Women's Body Image and BMI

A look at the evolution of the female figure over 100 years.

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With the rise of mass media throughout the 20th century, the popular image of women in America has undergone a substantial change. From Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss, the body shapes of the most admired models have remained consistently slimmer than that of the average American woman, representing a nearly impossible ideal.

This has resulted in a severe rise in weight anxieties and negative body image among women and girls. Dissatisfaction with weight is nearly universal among women, while dieting is pervasive. Girls as young as 6 are commonly unhappy with their weight. This trend has likewise been reflected around the world wherever this media culture has become dominant. The result has been the massive spread of previously rare eating disorders and lifelong unhappiness toward one's own body.

Vanishing Point: The Evolution of 20th Century American Beauty Ideals

The Popular image of Women

1900s-1910s: The Gibson Girl

The Gibson Girl, a creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, was a synthesis of prevailing beauty ideals at the turn of the century. Rarely is a beauty standard so explicit and clearly defined, yet Gibson based the iconic illustrations on “thousands of American girls.”

This ideal of femininity was depicted as slender and tall, albeit with a “voluptuous” bust and wide hips. The incongruous and exaggerated look was achieved by way of corseting, pinching the torso and waist significantly. Gibson Girls were portrayed as up-to-date on fashion and style, as well as physically active and in good health.

While the ideal originally began as the invention of an illustrator, the look was soon brought to life by various models and actresses such as Camille Clifford – winner of a contest to find a real-life analogue of Gibson's drawings – and Evelyn Nesbit. Following World War I, this idealized image gave way to that of the less prim and more informal flapper girl.

1920s: The Flapper

A product of the increasingly liberal “Roaring Twenties,” the flapper represented an idea of women that was far more casual than the formal, corseted Gibson Girls. The archetypal flapper was an immature young woman – a teenager or young adult – who was scantily-clad and had little regard for uptight behavioral norms.

They were often described as independent, wise-cracking and reckless. Their easygoing style represented a rejection of the Victorian style and also came to emblematize widespread disagreement with the Prohibition movement. Their appearance was one of boyishness and androgynous youth, with minimal breasts, a straight figure without any corseting, and shorter hair.

Flashing of the ankles, knees and legs was a common feature of flappers – dresses and skirts in the style were designed to be loose and reveal the legs when women would dance to jazz, popular among flappers. Bare arms were likewise nearly universal. Larger busts were frowned upon, and bras were made to tighten so as to flatten the chest. Blush, dark eye makeup, and substantial lips were in style, as well as tanning; a sporty and healthy appearance was prized.

The ideal of thinness and an enhanced appearance often drove women of the 1920s to diet and exercise in order to achieve this look, as well as buying cosmetics. The look to aspire to was increasingly depicted in advertisements. This freewheeling lifestyle came to an end with the onset of the Great Depression.

1930s-1940s: Fashion in Wartime

The impact of the Great Depression brought a more traditional style back to women's fashion and body image. Though short hair remained commonplace, skirts once again became longer, and clothing that showed off a natural waist was in style.

Shoulder width was particularly emphasized, and the prevailing shape at the time became starker, highlighting the specific contours of the body rather than draping and disguising them in softness.

With America's involvement in World War II came wartime requisitioning of fashion materials such as silk, nylon, and clothing dye. Women's attire therefore trended toward practicality, with simple blouses and un-elaborate jackets becoming predominant. Women even received instructions on how to tailor the unused suits of men away in combat, remaking them into everyday women's wear. And in contrast to the lean boyish flapper style, women now aspired to become more curvaceous and emphasize their feminine figure. In particular, advertisements now told women how they could avoid a too-skinny look.

In this era, the celebrity image was almost within reach of the average woman. While American women had an average BMI of 23.6, many celebs ranged from 18.5 (Barbara Stanwyck) to to 20.3 (Lena Horne) – a gap, to be sure, but not an extraordinary one.

1950s: Post-War

The ideal body image for women remained fuller-figured in the post-war period of the 1950s. A busty, voluptuous hourglass look was prized, as exhibited by models such as Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.

The increasing popularity of Hollywood films helped propel glamour models like Monroe to widespread public consciousness, and combined with the increased freedom of material after the end of wartime rationing, women's fashion options were once again extensive. However, this expansion in options now meant that women were expected to take full advantage of beauty products and never leave the home without looking their best. Along with a well-composed overall appearance, flawless skin was now expected as well.

During this period, the average woman’s BMI remained steady at 23.6, still well above that of Shirley MacLaine (18.8) or Elizabeth Taylor (20.5).

1960s: Twiggy

With the sexual revolution of the 1960s came a substantial reversal of the '50s idealized image. Rather than curvaceous figures, thin and androgynous women were now prominent, somewhat recapitulating the flapper look of the 1920s.

Twiggy, a major supermodel of the 1960s, embodied many of these seismic shifts in idealized body types. In contrast to the full-figured and voluptuous Monroe and Kelly, the 112 lb Twiggy had a minimal chest, a slight frame, short hair, and a boyish look. This new form of beauty abandoned all curves and any hint of a mature look, instead appearing almost prepubescent.

However, a “hippie” look including long, straight hair also came to the fore in the latter half of the '60s, and a more full-figured hourglass look persisted among several high-profile actresses such as Jane Fonda and Sophia Loren.

This decade, the average American woman’s BMI rose to 25.2 – taking her quite a distance from celebrities like Soledad Miranda (17.6) and Jessica Lange (20.4).

1970s: Thin Is In

The 1970s saw the continued dominance of a Twiggy-like thin ideal, which began to have a widespread impact on women's health and eating habits. Anorexia nervosa first began to receive mainstream coverage in the '70s, and singer Karen Carpenter was known to diet at starvation levels over the decade – a practice which would claim her life in 1983. The era also saw the rise of diet pills, which often used potentially dangerous amphetamines to suppress the appetite.

Actress Farrah Fawcett and her layered hair and one-piece swimsuits also rose to prominence as a sex symbol of the time. Hair was typically worn long, and makeup was now minimal to achieve a “natural look.” The cosmetics industry diversified to take advantage of these trends, with a wider range of offerings in terms of makeup looks.

American women’s BMI remained relatively steady at 24.9, making it difficult to match the body types of celebrities like Morgan Fairchild (18) or Joni Mitchell (20.5).

1980s: Supermodels and Hardbodies

While the 1970s thin ideal persisted, there was now also an increased emphasis on fitness. Toned but not overly muscular bodies were now prized, and aerobic exercise shows and videotapes became a widespread trend – dieting was no longer the only way that women were expected to keep a perfect figure.

Media depictions of women in the '80s tended toward even more slenderness and greater height. The most popular fashions included headbands, tights, leggings, leg warmers, and short skirts made of spandex or other stretchy materials. This era also saw the rise of supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Claudia Schiffer. In the '80s, 60% of Playboy magazine models weighed 15% less than a healthy average weight for their size.

For the average American woman, such a body shape proved difficult or impossible to achieve. While women had an average BMI of 25 in 1980, most female celebrities ranged from 17.6 (Cheryl Tiegs) to 20.4 (Bo Derek).

1990s: Heroin Chic and Baywatch

Throughout the '90s, this ideal became even more exaggerated. Women were expected to maintain an increasingly thin look, yet with large breasts as well, as popularly depicted by Pamela Anderson on “Baywatch.”

Meanwhile, high fashion also began to emphasize the “waif look” and “heroin chic.” This movement stood opposed to the fit and healthy look of '80s supermodels, instead focusing on thinness alone and a bony appearance. The look was epitomized by Calvin Klein advertisements featuring models such as Kate Moss.

Throughout the decade, American women continued to face an impossible standard. Celebrities like Tara Reid (17.5) and Penelope Cruz (19.6) showed off bodies that were far below the average of 26.3. By the year 2000, the situation was more dire than ever: Women with an average BMI of 27.5 were left to compare their bodies to Keira Knightley (17.2) and Natalie Portman (19.5).

The Shrinking Woman: Bodies in Media

The weight and proportion of popular female icons, as measured by BMI, has remained consistently below that of the average American woman for several decades. In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe had a BMI of 20; Twiggy, the '60s supermodel, had a BMI of merely 15. '80s model Cindy Crawford had a BMI of 19, while Kate Moss's BMI was only 16.

For comparison, the average American woman had a BMI of 25.2 in the '60s, 24.9 in the '70s, 25 in the '80s, and 26.3 in the '90s. As the size of the average woman continued to increase, growing to 27.5 in the 2000s, models and actresses maintained what is by comparison a super-thin look.

Who Defines “Plus Size”? Bodies in Business

Twenty years ago, models weighed, on average, 8% less than average American women. By now, they weigh 23% less. Most models now have a weight that’s considered clinically anorexic.

Even the definition of “plus size” has begun to shrink. Ten years ago, plus size models typically ranged between size 12 and 18, while they now span only sizes 6 through 14. Half of American women actually wear a size 14 or larger, meaning that even plus sizes no longer represent the average American woman. Most designer fashions now only range up to size 10 or 12.

Overall Trends

The American body ideal for women has fluctuated somewhat throughout the 20th century, with alternately stick-thin or voluptuous, busty figures being valued at times. But in recent decades, these two conflicting images appear to have merged into a modern synthesis of what is considered beautiful: an almost unhealthily thin and bony frame, combined with a substantial bust.

Meanwhile, the gap between the size and shape of models and that of the average American woman has only continued to widen. As the average BMI of women has increased, models have remained significantly below this average, often with BMIs of a mere 15 or 16 – considered clinically underweight. The BMIs of celebrity women are only slightly better, most commonly ranging from 17 to 20. The result is that, for a growing number of American women, the image of beauty portrayed in media is simply impossible for them to achieve and potentially unhealthy even if they did achieve it.

20th Century Beauty Ideals Around the World

As evidenced by the fluctuations of popular images of women in America throughout the 20th century, beauty ideals are not a permanent and unchanging set of expectations. They are relative to their culture and era, and they shift over time. Just as these body images have changed in America, the ideal of beauty for women can be similar or sometimes much different in other parts of the world.

Western Nations

English-speaking, European, and first-world Western nations often broadly share in the same conflicting messages of beauty found in America. Britain has a similar struggle with popular messages promoting unattainable thinness, leading to weight issues and widespread dieting among women – 1 in 4 are on a diet, and over 50% of girls say that girls their age struggle with body image. In Australia, eating disorders affect a million people and cost the economy $70 billion a year.

In France, long the global capital of the fashion industry, lawmakers have passed legislation barring advertisements promoting “extreme” thinness or dieting, following the anorexia-linked deaths of several models. In Italy, women are extensively objectified in media, and many young women are driven to obtain plastic surgery as soon as they reach the legal age to do so. And in Sweden, an increasing number of upper-class young women are obsessed with their appearance and dissatisfied with their bodies – this group has the highest incidence of anorexia nervosa.

In Spain and Mexico, 1 in 4 teen girls are at risk of developing an eating disorder, and they face pressure from those around them to lose weight. Brazilians are known to overestimate the actual size of their bodies, while desiring to be thinner. A substantial portion of the Brazilian population takes appetite suppressants, and numerous models have died of anorexia.

Eastern and Third-World Nations

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia were almost wholly absent in Japan and China in the early '90s. However, Chinese women do exhibit a significant fear of weight gain. Japanese women, too, are becoming far skinner in recent years and are very critical of each other's appearance. Twenty-nine percent of Japanese women are now underweight.

Elsewhere, Nigeria now has businesses dedicated to helping people put on weight, offering a place where they can do nothing but eat and sleep. In Mauritania, young girls are encouraged to eat to gain weight in order to be more attractive to potential partners. And in the island nation of Tonga, 90% of the population is overweight, which is considered a status symbol. In Cape Town, South Africa, two-thirds of teen girls perceive excess weight as a sign of happiness and wealth.

In Karachi, Pakistan, high media exposure has been found to be linked to female body dissatisfaction. Saudi Arabian women both overestimate and underestimate their weight at about the same rates. In India, internalization of media by young women and girls is linked to an increased drive to be thin. Potentially dangerous skin-lightening creams have also become a popular way for Indians to approach a whiter body image.

What Molds Self-Image and Body Confidence?

A number of factors contribute to women's poor self-image and body dissatisfaction. In a longitudinal study of teenagers, the strongest predictors of negative body image were found to be a lack of parental support, negative mood and feelings, and the choice to diet, as well as a lack of support from peers. Girls show higher rates of negative body image than boys, and unlike boys, the intensity of this increases as they age.

Another study showed that after women were shown media images depicting the modern thin ideal, they had an increase in anxiety, depression, anger, and dissatisfaction with their bodies. Use of such media has also been found to be associated with symptoms of disordered eating and an urge to be thin. As women's family, friends, and peers also absorb these media messages, this adds to an increased pressure to aspire to this ideal coming from all directions.

Moreover, as women pursue this thin ideal, they are more likely to become more dissatisfied with their appearance. Most will not be able to attain this ideal and will remain unhappy with their bodies. Perfectionist women, anxious or depressed women, and women with poor self-esteem are especially at risk for developing an eating disorder. At this point, anxiety over body image and ongoing dieting have become frequent enough to be considered a normal if unhealthy state of affairs among women.

In contrast, positive relationships and acceptance from friends are associated with a healthy self-image. As the belief in thinness being important to relationships with friends decreased, positive self-image increased. Thus, when this thin ideal is deemphasized in one's peer group, a positive self-image can more easily be cultivated.

Contagious Eating Disorders: The Health Consequences of Media Exposure

Aspirations for thinness can begin to impact girls at a surprisingly young age. In one study, 40% of 6-year-old girls expressed a desire to be thinner. An overwhelming majority of 10-year-old girls – 81% – fear being fat. Half of girls in 5th grade through 12th grade feel that magazine images have made them want to lose weight.

Among girls who are of normal weight, 50-70% perceive themselves as being overweight. These self-perceptions can directly affect their eating behaviors and health. Of girls age 6 to 12, 35% have been on a diet at some point. Ten- and 11-year-old girls who had dieted were shown to have internalized media messages to a greater extent than those who did not diet.

Globally, rates of eating disorders in young girls such as anorexia and bulimia are steadily increasing. This has occurred in England, Brazil, Australia, Singapore, and a number of other nations. Fiji is an ideal setting to study the impact of media. Television was not introduced in the remote provinces of Fiji until the mid-1990s. Over the next three years, teenage girls went from viewing being overweight positively to viewing it negatively, and 74% thought of themselves as too fat. Many decided to diet.

Fighting Back: Efforts to Counter Media-Induced Insecurity

In response to widespread negative self-image and unhealthy eating habits among women and girls, a number of business, media, and government entities have launched campaigns to promote positive self-perceptions of weight and appearance. A Brazilian modeling agency advised women to “say no to anorexia,” with billboards showing altered images of emaciated figures to reflect what a woman would look like if she attained an idealized shape and weight.

French model Isabelle Caro appeared in Italian ads showing her emaciated body and the consequences of anorexia. The Looking Glass Foundation has also run a series of ads to teach people about the subtle warning signs that someone may be suffering from an eating disorder. And in 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America launched a health initiative aimed at helping at-risk models receive assistance and treatment.

Beauty and cosmetic company Dove embarked on their Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004, with a series of viral advertisements portraying the differences between women as depicted in ads and women's actual appearance without any makeup or digital enhancement. Their print ads have also shown women of various weights, shapes and sizes, without alteration.

New York City has promoted positive body image in girls aged 7-12 with a series of PSAs depicting everyday girls, captioned “I'm Beautiful The Way I Am.” And National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, orchestrated by the National Eating Disorder Association, has been successful in urging more people to seek help for their eating disorders.

Summary and Conclusions

By the end of the 20th century, female beauty standards in America have remained unrealistic and extreme, with popular images of thinness being more out-of-reach for the average woman than ever before. This trend has been reflected in many first-world nations, although women in certain developing nations lack this widespread anxiety over their weight.

The chief contributors to negative self-image and weight dissatisfaction are media images promoting thinness, peer pressure, and personal levels of anxiety or depression – conditions which can be exacerbated by continued unsuccessful pursuit of an unattainable goal. The result has been a marked rise in weight anxieties in even very young girls, as well as an increase in dieting from a young age, and even potentially deadly eating disorders such as anorexia. While the severity of this problem is receiving increasing attention in the public sphere, these anxieties remain so common as to be “normal” among women.

Interactive Plot: BMI of Celebrities & Playmates

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