body esteem told the researchers they stopped themselves from eating or otherwise put their health at risk.
What size is thin?
“In fashion modelling, girls should be at least 5ft 8ins tall (1.73cms) and proportionately around 34-24-34 (chest-waist-hips)”. (The Association of Model Agents)(4).
According to a report by Bluebella lingerie, the average UK woman in 2017 is 5ft 5 inches and a size 16 (US size 12), with a 34 inch waist (5).
A 2016 report by the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education found that the average US woman is actually size 16-18 (UK size 18-20), with an average waist of 37.5 inches (6).
The proportions of fashion models when they are natural and healthy are the exception and not the rule. When they are not natural, they are not healthy and are achieved by semi or complete starvation that can have fatal consequences.
Thankfully due to the deaths of several models in the early 2000s, the European size 0 (US size 00) has been banned from many fashion agencies and labels. However, sadly, many top modelling and fashion industries still embrace the ultra-thin appearance.
A majority of elite models are approximately 20 per cent underweight, exceeding the anorexia nervosa indicator of 15 per cent underweight. (7)
Researching this article, I looked at pictures of Eliana and Luisel Ramos who died aged 18 and 22 respectively; seeing their emaciated bodies and sad faces broke my heart.
When did the thin obsession begin?
According to Sarah Lohman (8), dieting began in America after a Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham began preaching about a plain, abstinent diet for women as the key to health and morality, stating that: “Spices, stimulants and other overindulgences lead to indigestion, illness, sexual excess and civil disorder.”
Then in the 1860s the teachings of William Banting put forward the idea that corpulence (obesity) is a physical disability and his teachings set the stage for a nationwide plunge into anti-fat obsession.
Lohman also proposes that the loss of the corset (over detrimental health concerns) left women without a means to “rearrange their fat” and dissatisfaction about their body shape.
The industrialisation of the fashion industry meant that everything came in sizes and women were able to see what sizes other women were and thus began the body comparison game.
The increase of people taking jobs without physical exertion and the fact that they had more access to mass-produced food meant that Americans and Europeans gained weight, and obesity became a First World, Western problem. On top of that, we discovered ways to quantify health by naming and measuring fats, proteins, calories, vitamins and minerals and we developed the personal scale to finish us all off.
Ignorance is bliss but progress means we cannot go back.
Why do women care?
The truth is, most men don’t really care about our stretch marks, cellulite and fatty bits, they do care if we are too embarrassed to be naked. They don’t care what dress we are wearing, but they do care if we are uncomfortable and unhappy.
I recently put out a post that included a photograph of lots of curvy women looking totally awesome. It got a lot of positive engagement – mostly from men. So if they don’t care, why do we?
As usual, it comes down to the science bit.
Humans are set up to procreate as much as possible to keep our species alive, like all species. With other species one of the sexes will display their attributes to the other. Humans are unusual because sexual selection affected both sexes but apparently did more work on females than on males. Women’s insecurities about their appearance are driven by competition with other women. We see this quite clearly where women wish to be more slender than men find attractive (9).
Genetically, we want to beat our competitors even if this is not what our conscious intentions are. Again, this is where we are unique from other species – we have conscious, rational (I think) thought processes. So that once we understand the reasons behind something, we can choose to do something different. For example, genetically, men probably still have the instincts to kill competitors, yet manage to reason that it is not necessary.
How do you find body-acceptance?
Two things helped me to find self-acceptance: Gok Wan’s “How to Look Good Naked” and yoga, in that order, several years apart.
Gok Wan made women look at themselves and find something beautiful about their bodies. He showed them how distorted their own self-image was and then made them feel and therefore look beautiful. In the end they strutted their ass down the catwalk feeling, and therefore looking fabulous.
Be brave. Look in the mirror at your body and find things to love about it. If you can’t love it yet, accept it the way it is now. Look at other women loving their curves and their wobbly bits and be inspired.
Yoga helped me to really understand what is going on with my mind and my body as it is happening. I listen to my digestive system. I think about how wonderful my body is and about everything it does for me is. I have learned that patient practice leads to amazing strength, flexibility and achievement. I have learned to accept my self, my body and the life I am living.
Our bodies are incredibly complex, astoundingly intelligent organisms that are with us from birth until death and that are capable of incredible feats. Try and think about how wonderful our bodies are!
Stop kidding yourself on about what your body looks like now, what a realistic goal is for you and what you are prepared to do to achieve it. If you are not taking care of yourself by eating too much or too little, stop bullshitting yourself. Your body will give you lots of signs when something is not right – listen to them.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is the diet and/or exercise regime I am considering something I would be comfortable doing the rest of my life?
- Is a life without cake worth living?
- Do I know how the food I am eating makes me feel during and up to several hours afterwards physically and emotionally?
- Are the things I am doing out of love and respect for my body?
- Is anyone around me worried about my health?
Focus on what you want to feel about yourself and what your body can do as opposed to what you want to look like and you will find that feeling confident, healthy and worthy are all achievable goals and that so many things fall into place when you feel those things. Do whatever work you need to stop judging yourself and therefore other people. Stop talking to yourself negatively.
Place this work way above following any diet plan or exercise regime or you’ll constantly be chasing a fantasy.
How do we change the ‘thin ideal’?
Social media and buying power.
We have a newfound freedom to choose what we see, so make a conscious effort to follow and look at women of all different shapes and sizes on social media and in any form of media you watch or read. Our eyes can see all different kinds of women as beautiful by looking at them showing us their beauty. Like, follow and endorse products that reflect the diversity of women internationally.
If you haven’t came across her yet, have a look mynameisjessamyn, showing the world that you don’t have to be skinny to do yoga, do it expertly, and look beautiful. With several hundred thousand followers, this badass yogi is earning money teaching yoga and endorsing products. She just graced the cover of Yoga Journal, a magazine often criticised for its use of thin, white models.
While the advertising and publishing industries are full of images of women that are what they think are our ideals, social media, blogs and vlogs (when you look properly) are full of ordinary people who are showing us their own unique beauty. Just have a look at Megan Jayne Crabbe aka BodyPosiPanda and watch her jiggling her beautiful body all over the shop.
Let’s show each other and our daughters images of women who are confident and sexy but who are also curvaceous or different than this ‘thin ideal’.
Let’s get rid of any kind of body ideal and stop judging – that means people you think are skinny too – chances are they are feeling all of the insecurities you are. So no, it’s not ok to say, “Look at that skinny bitch” or “Why do you need to go to the gym, you are so skinny.”
Let’s show the world that we want authenticity; we want to see people rocking their individuality so that we can learn how to rock our own.
You can start right now. Support magazines that champion women of all sizes and that don’t criticise and body-shame them. Buy clothes from companies that are using different sized models. Check out some of the Instagram accounts below and look at them from a place of non-judgement and see how that helps you to see your own beauty.
Here’s a few I Instagram accounts where women are rocking their own bodies and their own personalities:
- Denise Bidot
- Emma Breschi
- Megan Jayne Crabbe
And while you are at it, use the opportunity of social media to get curious about women of different races, nationalities and skin colour than you. This is a diverse world we live in – open your eyes to it all!
“The beauty you see in me is a reflection of you.” (Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi)
- Sypeck, Mia F., James J. Gray, and Anthony H. Ahrens. “No Longer Just a Pretty Face: Fashion Magazines’ Depictions of Ideal Female Beauty from 1959 to 1999.” International Journal of Eating Disorders (2003): 342-47.)
- Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia; Josselyn Crane (March 2011). “A Losing Battle: Effects of Prolonged Exposure to Thin-Ideal Images on Dieting and Body Satisfaction”. Communication Research. 39: 79–102. doi:10.1177/0093650211400596.)
- Girls and Beauty Confidence: The Global Report – The 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report – https://www.unilever.com/Images/dove-girls-beauty-confidence-report-infographic_tcm244-511240_en.pdf
- British Fashion Model Agents Association – https://www.bfma.fashion/what-it-takes-to-be-a-model/.
- The Changing Shape of Women article by Bluebella – https://www.bluebella.com/blogs/news/changing-shape-of-women
- Average American women’s clothing size: comparing National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (1988–2010) to ASTM International Misses & Women’s Plus Size clothing (Deborah A. Christel and Susan C. Dunn – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17543266.2016.1214291.
- (Brown, A.; Dittmar, H. (2005). “Think “Thin” and Feel Bad: The Role of Appearance Schema Activation, Attention Level, and Thin–Ideal Internalization for Young Women’s Responses to Ultra–Thin Media Ideals”. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 24 (8): 1088–1113. doi:10.1521/jscp.2005.24.8.1088.)
- Sarah Lohman(“historic gastronomist” and the author of Four Pounds Flour) at a lecture at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on January 24 2012. https://www.livescience.com/18131-women-thin-dieting-history.html
- Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance: Secrets of the sexual brain. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.