Diet and the Ideal

Kilbourne states, “Sex within marriage, for procreation, was acceptable while sex for pleasure was a sin; women make the same distinction today between eating to sustain life and eating for pleasure. The double standard in which men have greater oral licence. A sexually unchaste girl was ‘fallen’; women ‘fall off’ regimes. Women ‘cheated’ on their husbands; now they ‘cheat’ on their diets. A women who eat something ‘forbidden’ is ‘naughty’: ‘It’s just for tonight she’ll say’.”

Not only is this unhealthy relationship with food worrying its also controlling. When’s the last time you saw an advert for low calorie food aimed at men? Men are free to eat what they like and it’s been that way for centuries. Remember King Henry VIII? He’s robust belly reinforced his power and strength; food was never an issue, always a pleasure.

‘The Beauty Myth’, Naomi Wolf’s best-selling 1990s feminist manifesto on the ways in which female behaviour is constrained in the pursuit of “beauty”. In chapter 6 of Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ entitled, ‘Hunger’ she explores how dieting and what is deemed beautiful has been framed for certain purposes-essentially Wolf believes to keep women under control by imprisoning them in their bodies. Dieting in women is a form of control in a male-dominated society, “…hunger teaches us how to erode self-esteem. If a woman can be made to say, “I hate my fat thighs” it is a way she has been made to hate femaleness” (p.197)

But ‘fat’ is actually essential to femininity, fat is female as Wolf implies. According to Wolfs’ statistics girls have 10-15% more fat than boys. At puberty male fat-to-muscle ratio decreases as the female ratio increases. The increased fat ratio in adolescent girls is directly linked to sexual maturation and fertility. The average healthy 20-year-old female is made of 28.7% body fat which by middle age can increase to 38%. Fat means fertility, which is necessary for reproduction but what’s more it also means desire. Researchers at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago found that plumper women desired sex more often then thinner women.

Starvation affects the endocrine glands; amenorrhea (irregular periods) and delayed puberty are common features in starving women. Anorexics and bulimics have such strong body hatreds, they lose all interest in “pleasures of the flesh” writes Roberta Pollack. They are pre-occupied with being thin, hunger, fatigue and irritability and so sex is no longer on the agenda. Thus, women who are deemed larger are more content, have active hormones and therefore have a healthier appetite for sex. Virginia Woolf believed that “one cannot think well, sleep well, love well if one has not dined well”. Surely then a voluptuous body, which denotes health, sexual appetite and femininity should be the most ‘ideal’ image for people to follow. Enter the beloved and tragic Marilyn Monroe.

As I’ve already evidenced the conflict between big and thin has been apart of our cultural understanding of femininity since the dawn of time. However, in the 1950’s the rise of Hollywood bombshell Marilyn Monroe warmed us to the idea of curves being the ‘ideal’ body image for women. In the 1950’s advertisements not only promoted diets and slimming down but also for putting on weight. Granted an advert for “ironized yeast” still has the objectifying tagline “gives thousands of sex-appealing curves” but it does show a fuller woman looking cheerful and content in her larger frame. According to Kendall (1999) Marilyn Monroe was a size 14, a size, which was adored and envied throughout her career. Women were encouraged to wear tight clothes and constructive lingerie all to accentuate their natural and feminine curves.

Despite, Monroe’s curves being celebrated and often noted as beautiful and healthy in modern day she would still be deemed ‘too large’ by today’s Hollywood standards. With the exception of a few celebrities, we only see size 0’s and size 4’s on our televisions, magazines and billboards. Maybe its hypocrisy or maybe its fear that if consumers see a fuller natural sized figure in advertisements, companies would see a decline in their profits for dieting products? Either way the curvaceous Marilyn was set aside and replaced by more waif-like models that would alter our perceptions of body image for the long hall.

Twiggy first appeared on the pages of Vogue in 1965 but advertisers at the time introduced the model with anxiety. Her thinness, now commonplace, was shocking and broke new boundaries. This was no Marilyn! Women, however, fell in love with the doll-like model and researchers saw an instant change in women’s eating habits and perceptions of their body. According to Wolf, between 1966 and 1969, two studies showed, the number of girls who thought they were too fat had rose from 50 to 80%. The exposure of Twiggy is could be argued had a direct impact on women’s expectations of the ideal female body. Thinness was deemed beautiful, Twiggy the ideal. Twiggy paved the way for waif-like models to conquer fashion and women’s minds alike which have had terrible consequences. Below are some statistics on the effects advertising featuring thin women have on women:

  • 69% of girls in one study said that magazine models influence their idea of the perfect body shape.
  • Exposure to the “ideal” body images has been found to lower women’s satisfaction with their own attractiveness.
  • The average U.S. woman is 5’4” and weighs 140 pounds whereas the average U.S. model is 5’11” and weighs 117 pounds.
  • 44% of women who are average or underweight think that they are overweight.
  • 30% of women chose an ideal body shape that is 20% underweight and an additional 44% chose an ideal body shape that is 10% underweight.
  • In a study 47% of girls were influenced by magazine pictures to want to lose weight, but only 29% were actually overweight.
  • Girls who were already dissatisfied with their bodies showed more dieting, anxiety, and bulimic symptoms after prolonged exposure to fashion and advertising images in a teen girl magazine.

Contemporary standards of feminine beauty have now developed to the point that can only be described as anorexic and young women are paying the price through the near epidemic of bulimia and anorexia. One source has estimated that around 80% of women are dissatisfied with their bodies (Katz, 2004). However, according to Kilbourne, “Only 5% of American women look like the thin models with the “ideal body shape” yet it exclusively is all we see in advertisements.” And the typical model weighs 23% less than the average woman.

The problem is that if we are surrounded, which we are, by this one, thin, ideal body weight it pushes the idea onto women that this is the only and most natural body to have and if we don’t have it we are simply not trying hard enough. Body image is an important part of self-identity as well as self-esteem. If we are constantly bombarded with images of the “ideal body”-which not to mention is completely unrealistic and unattainable-it’s no real surprise that these images affect women in a damaging way. The Eating Disorders Association estimates that about 165,000 people in the U.K have eating disorders. The ‘ideal’ body has become smaller and thinner-not to mention photoshopped and surgically altered-and the only image consumers see in advertisements, media and fashion are models and women with a BMI that would place them in the anorexic category. Models themselves even encourage damaging behaviours, which is extremely worrying.

Kate Moss is known for having an excessively thin body and has further perpetuated standards of extreme thinness. The heroin chic trend came about in the 1990’s, darkened eyes and emaciated appearance was the desirable look, a look that Kate Moss inspired. Moss quickly became one of the most famous faces in the world, still modeling and dominating our much-loved brands even today.  And I’m sure we have all come across her famous motto: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”.

Her infamous quote is often seen on various ‘thinspiration’ websites, shared and adorned by young girls in their endless pursuit of skinny perfection. These websites are filled with countless skinny women flaunting their jutting hipbones and angular limbs, instilling guilt and insatiable longing in the viewer. Images of a skinny Kate Moss can be seen again and again as well her damaging quote. The idea that “nothing” tastes as good implies there is no excuse for eating food no matter how delicious and tempting it may be-if you fail, its your fault, you are to feel ashamed and you are to blame only yourself. Thus, women feel bad if they don’t look as thin as these famed ‘ideals’ or have a love of food, “A moment on the lips”.

Cutting girls down to size is a means of silencing them-they take up less room and less of a voice as Wolfs convincingly suggests, “The anorexic may begin her journey defiant, but from the point of view of a male-dominated society, she ends up as the perfect woman. She is weak, sexless, and voiceless, and can only with difficulty focus on a world beyond her plate. The woman has been killed off in her.” (Beauty Myth p.197)

Advertisements portraying and aiming at women are everywhere. The constant bombardment of the same women such as the emaciated face and body of Kate Moss, make women grow an unhealthy self-hatred and an unrealistic image of perfection. As stated before, the women in these advertisements weigh 23% less than the average women, yet are exposed and used more and more in modern culture. The media forces women to think badly of themselves to ensure that we continue to buy the products they are selling. If women feel beautiful and comfortable in their natural skin, diet and beauty products profits would plummet. Thus, advertisers have to create an illusion of perfection, which women cannot help but buy into.

Overall, in modern western cultures a slender figure is the epitome of femininity and beauty. However, the construction of the emaciated bodies, which bombard our day-to-day lives, is extremely unnatural and unhealthy. The women depicted in advertisements do not honestly reflect real women, nor do they come with a warning which states: THIS IS A LIE, nor are we made to recognise that these images have been altered and perfected through post-image editing. No one looks like the ‘ideals’ being portrayed. Once upon a time, curves and fat were deemed most desirable, hence why advertisers were anxious to introduce Twiggy with her painfully skinny physique. However, it was we who saw Twiggy and wanted more and more. Can fashion and advertising really be blamed then? Are the fashion industries really just supplying us the hungry with the images and ideals we crave?

Either way, thinness dominates our culture, hence why so many women have eating disorders, diet product sales are at an all time high and fitness regimes have become a daily activity. Thin means beauty and femininity but as I’ve come to find, it is not natural. It has been carefully cultivated over time, perfected through advertising and editing, which has resulted in us women whether consciously or unconsciously to follow the regimes, ideals and products in order to achieve it. Thus, being thin, unless obviously naturally thin, really can be argued to be an act of drag.


Wolf, N (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. Vintage. 179-192.

Kilbourne, J (2002). Killing Us Softly 3 Advertising’s Image of Women. Northampton, Mass, Media Education Foundation (2012) Women’s Issues [online] available from <> [18 February 2014]

Brown, S (2013) Media & The Ideal Body Image [online] available from <>[18 February 2014]

Dumn (2005) Dissatisfaction with bodies [online] available from <>%5B18 February 2014]

Healthy Place (2008) Eating disorders: body image and advertising [online] available from <>[18 February 2014]

Carpenter, C., & Edison, A. (2005). Taking It All Off Again: The Portrayal of Rowland, H.

Obsessed with thin: has the media gone too far? [online] available from < statistics>[online] available from <>%5B18 February 2014]

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