Why’s Anorexia the Feminine Ideal?

adriana-limaModeling scouts are now recruiting at eating disorder clinics.

Or as  Katy Waldman at Slate’s XX Factor spelled it out:

Modeling scouts—known for weighing young girls in public like cattle and targeting down-and-out families, but perhaps not for exploiting the life-threatening delusions of sick teenagers—were gathering—in the plural, so more than one person thought this was okay—outside of Sweden’s largest eating disorder clinic.

Agents say they’re seeking “healthy, normally slim women” and “never urge weight loss.” Yet one girl who was approached was so frail that she needed a wheelchair. And they’re all hospitalized.

On never urging weight loss, Waldman muses, “The eating disorder will do all the urging for you!” Indeed, about 40% of models are eating disordered.

Anorexic-thin is unnatural and unhealthy. About 1/5 of anorexic girls and women die.

Next, the models will become even more unnatural-looking as implants are inserted into their chests.

Now add photoshop to complete the other-worldly look.

Why would a sickly, does-not-exist-in-nature look be used to model feminine beauty?

A couple of things could be happening.

As women gain equality in status and opportunity, images of men and women are changing in ways that exaggerate their natural physical differences. By nature, men have  more muscular bulk. And men’s images in movies, professional wrestling, and magazines like Men’s Health – not to mention boys’ toys like G.I. Joe – have gotten more muscular over time. Meanwhile, images of women have grown thinner and frailer. At the same time, women’s breasts have gotten bigger, exaggerating another sex difference.

But there is also a profit motive. With an impossible ideal, people will spend endless sums trying to attain it through diets, exercise, gym memberships, surgeries, miracle bras, fashions that create optical illusions, and plenty of magazines to tell you all about all the stuff you can buy.

So in the interest of heightening a sense of gender difference and selling product, we create a very sick feminine ideal.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 1, 2013, in body image, feminism, gender, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 38 Comments.

  1. Athena Clark

    It’s very sad how fashion institutes and modeling agencies will create this idea of the perfect body, a completely unrealistic, unhealthy look that they essentially encourage other women to try and accomplish. It puts this idea in women’s head that they are not good enough, feeding to their insecurities, and setting young girls up to develop eating disorders, pushing them into a depression, and becoming so fragile that they can’t even live their every day life anymore. I see more and more full figured women in the modeling world, but it’s still not being normalized the way it should be, because that’s exactly what it is, normal. Stretch marks, cellulite, love handles, should not make a woman feel less beautiful because of stereotypes created by the media. Of course, you should do your best to have a healthy lifestyle, keep a balanced diet, whatnot, and to just be average is great.

  2. I have to recommend this documentary called “Girl Model”– it’s available on Netflix right now, actually. It’s about this outsourcing company from Japan that sends scouts to find young models in Eastern Europe. Most of these girls are extremely poor and end up indebted to their agencies after returning from abroad. The young girl the documentary followed was a 13 year old named Nadia, and the whole experience just really changed her. There were all of these crazy rules about your body– like if you gained an inch on your waist the agency could send you home over a violation of contract. The craziest part though was watching the auditions… It was like 100 little, tiny girls in bikinis being prodded and examined like farm animals.

  3. It is sad how women are forcing themselves to get skinnier and skinnier while men are making themselves get more bulk and buff. I feel like it is a double standard. Big bulky women are looked at as abnormal and super frail men are thought of as weak. I think that both genders should be accepted no matter how they look and that they should not have to alter their physical appearance so much; women starving themselves, and men spending hours in the gym. If we were not so set in our ways it would be acceptable for both genders to look however they chose to and everyone could be happy in their own body. If you look at a magazine, you will almost never see a frail man or an incredibly buff woman, because for some reason that just does not fit up to our society’s standards.

  4. I think a more interesting question would be “why do people think men find supermodels attractive?”

    Obviously this doesn’t represent a scientific study, but my quick straw poll of my friends – male and female, ranging from 20 to 28, slightly conservative to very liberal – all said that women with a decent amount of weight on them were more attractive than supermodels.

    It’s obviously a (relatively) recent trend – take a look at the models of the 50s and 60s. Blatant role discrimination aside, the “attractive” women were actually healthy-looking. They had *gasp* visible body fat!

    I see some of the points above about creating an impossible ideal. You’d think that at some point people would realize the goal is unobtainable.

    Or maybe I’m giving humanity too much credit.

    • People think this because:

      1. The Victoria’s Secret Angel television special always gets high ratings from men.

      2. Victoria’s Secret models marry successful, handsome men.

      3. Women often don’t know that men often do want something different from that — because “skinny + big boobs” are the images that are “modeled” for women.

      4. I have tried to help women know that not all men want these unnatural looking images by posting articles like these:

      Men’s Mags Celebrate Varied Body Types
      Can A Small-Breasted Woman Be Sexiest Woman Alive?
      “Fat Actress” Is Most Desirable Woman
      The Plump Beauty Ideal: Exotic Dancers in 1890

      • Most male-orientated magazines with women as models in them, such as the swimsuit ones, and porn have women with more “meat” on them than the ones you see in fashion magazines. Swimsuit models tend to look athletic with toned muscles, low fat but still a stronger body whilst fashion models tend to be low on muscle tone AND definition. Women in porn tend to be swimsuit model size or bigger, still low fat % (but enough to smooth over hard-defined edges of bones and muscles) but the body shape, amount of muscle tend to be larger. I have seen far far far far far far far more adult women in porn who look like everyday adult women I see than I have in fashion magazines, swimsuit models less common than those in porn but still pretty common (the beachs here have plenty).

        Fashion models tend to be teenage or very petite bodies, many from Eastern Europe I believe and they also tend to look more like people in high-school. Funnily enough the most diverse body shapes, sizes, types that I’ve seen have been in porn. It’s damn near impossible to find many larger fashion models yet very easy to find them in porn. It’s pretty sad that porn (especially porn for men) has a wider variety of women than fashion models whom are there to be seen largely by women. I am at a loss to understand this huge disparity especially since you’d make a hell of a lot more money making clothing that fits a wide variety of women vs 5% or less of the population.

      • It’s the fashion models that women are more likely to see, and see more often. So they have a bigger effect on what women come to believe is attractive.

        Again, an impossible ideal has been created so that women will have to buy a ton of products to try to fit it.

  5. Nikko Jackson

    The media alone is already hurting these women enough with there adds about how women need to look, why is it in out society today that we must follow a trend of someone other than ourselves. Women perceive bone thin as sexy when in reality I don’t know one man that likes a women so skin they look like a skeleton with skin. It should be illegal for agents/modeling scouts to look for women to model at eating disorder clinics. We use photoshop and all types of other illusions to make the world see what they want the world to see, so why are they encouraging sick women to lead a life of misery???

  6. i’m sick of these beauty ideals! i say they should be torn up so people could learn to love who they are ,rather than aspire to be a cardboard cut-out! viva la difference!

  7. Nataliya Naumova

    First of all, I do not understand why people have exaggerated image of a human body and like this unnatural result so much that try to reach it. I do not get it. Maybe, it is something wrong with me, but I do not like neither current female standard of beauty, nor male. Fem standard is too “model,” thin and high. Male standard is too brutal, unreal mass of muscles. In my opinion, both standards promote unnatural and unhealthy body image. I think women are more beautiful and attractive when they don’t try to look like a model, when they have curvy lines of body and average fem height like celebrities of the past, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren or like some current celebrities such as Beyounce. This look is more feminine than a look of “alive dummy.” What about guys, I think to have a lovely smile, average musculation, and kind eyes, is more important than to have serious face and over-musculation. Remember beautiful guys of the past, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley. I still love them! Of course, because of music too)
    Archy is right. There is small number of naturally thin girls. I know three of them: my mother, her girlfriend and my girlfriend. All of them are different age, got different occupations, but what is common is that they feel shame of a body. My mother’s girlfriend is a really perfect example of a current beauty standard. She is thin, tall and naturally got a big breast. Nevertheless, she doesn’t like her body. She is hardly trying to get some weight, even though she already has given a birth for two babies!
    I think women should remember where is current beauty standard from. It came from podium. It’s from model business, where you need tall and thin young women for certain purpose. You need a tall woman in order people on a fashion show could see a dress from a distance. You need a thin one because professional cameras got this strange trick, when they add a weight to a object. Thus, thin object is distorted by the camera and looks thick than the original one. Women should remember that model business and podium are not a true life.
    What about this story on taking patients from hospitals for working in agencies, it is awful and even inhumanely. It is time to switch beauty standards and celebrate the body that you have. Magazines with advices about your look should promote in-nature-exist standards. I really want to see more curvy models on the pages of Cosmopolitans or on pages of monthly catalogues of VS. Current fem beauty standard actually hurts more women rather than helps to love and value their body.

  8. This is a very interesting topic that doesn’t get the attention it should. I hadn’t realized that the mortality rate for girls with anorexia was so high! What is even more unfortunate is that the age of these girls keeps getting younger each year! Young girls are being targeted by the media and this impossible to achieve body type at extremely young ages. Corporations target girls at a young age because this is when they are most impressionable and vulnerable. They are trying to find their identity and they want to desperately be accepted and liked by their peers. These girls get bombarded with images of what they are supposed to look like without realizing that it is nearly impossible to ever achieve that look. It is truly disgusting that profits outweigh the health and lives of young girls and women in the eyes of the large corporations.
    More light needs to be brought to this problem and we need to, as a society, support responsible advertising of companies. We need to support companies who advertise healthy women as the ideal to follow, not sickly anorexic women who are being exploited. I know this is very difficult, but certainly not an impossible task.

  9. Chimaechi Ahanotu

    I think this is an excellent topic because it is all too current. The media is getting bigger and bigger everyday and becoming people voices. It brainwashes everyone (especially) the younger generation to think, act and look a certain way. Teenage girls are already wearing things like “push-up” bras and “thongs” to achieve what they believe is sexy. They see a new ad for the new Victoria’s Secret Ultra plush push-up bra and immediately crave it thinking without it they won’t fit in or guys will not find them attractive. I do agree that some models are “naturally” skinny with natural notes that are played up; however, most you can tell are not naturally skinny. I am a naturally skinny female, however there are some things that don’t look natural on models. It’s as if they are “sculpted” like marble to perfection. Their waist knows just when to curve and has the perfect curve and their skin is flawless. I think anorexia is more of a hush disease, seen as not as important or dangerous because of how the media has played up the fact that skinny is sexy. The sad truth is that sex does sell, but I believe it’s gotten way out of hand for anyone’s control.

  10. This just sickens me that they did this! There is so much pressure on women these days, why make it seem that if you have an eating disorder, you too, can be a model? What does that say? It says that we are so set on the skinny ideal that we don’t care how we get it. I read a lot (and I mean A LOT) of fashion magazines (have an obsession with shoes and such) and I’m always astonished at how skinny some of the models are. I have lost over 110 pounds in the last 2 years and am now at a place where I am happy/healthy with my size, but even now at a size 10 (was a size 26), I’m still considered plus size? What? I worry, especially with a soon-to-be teenage daughter, that the magazines/media do not present women the way they “really are.” The true ideal of a woman should be someone who is happy and confident with who they are, not what the media expects them to be.

  11. Rohan 7 Things

    Great post. I especially like this: “But there is also a profit motive. With an impossible ideal, people will spend endless sums trying to attain it through diets, exercise, gym memberships, surgeries, miracle bras, fashions that create optical illusions, and plenty of magazines to tell you all about all the stuff you can buy.”

    As long as advertising and the media can keep us insecure and unhappy with our bodies they will provide work for countless people in the clothing, health and “beauty” industries. But they never stop to ask whether they are doing real harm in order to sell product. Very sad.

    Thanks for sharing!


  12. Maciel Chavez

    It’s sad that this issue has been an ongoing problem for decades, not only for women but also for men. There is all this social media involved that it is affecting and influencing young adults. All you see on magazine or on runways are models that are either too skinny or very muscular and toned ( the men). All these women are getting implants, tanning, etc. they are changing their entire look for something that is so unhealthy not just physically but mentally. It’s terrible that social media constantly feeds us with images of this so called perfection, that we possibly may want. It’s just not right that one should completely lower their self esteem to be this perfection.

  13. Julina Pohyar

    I love this article! This is a huge issue today and has been in the past. Many women today try to look like the models on the front of a magazine or in a movie. But in reality, even the models themselves don’t even look like that. All of this mass media is influencing the next and the next generation of young women and young men. Men are hitting the gym more than they probably ever have and women are spending fortunes on liposuction, Botox, diet plans, tanning, etc. But why are they trying so hard? Women and men are constantly feed this image of what the ideal “woman” and “man” should look like. There are so many advertisements on billboards, buses, perfumes, and colognes. Some of my friends that are 110lbs are trying so hard to lose weight before the summer. But all of this is media pressure.

  14. I can’t believe that this modeling trend of looking unhealthy and sickly is still around. I can’t believe that people would alter their bodies and put themselves in such dangerous situations, however I 100% know that people do. There are people who are naturally very small, I know a couple of them, but many are not. I have a problem when people unnaturally try to force themselves to meet these standards. Of course what it comes down to is how the clothes look and because of this the designers are going to gravitate towards those who will wear their clothing best, meaning the tall and slender ones. As we all know there is a big difference from being thin and being too thin to the point of being unhealthy. Everyone wants the “perfect” body, but in the modeling world perfect is taken to the extreme. For them, the ideal perfect body appears in the shape of a frail, sickly figure. Because many young girls find the life of a model to be glamorous and fun, this picture they are presenting can cause a lot of problems with body image. Girls want to live that life and want to look the same, not always understanding how it can be harmful to their overall health. Designers and agencies don’t care about the health of their models, they care about what is going to make them a profit. The fact that scouts are looking for potential models from eating disorder clinics only proves this point. This is completely ridiculous and is creating such a negative portrayal of the healthy human body. I for one know I would love to see healthy happy models up on the runway, in magazines, etc, and not ones who are taking drastic measures to stay under 100 lbs and standing tall at about 5’10”. I honestly can’t tell you what clothes are being modeled if the model is so skinny it actually scares and saddens me. All I can focus on is the weight.

  15. My belief of how anorexia is becoming the feminine ideal is because of how the world has been brainwashed by gender related stereotypes. Our textbook notes that definitions are building blocks of theories and even stereotypes. The definitions starts triggering by making assertions about what is normatively valid, making it either true or false (Women’s Realities, Women’s Choices. New York: Oxford UP,2005. Print, pg. 49). It is from one of the many gender based stereotypes, in which an uneducated person in our society may believe, the notion that women are objects of sex. To a certain level, models have become more pressured over time to meet those standards of those aspects of stereotypes, and especially with modeling agencies. The feminine ideal has become falsely skewed over time, generating young women, particularly models, to make their choices to either become a person that our society wants them to be (anorexic), or to become the person they can, and truly be. The modeling agencies also look for skinnier women because of what is “accepted” in our culture and society, and better sex appeal makes consumers want to buy because unfortunately, sex indeed does sell.

  16. Your post is really interesting as well as it hits all the main points in modeling agents. It’s sad how designers are designing clothes that are so small that no one but anorexic people can fit into. Who are the designers trying to sell their clothes too anyways? But referring to how men like to be muscular, it has grown from the past. Men from the past were never as muscular as the men in the present. And i believe that men like their women skinny as a show that he is the one who can take care of her. If the women were to be as muscular as the men, the men wouldn’t look as infuriating or manly. Some guys think it’s embarrassing if the girl can give the guy a piggy-back ride but the guy can’t give a piggy-back ride to the girl. That is why they prefer women to be more skinny and “vulnerable”.

  17. This not only applies to women, but it applies to men. The majority of cases are from women but im pretty sure men can suffer anorexia as well. These are just caused by popular culture. Anytime we turn, flip a channel or read and ad we see the depiction of a fictionized ideal version of a woman or a man, most people think the images are depictions of actual natural beauty when in fact like the article mentions they are photoshopped images of the exact way companies want their models to look. This is deceiving because, once again like the article mentions, it makes both female and male audience pursue an ideal body that is not achievable because it isn’t real in the first place and this is favorable for big companies because we spend large amount of money on gym member ships, diet pills, etc….. People should just focus on being healthy because eating disorders are no joke. Whether your overweight or underweight you should just maintain and aim for a healthy weight in order to live a lonh and healhy life.

  18. There is also a racial bias here as well. Notice these scouts were in Sweden. Many other countries have starving youth, but these youth don’t fit the racial mold required to become a super model.

    • Absolutely right.

      For minorities who have a strong connection with their culture the one good thing is that it helps them to not get eating disorders themselves, since they can’t relate to the images they see.

      But for those who identify more with white society, eating disorders can be even higher. They don’t fit the look of the models in terms of color, so they are more likely to strive to fit the images in terms of their shape.

  19. This issue makes me so sad. What makes it even more despicable is that modeling agents and those in charge of the industry really do not care about the health of their models, which I think in a way says they really do view them as objects rather than human beings. For instance, model Isabelle Caro, whose life was claimed by anorexia, stated in an interview that when she began modeling at 86 pounds, a fashion designer advised her to diet if she wanted to continue working, when she clearly already looked sickly thin (Taboo, National Geographic). Many models will be rejected if they are not in the “right” weight range, so pressure is also put on models to be thin and beautiful just as much as consumers who see images of these women. It’s a sad situation on both sides. The only ones profiting from it are corporations who want to make as much money as possible off of women’s self-image and self-esteem issues. As Stephen Colbert put it: “But if girls feel good about themselves, how are we going to sell them things we don’t need?” There’s so much damage done to many women and girls who don’t fit up to societal/cultural standards of beauty and femininity. It’s heartbreaking.

  20. When did “beauty” become equal to an illness with a 20% death rate? When you say it this way it sounds way past cultural psychosis.

      • Shopping anorexia treatment centers for fashion models and surgically adding plastic tits strikes me as way past sad and into frighteningly weird with the scent of gruesome. It’d be like using cachectic cancer patients with socks stuffed in the crotch to sell men’s underpants. Wait. Maybe I’ve just stumbled upon the next great marketing idea. Hollywood, here I come. (Irony intended).

      • And that’s scary, too.

  21. I think a huge issue is that there are a small percentage of women who are naturally thin, quite a few of my friends are quite small, but they are used too often to portray women as a whole. Usually swimwear models have a less frail but still thin body, even they are usually winners of the genetic lottery and have the great “bikini” body but it’s probably more achievable than the very petite anorexia look. I have noticed a huge difference in runway vs swimwear models, the latter are usually fit n toned, “cut” but still strong.

    As for male media….balloon muscles are all the rage, I doubt most women understand level of insecurity many men have regarding their muscle-size. When people are smashing back protein powders, bulking powders, and eating heaps more whilst doing major weight lifting to achieve a look it can be quite debilitating that level of insecurity some will have. Then a few of them will be taking human growth hormones etc to start to come closer to the media’s idea of a manly man, the arnie look, the balloon muscles which are so often exagerated in cartoon and video games. To achieve that look you need a mix of genetic lotto winner + huge amounts of protein to sustain the muscles + usually steroids of some kind to get to the higher bulk level. Then add in the regime of “cutting”, to reduce the fat to make the muscles quite visible it can get pretty taxing on a person I’d think. Some of the movie stars to achieve their look end up doing many hours of gym-work….all to look strong…and for what really? The physical look? The majority of that strength being useless to you unless you are a labourer who will naturally get strong enough anyway and muscle density matters far far more for strength than the muscle size.

    Variety is very much needed!

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