As summer approaches, women’s magazines start the relentless "get ready for bikini season" drum beat, and millions of women succumb to fat panic. The usual response – a new diet – is actually the worst possible response. Diets don’t work, and leave you more miserable than ever. But there’s another way that does work.
Beauty: Inner and Outer
Our culture equates physical beauty with value as a human being. This overemphasis on physical beauty, not surprisingly, instills a desperate need to be beautiful. Worse, our culture has, for some reason, come up with a standard of beauty for women that requires being underweight. Most women cannot look the way society says they should look by eating normally – that is, eating according to hunger and satiation cues. The only way to achieve society’s standard of beauty is through an unnatural diet that leaves you hungry all the time.
Many actresses, dancers, models, and other women who make a living with their looks maintain a weight that is below what’s normal for them. At best this means living with being hungry all the time. Newswoman Diane Sawyer has talked about this, and so has former model Tyra Banks. But many models and dancers have serious eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.
Shifting Standards of Beauty
Gauntness is not a universal characteristic of female beauty. Throughout human history until the 1920s, the ideal for feminine beauty was full breasts, wide hips, and rounded tummies – just look at Renoir and other artists from earlier times. Sexy women were voluptuous and curvy. To be too skinny was considered unfeminine. Even today, thinness is associated with harshness, poverty, and meanness in many non-Western cultures, for example in certain parts of Africa.
The adolescent boy look (no hips and no breasts) first became an ideal in the 1920s with flappers and the women’s suffrage movement. It is thought by some cultural anthropologists to be an outgrowth of resentment towards women’s independence. Essentially women were being told that if they wanted independence, they needed to look more like men. But the cross-cultural, cross-time feminine ideal is to be curved and soft, not angular.
Nor is it healthy for women to be excessively thin. When women’s body fat drops below 14% or so, they stop menstruating. Women are not meant to be skinny. They are designed to carry extra fat as insurance for when they’re pregnant. Strong, healthy, normal-weight women tend to be rounded, not angular. When we get too thin, the female parts of us cease to function!
Moreover, men are biologically programmed to prefer women who look like they’d be good at making babies – women with broad hips and large breasts, Marilyn Monroe not Twiggy. That’s why (biologically speaking) thin women were considered unattractive for most of history. Extremely thin women don’t menstruate and can’t produce offspring at all.
What’s naturally attractive is youth and health. All the classic characteristics of beauty, cross-time and cross-culture, are signs of youth and health: clear, smooth skin, shiny hair, bright eyes, firm muscle tone. But even when we are young, healthy, and beautiful, we don’t know it. Most young women feel fat and ugly. They don’t realize until they are middle-aged, when they look back at pictures of themselves, how beautiful they really were. If you think it’s a shame that you couldn’t enjoy your beauty when you had it, then consider that 20 years from now, you’ll look back at pictures of yourself today and wish you’d appreciated the youth and beauty you have today.
Society’s overemphasis on physical beauty is unfortunate, however, no matter what the standard. You need to be able to look in the mirror and accept what you see. How do you do that? First, by recognizing that you don’t need physical perfection to be attractive. Women (and men) can be sexy and appealing without a perfect face and figure. But what’s most important to realize is that inner beauty matters much more than outer beauty – even in this upside down world.