Whether it's long, lean and elegant or frankly feminine, most people believe that New York fashion designers or TV and film celebrities dictate the ideal body type.
Actually, no one knows exactly which factors cause a culture to prefer one body shape over another. Almost every conceivable shape and size has been desirable at one time or another. And although a recent anthropological study showed that 47 of 58 cultures surveyed preferred plumpness over thinness, current Western culture isn't one of them.
Margaret Mackenzie, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has compared the attitudes of Western Samoans with adult Americans living in the San Francisco area. One of her most striking revelations was that Western Samoans saw nothing unusual or shameful about a woman becoming fat, because they viewed the increase in body weight as a function of such natural events as childbirth and aging.
In contrast with this attitude, most Americans see fatness as an indication of a loss of self-control and a visible sign of emotional disturbance. Unlike Americans, who exalt individuality, Western Samoans believe that a person doesn't stand alone but exists in relation to others of her village or clan.
Weight Means Little by Itself
Because the culture of the Western Samoan is so firmly based on the relationships between people, an individual's weight means very little by itself. What carries significance, however, is the weight of the person in relation to his or her role in the group.
For example, in Western Samoan culture, a chief should be relatively slender to show that he or she distributes the village's food supply fairly. The village spokesman, on the other hand, should be plump, an indication of the village's prosperity. In small villages the chief may serve dual roles, so the chief may be perceived by fellow villagers as slender in his role as chief, yet seen as plump in his role as spokesman.
During our country's relatively short history, many body shapes and weights have been in fashion. Until recently, I was under the impression that there was a distinct trend in our culture. Women, I thought, were becoming thinner and leaner, or at least it appeared to me that this was what was fashionable. I thought that roundness had been fashionable rather consistently until the last 20 years or so--except perhaps for the celebrated thinness of the flappers during the 1920s.
Actually, as I learned from reading "American Beauty" (Knopf, New York, 1983) by Lois W. Banner, plumpness, slenderness, tallness and shortness have all rotated as ideals on an almost cyclical basis.
For example, our feminine ideal today seems to be the tall, slender woman with visible hips and breasts--picture supermodel Christie Brinkley. Such a body type was also very fashionable from 1895 to World War I, when it was referred to as the Gibson Girl look after the graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson, who created her.
A woman of the times who exemplified this look was described as being "braver, stronger, healthier and more skillful, able and free, more human in all ways." Doesn't this sound like a description in a magazine today portraying the current ideal?
The Gibson Girl was preceded by "the voluptuous woman," who was best characterized by actress Lillian Russell--a woman who today would have to shop in clothing stores specializing in larger sizes. The Gibson Girl ideal was succeeded in the 1920s by the flapper, with her small breasts and hips and almost androgynous shape (think of Twiggy).
Researchers see a direct relationship between the role of women in our culture and the ideal, prescribed body shape and clothing styles of the period.
Patricia Mulready, a faculty member of the fashion and retailing department of New York University, believes that clothing styles and body-size ideals of men and women in a culture reflect the similarity or disparity between their roles. When their sex roles are similar, their clothing tends to be alike in shape and form. Disparity in roles will produce great differences in clothing.
Threat to Men Called a Key
Kate Davies, Ph.D., a body-image researcher, believes that men have always controlled the way women should look: When men feel less threatened--for instance, when women aren't active in the work force--women are "allowed" to be more curvaceous.
Other researchers see this same phenomenon but interpret it differently. They see that when women compete with men for jobs or for a dominant position in society, they minimize the physical differences between the sexes.
The flappers of the '20s reflected their more liberated role in society by bobbing their hair and de-emphasizing the "old-fashioned" feminine curves of their mothers. Many women today working at jobs once labeled as masculine wear suits and even ties that look remarkably like those worn by men.
If you think that our culture's present ideal body type--the lean look--has gone unchallenged by all scientific authorities, I have some surprising news for you. Although often ignored by the media, some researchers question whether thinness is indeed as healthy as the medical profession would have us believe. Because the established point of view--the one our culture subscribes to--says that thinness is good, we rarely read an opposing opinion.
For instance, you probably aren't aware that Paul Ernsberger, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell Medical College, argues that the life insurance companies that create the height-weight charts on which we rely have seriously misinterpreted their own statistics. Ernsberger contends that being 10% underweight is of considerably greater risk to health than being even 30% to 40% overweight.
What also surprises me is that cultures other than our own have a much wider latitude in what's considered "normal" in body weight and size. I learned this first-hand while doing graduate work in Fiji.
At the time, I was part of a training center established to teach South Pacific women basic home economics, nutrition and nursing techniques--skills they could use when they returned to their villages after completing the course.
These women had come from 15 countries and were racially very different--some were Melanesian: thin, black and wiry; others were Polynesian: large and big-boned, with light-brown skin, and quite plump. I remember one class in which they learned how to calculate their ideal (by U.S. standards) body weight.
One short, very plump and very pretty woman from an island called Kiribati was asked to demonstrate the calculation procedure on the blackboard. Her calculations indicated she was at least 40 pounds overweight. As she turned from the blackboard and faced the audience, you could see that she was extraordinarily pleased with herself for being able to perform the calculations in front of the group--and that she found it amusing and only slightly embarrassing that we considered her 40 pounds overweight.
By contrast, I can only say that if I stood in front of a group of my peers and announced that I was 40 pounds overweight, I would certainly be humiliated and probably in tears.
Yet our culture scoffs not only at the overweight, but at the underweight. My very slender friends tell me they are often ridiculed for their thinness. As a researcher of body size as it's perceived by a culture, and as a nutritionist, I've realized that people do come in all shapes and sizes, and that to battle endlessly with weight--whether you're trying to lose or gain--merely to mold yourself into your culture's ideal shape may be much more damaging than being underweight or overweight.