I was reading through a copy of Psychology Today when I found a few paragraphs about the connection between attractiveness and health.
Attractive men, apparently, are just as healthy as their less attractive counterparts, but for women it’s different and not in the way one would expect. Beauty and health, in women, are related but the correlation is inverse. Attractive women are less likely to be healthy than unattractive women.
The explanation give by researchers at Brandeis, where this connection was discovered, is that beautiful women are more social and thus more likely to pick up whatever is going around, but I don’t buy it. Attractive men are also more likely to be social, so why shouldn’t they suffer the same effect? No, I think something else is going on, and it has to do with our association between attractiveness and weight.
There’s a belief that thin is fit, but that isn’t always the case.
Weight loss is a symptom of a variety of chronic illnesses, including lupus, and a side effect of several drugs, both prescription and recreational. There’s a reason why the ultra-thin aesthetic of the runway is called “heroin chic.” Weight loss is also a symptom of a handful of psychological conditions, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and body dysmorphic disorders. Especially in women, who need more body fat in order to maintain normal physical function, thinness can be an indicator of illness and even a diagnostic criterion. So why on earth would people find this attractive? What is the appeal of a sickly mate?
When I was at the Museum of Sex in New York, they had an exhibit on foot binding. There were X-rays on display, and tiny, pointed shoes, as well as photographs of women trying to care for their deliberately deformed feet. There were descriptions of what can only be described as torture as grandmothers broke their grandchildren’s bones in an effort to force the foot to conform to aesthetic ideal completely unlike its natural shape. In spite of this, the lotus foot was considered a sign of fertility and self-discipline. Problems that arose from foot binding, including infection, disability and even death, were overlooked, dismissed as atypical, or even eroticized. Men wrote poems about the “sweet” scent of rotting flesh that seeped through the bandages, and would choose a partner primarily on the size of her feet.
I saw this when I saw the pin-up exhibit I mentioned in The Frankenstein Bride, and the parallels struck me even then. I just couldn’t nail it down, but now I think I understand. The centerfold is about as realistic an ideal as the lotus foot.
It seems on the surface like an extreme comparison, but is it? I don’t think so. Being fashionably thin, for most women, requires efforts that results in a lot of discomfort at best, and can even maim or kill. Most women, on some level, know this, but when they protest the unrealistic ideals, the usual rebuttal is that men are attracted to healthy women who would make good incubators. We’re also told, rarely subtly, that we ourselves are probably fat and need to get off our whale butts and do something about it. The problem is that we now know that beautiful women aren’t necessarily good reproductive bets.
As with bound feet, beauty and health are completely disconnected.
The irony is that the bludgeon used to drive women to thinness is health. Thin, we say, is fit and fat is bad, but is it? Well, not really. Women need a minimum of 12% body fat, but that’s a minimum. Fitness is 21% – 24%, and body fat doesn’t become a potential problem until 32%. To put this into terms that people are more likely to be able to visualize, I’m going to switch from body fat percentage to body mass index, or BMI. Assuming an average frame and something short of complete couch-potato-hood, a 5’6″ woman can weigh up to 154 lbs without risk to her health. Even if she’s heavier, only a complete physical can determine whether or not she actually needs to lose weight.
Wouldn’t she be better off if she did, just on general principle? Not necessarily. Alex DeVinny, a state track champion from Racine, Wisconsin, died of cardiac arrest related to self-inflicted starvation and in its coverage of her death, the New York Times reported that 75% of varsity athletes at an all-girls’ high school had at least one component of what’s known as the female athlete triad.
The female athlete triad is a combination of disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis. They are signs that a woman’s body weight had dropped too low, probably as a result of deliberate effort, and they can result in long-term health consequences. The true extent of the problem is still unknown, but that’s the worst part. The Times also reported that 24% of college coaches thought that disrupted menstruation was a “natural consequence of vigorous exercise.” Even when coaches are aware that their athletes aren’t menstruating, they may not recognize it as a danger sign.
Here again we run into the fact that thin isn’t necessarily healthy, and if it wasn’t enough to find out that women athletes are at risks, Spain made a move that publicly called the fashion industry into question. This year, Madrid banned all models with BMIs below 18 from the catwalks during Fashion Week. Even though 18 is the lower limit of the healthy range, this caused a minor uproar because according to ABC News, the average model is 5’9″ tall and weighs 110 lbs. This puts her BMI at 16. Never mind the part about unrealistic standards, this represents a threat to the woman herself.
Am I suggesting that all women should be obese? No, and that’s one of the frustrating things about this. Any attempt to suggest that the pursuit of thinness might not be in anyone’s best interest is met by statistics about the obesity epidemic. Never mind that most people aren’t obese, and obesity is rarely a simple question of calories in/calories out. What to do about true obesity is a decision best made only when all factors are taken into consideration, something that can only be after a thorough physical. Knee-jerk sneers are in no one’s best interests.
For those who are simply overweight, the data on life expectancy and health are mixed. Being overweight is a risk factor for some problems, but appears to protect against others. There’s also the fact that people who are technically overweight can still be fit. Eating right and exercising are beneficial even when they don’t result in significant weight loss, and they don’t always.
Sadly, this discourages people from maintaining positive change. After all, why bother with daily runs and improving nutrition if they don’t make you a size 6? When it comes to healthy lifestyle, the serious issues, like diabetes and cardiovascular fitness, too often take second place to dress size, and when healthy options don’t result in the desired dress size, too many people either quit or go with new, equally unhealthy options. Bulemia isn’t a cure for those stubborn five pounds.
Even when weight loss is medically desirable, the amounts involved are usually moderate, around 10% of one’s body weight in most cases. This is nowhere near enough to bring one down to fashionable thinness, and fashionable thinness can be just as bad as obesity. Remember that average model? Her weight is low enough to put her heart and bones at risk.
This kind of thing happens from time to time. In China, it was feet, but Victorian corsets were worn so tight that they did internal damage and flagrant symptoms of illness, such as fainting and pallor, were highly prized. In some cultures, morbid obesity has been considered the pinnacle of loveliness, and women were force-fed to achieve it. In other places and other times, it has been other things. This appears to be a human phenomenon, not a strictly modern, Western one. I can’t even attribute it to mass media, because it predates them by several thousand years. Somehow, aesthetics get completely disconnected from what makes a woman capable of any kind of physical effort, and in some cases, it directly interferes with the reproductive capacity that is supposedly so desirable. A woman who is too thin to menstruate is also too thin to bear children, no matter how hot she might be.
Like foot binding, extreme thinness in women is a manufactured beauty that has nothing whatsoever to do with health. The efforts by which the average Jane tries to get and stay thin can destroy her bones, not to mention wreck any hopes she might have of motherhood. Also like foot binding, its attractiveness is taught. Most women on television and in magazines are very thin, especially when you consider the camera’s infamous ten pounds. Runway models are pared down to their bone structure. This should be grotesque, but since it’s presented in a context that displays it as attractive, we learn to see it as attractive. The worst part is that even the models themselves don’t actually look like that. Diet, exercise and surgery aren’t enough, the editors still digitally alter the images to lengthen the legs, narrow the waist, and get rid of that nasty cellulite. Even the most beautiful women in the world aren’t really beautiful.
I think we have to consider the possibility that, as a species, we do not always value women sexually for their reproductive potential.
Beauty isn’t about men lusting after women who would make good mothers, because the quest for beauty can cancel out any possibility of motherhood. It’s also not a form of male-on-female repression. Men may drool over Kiera Knightly, but it’s mothers who put their prepubescent daughters on diets or take them to plastic surgeons. It’s a lot more complicated, or perhaps more visceral, than that.
Mothers of Chinese sons used to be wary of “clown feet”, and now any sign of body fat on women is considered dangerous. At the very least, it’s considered an indication that she has no self-control, and therein, I believe, lies the answer. Under certain circumstances, we as a species value in women the ability to endure extended, unnecessary pain more than we value character, health or even reproductive capacity. As with foot binding, the thinner she is, the more self-control she has, the more punishment she can take, and the more desirable she becomes.
The parallels between bound feet and our ultrathin aesthetic are numerous and unpleasant, and unfortunately, I’m not sure what can stop it. Foot binding was customary for about a thousand years, and it took considerable pressure from the outside world to force the Chinese government to put a stop to it. Now the bound foot is considered grotesque, with pictures and stories displayed for shock value, but there are still women alive today who remember being told that no man would ever love them without broken toes. It wasn’t really all that long ago.
I know I can’t turn something like this on its head with a couple of essays. The connection between thin and sexy is far too ingrained and far too stridently defended, even if the defense is spurious. No, this is for the “But I like them that way!” crowd, those of both sexes who have come to suspect that there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark where this issue is concerned.
You’re right. There is.
© 2006 Ann Regentin. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.