There are a lot of stereotypes and standards that women are subjected to in their daily lives, but the question of how their bodies should look like is certainly one of the most important ones. The perception of the ideal female body is dynamic and can change through time and also vary between different cultures and societies – with the media playing an important role. Whereas some societies get more and more influenced by the Western beauty standard of slimness, on the other hand there are also cultures where people are simply starting to accept their larger sizes.
It might seem unimaginable today, but not so much time ago, being overweight used to hold a high status for both men and women. In the 19th century, a shapely figure was the norm, and this ideal was represented by artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti or William-Adolphe Bouguerea.
After Post World War II, the ideal body sizes started to decrease and since then the average body mass index of women presented in different types of advertisements declined from about 27 to 18. Now we are in a situation where being curvier than the ideal female body shape has become socially stigmatized.
Differences between societies
However, there are ethnicities and cultures with differing expectations, based on both social and cultural factors. For example, in black culture black women are encouraged to be curvy and plump in areas such as the buttocks, legs and bust. This is seen as representing well-being. Similarly, in Arab countries the average sexually desirable women have a higher body mass index than Western women. Meanwhile, in South America most men like chubby women with wide hips. Nonetheless, women are supported to have slimmer waist and bust than buttocks. However, countries like Japan are moving towards body ideals of Western society, like slimness. In China, a diversity of body sizes prevails, but the same beauty standards apply for all other aspects. In short, it differs to what extent individuals and societies are affected by the media and what kind of body shapes is attractive to them. What is normal in one society, could be seen as deviant in another.
Globalising beauty standards
The most popular expectation for women concerning their bodies is to be thin, toned and in proportion. The spread of the Western female beauty ideal is due to the wider reach of Western media which mainly focuse on what is attractive for Western societies, and reflect white standards concerning skin colour or hair.
Male-dominated media – a multiplier for perceptions of the ideal female bodyThe media is the most important multiplier of beauty standards. As the media still is a male dominated industry, its output continues to be tailored towards men and what they are believed to desire. In this way, female bodies become commodities or material objects for pleasure and to satisfy the desires men have. This has a direct effect on women working in the industry: Heavier women are not prominent in television shows and get minor roles, roughly 20%, whereas skinny women take on larger roles and are more popular with nearly 40% of roles. Technology in addition now makes it possible to heavily edit and stylize pictures of women’s bodies, thereby deforming reality. Images in the media become fantasies or illusions; something unreal that people could only dream of.
Women are then confronted with a toxic situation, where the beauty ideal is actually unattainable. They still try to achieve it, imposing high expectations on themselves on how they should look like. The consequence of this is that they struggle to have confidence in their bodies, sometimes get caught in diets, other body-optimization methods like plastic surgery, or even develop eating disorders.
But if we want women to be truly equal, the image of the ideal female body needs to be widened. We should recognize that women have all shapes and sizes, encourage body positivity and get rid of the unhealthy fixation on women’s bodies. Fortunately, in some societies this seems to be already happening: A few recent reports in the media demonstrate that having body fat now seems to be the norm in some countries USA or UK. People are starting to simply accept their larger sizes. This, most definitely, is an encouraging development.