Diet and the Ideal

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One primary example of the role of media representations related to the construction of femininity is a focus on body weight. A current cultural phenomenon, which reflects cultural belief, is the focus on slenderness in females. Slimness is deemed desirable, the ‘ideal’ look particularly in Western cultures. This ideal is evident in almost every advertisement portraying and aiming at women. Thus, the media is often blamed for the increasing statistics of various eating disorders in today’s modern climate.

Whilst slimness hasn’t always been deemed desirable and feminine, thinness is not really a new phenomenon. In fact, women have always been obsessed with their body image, even in the earliest of civilisations where slenderness was portrayed as ‘ideal’. As a result, diet and exercise have long become as Yale psychologist Judith Rodin calls a ‘normative obsession’. So how and why have these ideals changed, been portrayed, accepted and more importantly employed?

Once upon a time, fat meant sexy. The rubenesque woman dominated the ideal female body image all the way up until the 1800’s. Extra weight on a females’ body with full breasts and voluptuous curves were all signs of good health as well as prosperity. In fact the ideal woman was more voluptuous during the Renaissance era then at any other time in history. Women’s full figures were the epitome of femininity and sexiness but by today’s beauty standards these women would probably, if not definitely, be deemed overweight and unattractive.

Ideas of the epitome of femininity and beauty in the Renaissance period shifted drastically upon the arrival of the Victorian era. Unlike Renaissance women, Victorian women were highly body conscious. Slenderness became the epitome of sexiness, beauty and femininity. Women wore inconceivably tight corsets and restricted their calorie intake, the smaller the waistline the better. Some women’s corsets were made up so tight women often had trouble breathing; some even broke ribs to achieve the impossible yet ‘ideal’ 12-inch waist! Layered petticoats, hoops and bustles were also employed to accentuate the women’s derriere, a reinforced sexual signal for rampant males.

These styles are also evident in an era long before the Victorians. Marie Antoinette (1755-93) was the French queen: wife of Louis XVI. Her extravagant lifestyle led to widespread unpopularity and like her husband she was executed during the French Revolution. All dramas aside, however, Marie Antoinette with her ivory complexion, fair hair and impossibly slender figure quickly became a beauty icon and feminine ‘ideal’: a look still relished today. Oscar winning director Sofia Coppola (Virgin Suicides) brought a fresh interpretation of the misunderstood monarch’s life in her film titled, ‘Marie Antoinette’. A small waist, small appetite and fairness were all deemed beautiful and feminine accentuated in this visual masterpiece. Thus, Marie Antoinette has remained to be a female ideal even in modern day and dieting continues to be a ‘norm’.

At one point we see Marie Antoinette resisting the urge to eat quite happily whilst her husband happily chomps away at his meal. Women at this time were expected not to indulge in food which had very positive connotations in the female character: strong will, modesty, high status and respect. The men were meant to indulge in food, a large appetite was deemed the epitome of masculinity whilst women were expected to resist and find pleasure in doing so. This is still common today. In fact, women have always had to eat differently then men throughout history: less and worse. Food and dieting, therefore, are not only linked to body image but to sex, relationships, politics, economy and position. Let’s first explore sex and relationships, Marie Antoinette being a prime example again of a phenomenon where food becomes the substitute for sex.

Marie Antoinette, as depicted in the film, had no sexual relationship with her husband for years at the beginning of the marriage. Whilst she maintained her impeccable dress and good looks as well as figure, Marie Antoinette was under much pressure and sexually frustrated. To release some of the pressure Marie Antoinette indulged in other vices: clothes, fashion, textiles and you guessed it sugary treats! Always a small portion but nevertheless. The film by Coppola is filled with sequences of Marie Antoinette and her friends indulging in sugar, spice and everything nice: chocolates, cakes and champagne! Eating chocolate in bed with her husband also becomes a nightly ritual, instead of actually fulfilling the deed.

We see Kirsten Dunst find immense pleasure in eating these treats; even the way she handles the food is elegant and affectionate, reflecting her sexual desire and frustration. Such traits are echoed in modern food advertisement whereby food can be seen to replace intimacy and romance but still hold the promise of achieving thinness. Even Dunst in the film, never over indulges, hence her minute figure is maintained.

Jean Kilbourne, feminist author and filmmaker, agrees and comments on how advertisers, especially in America, release sexual and suggestive adverts aimed at food and women in particular as if food is a replacement for intimacy. Women are often shown in ecstasy after taking a bite out of a sugary delight-yet at the same time we constantly see adverts for low calorie food. These low calorie items aim to help women loose weight but with the promise that the food is still delicious even when low fat. As a result whilst reaching for a tub of Ben n Jerry’s after a break up in modern culture is the ‘norm’ women are still made to feel guilty and find low calorie products to ensure their slender figure in untarnished. A recent advert by Muller shows how their new low fat range of products enables women to achieve both thinness and pleasure:

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