The other day, I was dawdling in the locker room after swim practice because I didn’t want to go outside into the freezing cold. While dragging out my changing process for as long as possible, I couldn’t help noticing the variety of body types around me. Nobody in the dingy and slightly moldy locker room was perfect. I spotted cellulite, stretch marks, acne, scars and all sorts of other minor imperfections, but that’s not what I was thinking about. Instead, I was marveling at how these different types of bodies—short and tall, small and large, muscular and wiry—had all completed the same practice. And many are competing in a few days. Sure, some are faster and some may have skipped out on a few sets, but every woman there was healthy.
Cornflower brought up an excellent point a while back, about the changing face of physical beauty. But I have to wonder, why “skinny” has prevailed for so long (check out this post on historic weight loss methods (tape worms, eww!)). Right now, I believe we are moving away from the super skinny ideal promoted by Calista Flockhart and Courteney Cox in the 1990s and instead focusing on fit and athletic bodies. Still a regular person probably won’t look like Jessica Biel (even if I wanted to do thousands of squats and lunges, I couldn’t get her rump), but at least this standard implies healthy living. Hopefully with the plethora of healthy living blogs and magazines in addition to healthy(er) celebrities, this outlook will become the norm.
I remember reading Eight Cousins as a girl and getting excited when Uncle Alec tells Rose that she shouldn’t wear her corset, that it’s unhealthy to be so thin and puts her on an exercise program (check out this little article about late 19th c exercise). At the time Rose was proud of her waistline and would rather die than be pudgier like one of her classmates, but soon she starts exercising and filling out and becoming a healthy little girl. Finally, here was a girl I could relate to! I will never be supermodel thin and I knew that, even as a middle schooler. I knew that I had inherited my mother’s family’s unhealthy (and often considered unattractive) tendency to gain weight in my stomach. I also knew that I was bigger than most of my friends, even the ones who were taller than me. So, when I finally read about a girl who was athletic, like me, I latched on to her. Rose and that scene with Uncle Alec stayed in my mind, even though I haven’t read the book since.
Alcott published Eight Cousins in 1875 and there were other books around that time which espoused these ideals. Obviously, Alcott’s most famous characters, the March family (Little Women 1868), preached similar virtues while Mary in The Secret Garden (1911) became a healthy and active girl. Yet the need to be skinny prevailed in society. Anorexia and Bulimia aren’t as new as people think. There are records of Victorian women refusing to eat, although these women were often seen as miracle girls*, fed by God’s faith. References to anorexia (although this term wasn’t coined until the late 1800s) are found as far back as the 1300s.
So, why did this need for thinness have this hold over women? Why does it still? Even after all the documentation on the horrors of eating disorders and the benefits of healthy living? I know I’m not perfect and have days where I think I could stand to lose a few pounds. Overall I’m proud of my muscles and what they can do, even if it means my thighs are bigger than the girl’s next to me on the bus. I think our perception is getting better, but we’re still far away from completely healthy and attainable norms. At least, I saw fewer ribs poking out of gowns at the Oscars.
*for more information check out Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg