The Thin Ideal

Anatomical Barbie by Jason Freeny

The Thin Ideal is the concept of the idyllically slim female body. The common perception of this ideal is that of a slender, feminine physique with a small waist and little body fat. The size of the thin ideal is decreasing while the rate of female obesity is simultaneously increasing, making this iconic body difficult for women to maintain. This creates a gap between the actual appearance of an average woman’s body and its expected appearance which, depending on the extent to which the ideal is internalized, may have serious psychological effects.

The degree to which women are psychologically affected by the thin ideal depends to what extent the ideal is internalized. An article from the ‘Eating Disorders Journal’ states that ‘thin ideal internalization is the extent to which an individual ‘buys into’ socially defined ideals of attractiveness and engages in behaviors designed to approximate these ideals.’ Women generally relate the ideally thin body to positive life outcomes such as happiness, confidence, and romantic success, and consequently a majority of women value the thin ideal to some extent.

However, it is important to recognize the distinction between women who are aware of the advantage of thinness versus those who internalize the ideal and make it a personal belief system. Although the idea of the thin ideal seems omnipresent, not all women identify with the ideal in the same manner and not all are affected by it negatively. For example, after seeing an image of a thin woman in the media, some women may fantasize themselves as thinner and more attractive. To some, this exposure to the thin ideal may make thinness seem more attainable and act as motivational factor in self-improvement.

Many studies have been performed regarding the effect of the thin ideal. Some of these indicate that after women are shown images of ultra-thin models, they experience psychological and behavioral features associated with eating disorders, such as increased anger, depressed mood, body dissatisfaction, and low self-esteem. The images had an immediate negative effect on the mood of the participating women. Another study demonstrated that positive associations made with underweight models frequently leads to weight-focused anxiety and an elevated drive for thinness, both of which are principal symptoms of eating disorders. Several longitudinal studies have suggested that internalization of the thin ideal is a precursor to body image dissatisfaction and unnecessary dieting in women of a healthy weight. As Evans stated in the ‘Psychology of Women Quarterly,’ ‘Women often feel dissatisfied with their appearance after comparing themselves to other females who epitomize the thin-ideal standard of beauty.’

A study by Mia Sypeck of The American University’s Department of Psychology examined the covers of the four most popular fashion magazines over the last fifty years. Several trends were discovered. Firstly, the body size of fashion models decreased significantly, indicating that the thin ideal has been shrinking in size. Secondly, there was a substantial increase of pictures depicting the entire female body, which suggests that society has been placing more value on the body of women. These developments show that the thin ideal may be more present, valued, and challenging for women to uphold in current times than in the past.

Contents of ‘thin-ideal media’ include the portrayal of thinness as a desirable trait, and protagonists in media are thin, exceptionally beautiful, desirable, and successful. According to the sociocultural model of bulimia, eating disorders are a product of the increasing pressures for women in our society to achieve an ultra-slender body. There are two components to the social comparison theory: Downward Social Comparison (comparison to others perceived to be less fortunate than ourselves) usually serves to enhance mood or self-worth; Upward Social Comparison (comparison to others we perceive as socially better than ourselves) usually leads to negative moods and self-evaluation. In order to attempt to measure women’s media-ideal internalization and comparison, researchers developed the Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire. Women with a high degree of internalization are more likely to use thin-ideal media images as an upward comparison target and consequently feel that they do not meet the thin-ideal standard of attractiveness. Women in the media are presented as having different roles in society depending on context and demographics. Television, magazines, and newspapers along with advertisements have a powerful and influential role in society, and women in the media are often role models for young, impressionable girls. Mass media affect dominant societal values and can influence the population. ‘Of the many variables thought to promote eating pathology, sociocultural factors are considered paramount.’

Studies have linked exposure to media that contain ultra-thin ideals to increased body-dissatisfaction, thin-ideal internalization, self-discrepancies, and eating pathology in young women. Sociocultural theory maintains that current societal standards for beauty emphasize the desirability of thinness, and thinness at a level impossible for many women to achieve by healthy means. Photo manipulation that elongates legs and narrows hips of already skinny models have harmful effects on young women because they compare themselves to those images. Idealized images also suggest that real women do not measure up to such presentations of beauty, and they cannot reasonably obtain such physical expectations. The standard media-portrayed thin ideal woman is about 15% below the average female body weight, ‘This ideal stresses slimness, youth and androgyny, rather than the normative female body. The thin-ideal woman portrayed in the media is biogenetically difficult, if not impossible, for the majority of women.’

Women’s magazines focus mainly on ‘domestic’ aspects of life, including marriage, child-rearing, beauty, etc. More than 75% of women’s magazines include at least one ad or article about how to change their physical appearance by diet, exercise, or cosmetic surgery. Twenty-five percent of the magazines contained messages regarding weight loss and dieting suggestions. Many women’s magazines focus on how to lead a better life by improving physical appearance, while men’s magazines provide information about hobbies, activities, and entertainment. When women are constantly exposed to ways to alter their appearance, they may over-internalize and feel pressure to look like the images they see.

The top modeling and fashion industries often embrace the ultra-thin appearance. A majority of elite models are approximately 20% underweight, exceeding the anorexia nervosa indicator of 15% underweight. Fashion models and modeling agencies are often blamed for the societal pressures that cause young women to develop eating disorders. Others argue that modeling agencies and fashion cannot be blamed for the disordered eating behavior of easily influenced adolescents. However, after several incidents in which models died from anorexia nervosa, such as the case of Ana Carolina Reston, several major fashion modeling events have adopted new policies to encourage healthy body weights. For example, Fashion Week officials in Madrid banned models with a body mass index lower than eighteen. Comparable guidelines have been adopted in similar fashion events in other countries, such as Brazil and Argentina.

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