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Caitlin Breen

Media Final


Changing the Beauty Ideal

The obsession with being thin is a growing epidemic that shows no sign of ending

anytime soon. Even with the help and use of plus-sized models in the fashion industry and larger

images of beauty in the entertainment fields, it is going to take time and much more effort to

transform our beauty ideal. The ideal that tells women that the thinner they are the more

beautiful and sexy they will be perceived. The crazy aspect of this idea is that most men don’t

even ascribe to it; it is women who judge themselves and each other by this ideal and push

themselves to emulate and resemble the bodies of teenage boys and starved anorexics. Men still

appreciate a woman with curves or even extra meat on her body, so who are we literally starving

ourselves and beating up on our self-esteem to impress?

The statistics are shocking when comparing the average woman to the model ideal. The

average American woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 140 lbs, while the average American model is

5’11” and weighs 117 lbs. The weight of the American model is around 20% below the average

body weight for height ratio. Estimates show that 40-50% of American women are trying to lose

weight at any given time. Almost 50% of all women smokers do so in an attempt to control their

weight, and it is my opinion that cocaine has begun to be used by younger women in the same

capacity. In a study done in 1999, the majority of young girls ( 66%) expressed a desire to lose

weight, only 29% of these girls were actually overweight. At the age of 13, 53% of American

girls are unhappy with their bodies (MomGrind). It is clear from these statistics that as women
we have developed a very warped sense of our own bodies. We judge ourselves much more

harshly than anyone else when we fail to measure up to the standards we see as body perfection.

The desire to reach this thin ideal is starting younger and younger for girls. “A

preoccupation with body image is now showing up in children as young as age five”(Zaslow). I

personally can remember feeling too big and thinking that I was fat beginning around age ten. I

look back at pictures of my stick thin body from that time and I am completely baffled that I

could have thought I was fat. Girls at ages that young are still growing and developing and they

doing so at different stages and times. They are beginning to compare themselves to their friends

and to girls and women in magazines or on television and if they come up short in that

comparison or feel that they look too different they are finding fault with themselves and

developing body image issues and low self-esteem. When I look back at my own development I

realize that I saw myself as fat because proportionately I was bigger than my friends. I was one

of the tallest girls in my class, which today I would revel in, but at the time just made me feel

bigger than all of my friends who were petite. This is not the right message to send out to young

women who are still developing and just learning how they should react to their bodies and how

the world is going to react to them.

Where does this need to compare and measure up come from though? It is not just the

work of advertising. As a society we have become so programmed to fit this thin ideal that the

ideal is perpetuated in every aspect of our lives. We are so entangled and entwined in it that

while we can recognize that this ideal is unrealistic and unhealthy and unnatural, we cannot stop

ourselves from wanting to follow it. As young girls not only do we witness the thin ideal

through models and entertainers but we also watch as our mothers, sisters, aunts and teachers

diet and aspire to reach this ideal. “Girls today, even very young ones, are being bombarded
with the message that they need to be super-skinny to be sexy, says psychologist Sharon

Lamb”(Hellmich). As a culture we have become so preoccupied and terrified with the prospect

of obesity that we have let our women starve their bodies and beat up on themselves emotionally

to avoid the fat. “The biggest problem in America is obesity. Both obesity and anorexia stem

from numerous issues, and it would be impossible to attribute either to entertainment, be it TV,

film or magazines” ( Hellmich).

So if we can’t just blame the skinny models and actresses that are thrust in our face

everywhere we look how do we go about rebuilding women’s self-esteem and confidence and

love of their bodies? We can start and have with the inclusion of bigger women in advertising.

Seeing plus-sized models flaunting fashionable clothes in reasonable sizes is one way to help

women develop a new sense of love for themselves and their bodies. Crystal Renn is one plus-

sized model who has spoken up about the pressure and unrealistic expectations of the modeling

industry and her long battle with anorexia. “I did everything: I didn’t eat, I exercised, but I

couldn’t make myself the shape they insisted on” (Hartmann). Seeing beautiful women who

don’t have perfectly flat stomach’s and zero cellulite is definitely helpful to the average woman’s

self-esteem and can be helpful in leading to the average woman embracing her own body.
Renn learned her lesson the hard way, suffering for years trying to force her body to look

and be a way that it was physically impossible to be. “Women come in lots of different sizes and

shapes, and we should encourage and celebrate that” (Hellmich). It is unfair to discriminate

against the bigger sizes and promote the self-loathing that comes along with being one of those

bigger sizes. Women should aspire to be healthy. I am in no way trying to promote obesity in

my quest to squash the model thin ideal. But women today go to unhealthy means to try and

force themselves thin. Women who know better and are aware of the pressure to be thin can’t

help but continue to attempt to reach it. I catch myself skipping meals and skimping on calories

in an attempt to be thinner. We always want to be thinner no matter how thin we are. Every

woman has had that moment of wanting to kill their skinnier girlfriend for complaining about her

weight. I have friends who are size two and when they pinch their non-existent belly whining
about how fat they are and that they need to go on a diet, while they pick up McDonald’s on a

regular basis, I want to wring their necks. But the bottom line is that even the skinniest girls

have body image issues, it’s pervasive and no one escapes it. The models that we view as

perfection do not feel perfect. “Body dissatisfaction, Dr. Brownell said, stems from two

assumptions, that a body can be shaped at will, so that the only thing that lies between any

woman and perfection is effort and that an imperfect body reflects an imperfect person”

(Duenwald). How awful that so many beautiful women are so dissatisfied with their appearance.

Women are fighting an impossible battle here though, because women who have no change of

ever achieving the perfection that they seek continue to torture themselves in the quest for the


This obsession with thinness is damaging to women emotionally and mentally as well as

physically. We know that we should take care of our bodies and eat properly but women are

afraid to eat for fear of getting fat. If we could just focus on trying to be healthy our emotional,

mental and physical health would improve. There really is no denying that eating well and

incorporating exercise into your day will yield a more attractive woman. Emme is another plus-

sized fashion model who has the right idea. “What I stand for is accepting your body type,

whether you are a size two or size fourteen, and then taking care of yourself with a balance of

exercise and eating really well”(Duenwald). This of course is much easier said than done in a

culture that has so idolized the skinny, waif look. It requires a letting go of preconceived notions

and a self-acceptance that not all women are capable of just yet. Saying that we should be

accepting of our own individual body type doesn’t make it so. Changing these notions of what

is attractive and what is not is going to take more time for most women and more positive
reinforcement from women who are embracing their size and looking and being perceived as


Another woman who is making great strides in promoting healthy living and embracing

your body at any size is Queen Latifah. She became a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig on the

platform of healthy living and not just weight loss to be thin. Latifah is a bigger woman who has

embraced her size and become really healthy for the right reasons. She has become a great role

model for young women struggling with body image issues. She promotes eating well and

exercising not to become super thin but to be healthy and have a healthy life-style.

Recent American Idol winner Jordan Sparks is another great role model for young

women fighting to embrace their shapes and body image. She is also young and peer that the
younger generation can relate to in a way that they can’t to older role models. Sparks

experienced low self-esteem and confidence during her adolescence but has grown confident

with her newfound success. “[She] says she has learned to ‘like my curves’ and wishes others

would learn to like theirs, too. ‘It makes me so sad. I wish they would put more real people out

there because not everybody is a size two. Hollywood needs to get over the stick figure”

(Rizzo). What will it take for Hollywood to get over the stick figure? Women need to stop

idealizing these unrealistic bodies and start promoting fuller and more normal figured women.

Not just bigger women, but women of all sizes need to be on magazine covers and playing the

lead roles on TV shows and in movies.

With big beautiful women embracing their bodies and calling for us to strive for health

and not just some unattainable thin ideal, it would seem that more women would be letting go of

the need to be thin. Unfortunately many women are still so programmed to this ideal and set in

their ways. A study done at Arizona State University on the effects of plus-sized models showed

that women’s self-esteem was actually lowered when viewing larger models. “The researchers

aren’t sure why the women reacted this way. One theory is that the ultra thin mannequins

represented a frustratingly impossible standard- while somewhat fuller-figured models were too

close for comfort to what the women thought of as their own less than perfect bodies”


So is there really just no winning in this battle? We can’t as a society keep chasing after

this thin ideal. Anorexia and Bulimia are plaguing women all over the world and it is due to this

ever present pressure to conform to an impossible ideal of beauty. We may never get to a point

where we are happy with our bodies, especially not all the time, but that is not really realistic.

There are always going to be days when we feel fat and don’t want to be seen in public, but
maybe over time it will be possible to have far less of those days and more days where we feel

beautiful and accepted. What really makes a woman beautiful is her confidence and the way

that she carries herself, so if we can increase our self-confidence and feel more comfortable in

our own skin maybe we can win the battle. The ideal body may continue to be the ultra thin,

stick figure look. However this does not mean that other images of beauty can’t be viewed and

appreciated along side it.

I admit that I ascribe to the thin ideal just like the next girl. I almost always think that

I’m a little too fat. But I also know that I’m too hard on myself. We all are. This picture above

that ran in Glamour magazine of Lizzie Miller created quite a stir amongst male and female

readers, most of whom reported loving seeing the image of a fuller, normal sized nude woman

and thought Miller looked beautiful. The editor Cindi Lieve describes how they chose this
picture for the magazine, “ We loved the look on her face, the joy in the way she was laughing

and the fact that she was not sucking her stomach in. The belly is a part of the body women

struggle with. Lizzie had an attitude that said ‘I don’t need to suck in my stomach; I am the

sexiest thing in the world just as is” (Miller). Lizzie’s own recollection of the moment this photo

was snapped is a little different, she doesn’t claim to have been feeling incredibly confident at

the moment, just caught in the moment joking around and looking uninhibited (Miller). Even

Miller had harsh thoughts when she initially saw the picture. Her reaction was “Aw man, why’d

they have to choose that shot? That’s not a flattering angle” (Miller). She also said that her

mind went right to her belly instead of looking at the whole picture. So even the model is meant

to represent the embrace of the fuller more natural figure had initial feelings of doubt and

discontent. This photo has made incredible strides in putting bigger women on the covers and

inside fashion magazines.

The problem with making the distinction between regular models and plus-sized models

is that it implies that there is something different about the two. Plus-sized models while they do

incorporate a wider variety of body sizes don’t include all women’s sizes. What we need is

models of all sizes. Models that are in between the sizes of the super thin models and the plus-

sized models and models who are bigger than the plus-sized models. A representation of every

shape there is would help women to embrace and feel comfortable with their own size. So maybe

this whole plus-sized, real person campaign that we have going on isn’t going to solve our

beauty ideal body image problem. But slowly it may chip away at, and little by little we may

inch our way to the light.

Works Cited

Duenwald, Mary. “One size Definitely Does not Fit All.” The New York Times. 22 June 2003.

Hartmann, Margaret. “Crystal Renn Battles Anorexia, Finds Success as ‘Plus-Sized’ Model.” Jezebel.

Web. November 10, 2009.


Hellmich, Nanci. “Do thin models warp girls’ body image.” USA Today. 26 September 2006.

J. S. “Experience Being Obese Gives Rise to New Ventures”. Workforce Management. 88.9 (2009): 24.


Keith, Amy Elisa. “Living Large”. People. 68.5 (2007): 63-64.

Miller, Marjorie. “Naked (Plus Size) Truth About Model Lizzie Miller.” Los Angeles Times. 21, September

2009: 1B. Print.

MomGrind. “Women and Body Image: Ten disturbing facts.” MomGrind. MomGrind. 28, Jan. 2009.

Web. 2, Dec. 2009.

Neporent, Liz. “Ads that Subtract”. Prevention. 58.7 (2006): 40.

Rems, Emily. “Danger, Curves Ahead”. Bust . 46 (2007): 66-67. Print.

Rizzo, Monica. “I Like My Curves.” People. 67.23 (2007) web.

Shafrir, Doree. “An Appetite For Success.” The Daily Beast. Web. Novemeber 10, 2009.
Stoller, Debbie. “Big Primpin.” Bust. 52 (2008): 6. Print.

Zaslow, Jeffrey. “Girls and Dieting, Then and Now.” The Wall Street Journal. 2 September 2009: web.