“Given that this belief system pervades our culture, why does it affect women so much more than men? Why do more women than men suffer from eating disorders, obesity, and distorted body image? Why are women, not men, at war with their bodies? There are many reasons, some more obvious than others.

One reason is biological. Standards for males simply are not as extreme or as inimical to normal masculine body builds as are women’s standards. Indeed, our female ideal violates the anthropomorphic reality of the average female body. The ideal female weight, represented by actresses, models, and Miss Americas, has progressively decreased to that of the thinnest 5-10% of American women. Consequently, 90-95% of American women feel that they don’t “measure up.”[1] Societies have never been kind to deviants, but in America a statistical deviation has been normalized, leading millions of women to believe that they are abnormal.

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In addition, the taut, lean, muscled body–the “fit” form so many strive to achieve–is more like the body of a male than of a female. The goal is to suppress female secondary sexual characteristics, from dimpled flesh to plumpness in thighs, behinds, hips, and bosom. Women consequently are pitted in a war against their own biologies to meet the standard.

It is not just biology that confounds women. They strive to meet this unreasonable standard because it has become a moral imperative in our society, and because, despite a quarter-century of feminism, the quest for physical beauty remains deeply powerful. On even a practical level, women’s self-image, their social and economic success, and even their survival can still be determined largely by their beauty and by the men it allows them to attract, while for men these are based largely on how they act and what they accomplish. Looks simply are of secondary importance for male success.

But the impulse toward beauty runs much deeper than the desire for social acceptance and success. Beauty and fashion are intertwined, and women try to meet unreasonable weight standards also because fashion–our system of dress–requires them to do so. Though many have castigated fashion as a shallow and frivolous vanity, it is propelled by profound impulses, which it shares with all dress systems. Dress and adornment are basic to all human cultures. Even the most primitive tribes find ways to decorate the body. The overwhelming importance of dress is underscored by the fact that from the moment we slip out of the womb to the moment of our deaths, we alter our natural appearance. How we choose to dress is a complex cultural phenomenon. Clothing and adornment are simultaneously a material object, a social signal, a ritual, and a form of art. Every facet of a society–from its economic base to its social structure, from its values about human beings and their bodies to its loftiest spiritual and aesthetic ideals–influences the forms and rules of dress. Each culture sets up its own rules, and in following them, people defer to and perpetuate fundamental social values and norms.

In obeying fashion’s dictates, we are bowing to powerful constraints about self-presentation and about how others should interpret our attitudes, behavior, and identity. The enormous time and energy women (and men) devote to it is simply another of civilization’s many demands and, possibly, pleasures. For in dressing, in following fashion, we are engaged in a game, a plastic art, a process whereby we partially create ourselves. We are involved in a social and private play of the profoundest type–trying to transcend our uncivilized, animal state, to make ourselves human. Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, argued that “We derive such dignity as we possess from our status as art works.” Fun, fantasy, humor, artistic creativity, and our deepest aspirations exist in the dress constraints of everyday life.[2]

Fashion, the dress system of the West, has, however, taken a rather peculiar twist in recent decades–one that helps explain our body obsessions. Fashionable beauty is no longer about the clothes covering the body, but about the naked body itself. This has not been true before in the history of fashion. Fashion is, as we have seen, a plastic art. Although it would be foolhardy to describe the past as Edenic, it nonetheless is true that fashion has traditionally been a handmaiden to beauty. It allowed people to approach the reigning ideal by manipulating cosmetics and clothing–that is, by manipulating what they put on themselves, not what they were underneath those clothes, stays, girdles, and so forth.

By the late 20th century, however, women’s bodies, which heretofore had never been exposed to the public eye, virtually became wholly exposed. With the introduction of the miniskirt and teeny tops, women’s legs, thighs, and upper bodies were suddenly revealed, bereft of the aid of body-shaping undergarments. The fitness craze and the growing liberalization in censorship and in acceptable norms of nudity intensified the trend.

By the 1980s, even fashion magazines showed naked or leotarded bodies more than they showed clothing. The undressed body–the bare bones of being, celebrated as liberating and “natural”–had become the focus of fashion. No longer did a woman have the luxury of manipulating only what was outside her body, the “not me”; now she had to manipulate her self, the once private stretches of the body.

This new, “natural” look could not really be liberating, because fashion is antithetical (almost by definition) to nature, so stringent standards began being set for the now-exposed form. Suddenly, the average American woman became aware of flaws she never knew existed; pronouncements were made about how every private crevice of her anatomy was to look. Women consequently ran smack into a dilemma between the naked and the nude.

The art historian Sir Kenneth Clark argued that the nude is a form of art; the naked is merely the human body undressed, replete with all its flaws and blemishes. The naked becomes the nude through art, with the artist transforming that humble and flawed form into an ideal of beauty.[3] Yet today, bombarded by verbal and visual commercial images of the nude, women have been seduced into believing that they should–and could, with enough effort–have one of those perfect bodies. They expect the image reflected in their mirrors to look like the nude. It almost never does. And so they renew their battle against their recalcitrant bodies.

Changes in the structure of fashion contributed further to the battle: No authorities put brakes on the urge to meet the slender ideal. This, too, was new in fashion’s history. Although there has always been considerable harmony among standards of feminine beauty, health, and the gestalt of an era, excesses of fashion were heretofore severely criticized by social authorities, including doctors, teachers, and clergy, parents, and, since the 19th century, feminists. The clergy and moralists, in particular, stressed that there were values more important than outward appearance; that the soul and one’s deeds mattered, not fashion standards; that, in the words of the old adage, “Pretty is as pretty does.” In the late 20th century–at least until alarm about eating disorders spread–all these authorities, especially physicians, seemed to agree that one could never be too thin. This unholy alliance between societal and fashion authorities allowed the vogue for thinness to go to extremes.

Even contemporary feminists have been slow to resist the slenderness fashion. They were initially seduced, perhaps, by its underlying message that biology is not destiny. Even more, the rhetoric of the slenderness ideal–that health is beauty and beauty health, and both are fit and thin–may have persuaded them. They applauded the fact that physical strength and health were now feminine ideals. It took a while for them to realize that what was sought, what had become ideal, was merely the appearance of health and vigor–and that dangerous means were being used to achieve it.

Despite the historical uniqueness of these developments, some rather cruel historical consistencies remain. More stringent bodily controls are still required of the female than of the male. Animal-like functions, such as belching, nose wiping, urinating, sweating, scratching, spitting, masturbating, farting, and even body odor, remain less permissible for women than for men. In the male subculture, unlike female subcultures, there is an acceptance of and a certain humor about these behaviors, which sometimes become the subject of good-natured contests. Men simply are permitted to be more comfortable about natural functions and to exhibit them to a greater extent in public. They do not compromise masculinity; rather, they often confirm it. Women, on the other hand, compromise their femininity if they do not control these behaviors. The same discrepancy applies to diet and body size: Women are expected to manage these even more stringently than men. Similarly, as long as control of appetite and body weight is regarded as virtuous, women must exercise this control more than men. Once again, women are expected to be the custodians and embodiments of virtue for the culture.”

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From pages 8-11 in Seid, Roberta P. 1994. “Too “Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness.” Pp.3-16 in Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, edited by P. Fallon, M. A. Katzman, and S. C. Wooley. New York: The Guilford Press. [From the section “Why Women More Than Men?”. Bolding and links not in original, italics Seid’s. Seid’s references reproduced below.]

[1]. Although exact figures on this subject remain elusive, many sources confirm this general trend. This percentage was suggested by Rita Freedman, Beauty Bound (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1986), 149, but it is corroborated by other sources. I studied statistics of Miss America contenders with data for the earlier periods from Frank Deford, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America (New York: Viking Press, 1971) 313-316, and from Miss America Pageant Yearbooks, 1972-1983, and found a dramatic slenderizing trend. For more details, see Seid, 1989, Chapter 10. For a study of a similar development in the Playboy centerfolds, whose average weights dropped from 11% below the national average in 1970 to 17% below it in 1978, see Paul E. Garfinkel and David M. Garner, Anorexia Nervosa: A Multidimensional Perspective (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1982), 108-109, and D. M. Garner, P. E. Garfinkel, D. Schwartz, and M. Thompson, “Cultural Expectations of Thinness in Women,” Psychological Reports 47 (1980): 483-491. On the rise of an emaciated ideal in the ballet subculture, see L. M. Vincent, Competing with the Sylph (New York: Andrews & McNeel, 1979). Jennifer Brenner, professor of psychology at Brandeis University, and Dr. Joseph Cunningham recently reported the results of their study comparing the weights of New York fashion models and Brandeis students. “Female models are 9 percent taller and 16 percent thinner than average women,” Brenner reported in an article by Lena Williams, “Girl’s Self-Image Is Mother of the Woman,” New York Times (National Edition), February 6, 1992, A1, A12.

[2] Nietzsche’s statement is quoted in Steele, 1985, 245. For a fuller theoretical discussion and bibliography on the role of dress and adornment in human culture, see Roberta P. Seid, The Dissolution of Traditional Rural Culture in Nineteenth-Century France: A Study of the Bethmale Costume (New York: Garland Press, 1987), 1-45.

[3] Clark, 1956, 3-9. [Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956), 3-9.]

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