Picture this: a newborn baby girl lies before you. It is your job to tell her the truth: that the world she has been born into will evaluate her worth according to the shape of her body and the extent to which she can successfully contort this body’s form. This self-manipulation will have to be constant, because society’s conception of the ideal female body is an elusive trend which ceaselessly and mercilessly changes. Her pursuit of these body standards will have the capacity to ruin her life. It might even kill her. Think this sounds dramatic? Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
(Let that sink in.)
“The late 20th century might have overseen the commencement of female emancipation from the home, but half a century later, we remain pitifully far from being liberated from the prisons that have been created out of our own bodies.”
Society’s conception of the ideal female body type is arbitrary and inconstant, a fact attested to by the manner in which beauty standards have drastically changed over time. For hundreds of years it was the curvaceous goddesses memorialised in Greek and Roman statues that society lauded as feminine beauty embodied. It was not until the 1920s that thin came in. Magazines and the media presented skinny as the ideal feminine figure, with this declaration leading to the first recognised emergence of eating disorders. Throughout the 20th century, the ideal feminine figure senselessly shifted from decade to decade, with the 1950s celebrating supposedly fuller figures before deciding in the 60s and the 80s that women should be waif-like once more. While the 1960s witnessed the publication of The Feminine Mystique calling for the liberation of (white, middle-class) women from the home, the very same women were still expected to look heroine chic, with this term later emerging in the 1990s to describe the ideal female body which was to look emaciated enough as to resemble a drug addict. The late 20th century might have overseen the commencement of female emancipation from the home, but half a century later, we remain pitifully far from being liberated from the prisons that have been created out of our own bodies.
Sometimes we women are lucky enough to be overtly informed of the latest female body trend; “Bye Bye Booty! Heroine Chic is Back!” a recent newspaper headline declared. The terms here are explicit — we have been told what we must do. But the anatomy of the female body is not a trend external to the individual that can be easily changed. These trends, which market the female body as a commodity, are inherently capitalist. Our bodies are advertised as something which can be bought, swapped and modified. Remember ladies, if you work hard enough with the right capitalist mindset, you too can have the ideal feminine body and earn the right to be recognised as successful in society! And, if you find yourself unable to consistently attain and maintain these ever-changing beauty standards, you only have yourself to blame. Like the American dream, this promised success is elusive and — for the majority of toiling women — remains unattainable and undelivered.
“How can we focus on smashing glass ceilings when we’ve been placed on a hamster wheel and told to run as fast as we can around in circles in pursuit of an illusory ideal?”
All of this serves to keep us busy. How can we focus on smashing glass ceilings when we’ve been placed on a hamster wheel and told to run as fast as we can around in circles in pursuit of an illusory ideal? You cannot quantify the mental and physical time and energy lost by women in the regulation of our bodies. If we want to be seen and not looked at, perceived and not disdained, we are led to believe that we cannot exist in a body over a certain size. It is not our fault that we have internalised the male gaze, for we have been constantly bombarded from all directions with a clear message, both subliminal and overt — your body is the only thing about you that matters.
What about the curves of Kim K, you might say? Let’s not erroneously conflate the curves that the Kardashians made desirable with any kind of inclusivity movement; a woman’s curves are only celebrated if fat is deposited in the right places — bum and boobs, not tummy and thighs. Enter BBL, the Brazilian Butt Lift, which has the highest mortality rate of any cosmetic surgery. Luckily the procedure of removing fat from parts of your body and transferring them to more acceptable areas is reversible, so when the Kardashians decide (as they recently did) to stop capitalising on black body types and determine that thin is back in, you can still manage to keep up with them. And here we have the essence of society’s treatment of the female body; you can always do better, you will never be good enough, and the goalposts keep moving so if you ever achieve the current ideal, make sure not to relax, girl — you’re going to have to stay on your toes if you want to keep up.
“So it came to be that Wexner, accompanied by other old white men, determined what it meant to be sexy and feminine in accordance with their own sexual fantasies.”
With the supposed standard of perfection ceaselessly shifting, there is always something for us to be insecure about, and always a cure for this insecurity which we can be sold. Les Wexner, former CEO of Victoria’s Secret, concedes to purposefully setting out to create the female beauty standard, with control of the standard granting him control of the market. The Victoria’s Secret fashion shows were not about exhibiting lingerie, but about selling the bodies of the angels modelling the product. So it came to be that Wexner, accompanied by other old white men, determined what it meant to be sexy and feminine in accordance with their own sexual fantasies. The men who formulated these beauty ideals are the same men whose physical appearance society continually makes allowances for, finding ways to endearingly refer to a dad bod whilst a woman’s protruding belly is never referred to with endearment, or a silver fox when society sees nothing attractive in the ageing of a woman. After considerable backlash, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show finally came to a halt in 2019, shortly before Wexner was forced to step down as CEO of the company due to his long-lasting links with Jeffrey Epstein. But these changes and the more recent Victoria’s Secret advertisements, which include a slightly more diverse range of models, have come far too little, far too late. The damage has already been done for my generation of young women, and that damage is near impossible to undo.
It shouldn’t fall on us as women to change a system which we did not create. But, as with all feminist movements and waves, it will likely fall to us to meaningfully commence this battle. Those who sit at the nexus of power have a vested interest in perpetuating the treatment of women’s bodies as trends. And whilst women did not establish this system, we have unwittingly come to participate in it. We will therefore have to reprogramme our own minds, unlearn everything we have been taught about our bodies, and forcefully rinse our eyes clean of the male gaze if change is to come. In this, we will have to unite; success is impossible if we are in competition with ourselves. A tough battle, but one which is undoubtedly worth fighting. So that when the time comes for me to look down at my own baby girl, I might not have to prepare her for all the evils which I have been forced to endure. So that girls and women stop losing their lives battling eating disorders from which they should never have fallen ill. So that a woman’s status and success in society might not be determined by her body. So that a woman’s very existence is not an internal battle with her life force and herself. So that life as a woman is a little bit easier to survive. So that life as a woman is a little bit more worth living.