Dissatisfaction with Our Bodies and Eating Disorders
The Feminist eZine - Health

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American women are living in a time when ultra-thin bodies are in. Flipping through the pages of a woman's magazin, there are entire sections devoted to diet and exercise tips as well as pictures of extremely thin models. This section will be devoted to how our culture, through images of the media, portrays an unhealthy body standard for American women to live up to. As the full-figured female body was replaced by the ultra-thin, yet toned body, our country saw an increase in eating disorders and a preoccupation with obesity. Some women internalize our society's thinness ideal and when they can not measure up to the ridiculous standards set for the female body, they often develop a negative body image. Negative body images can lead some individuals into unhealthy eating patterns and eating disorders.


During the 1800s the Rubenesque woman was part of the ideal female body image. Until the early 1900's, for a woman to have extra weight on her body and look voluptuous was a sign of good health and wealth.

This painting, The Three Graces, done by artist Pieter Pauwel Rubens in 1639, shows what he thought was the ideal female form.


Painted in 1887 by Pierre Auguste Renoir, The Bathers is example of what Renoir's ideal female body looked like.

Please keep in mind that these ideas were considered normal at the time because it was considered attractive for women to be "lazy, sexual playthings".

In the early 1900's, our culture saw a shift from this plump, voluptuous female form to a thinner frame with less curves. The new female ideal of the 1920's was the thin, short haired flapper. According to Featherstone (1982) consumer culture began to shape the female body image through cosmetics, fashion, Hollywood, and advertisements. People started dieting and sports became popular pastimes as exercise began to be viewed as a healthy activity to enhance the body. According to Kendall (1999), "Thinness was the new sign of wealth" (p. 1). The picture on the right shows an image of a 1920's flapper as well as how commercial advertisements began to portray the what an ideal female body image should look like.

In the 1950's the ideal female body image was Marilyn Monroe. According to Kendall (1999), she was a size 14. Most likely,in today's standard of the ultra-thin body type, she would be considered chubby or overweight .

In the 1960's the waif-like look became popularized by the supermodel Twiggy Lawson. This was the first time in history that an underweight woman became the standard for the ideal body image.



In the 1970's singer Karen Carpenter began her battle with anorexia nervosa. She died in 1983 from heart failure related to the disease. America began to pay more attention to eating disorders after this unfortunate loss.

According to Kendall (1999), "the aerobic exercise craze of the 1980's reemphasized fitness for women" (p.1). One study conducted by Wiseman, Mosimann & Ahrens (1992) analyzed body measurements of Playboy centerfolds (1979-1988) and Miss American contestants (1979-1985). The researchers also analyzed 6 popular women's magazines (Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Women's Day, and McCall's) for the number of diet and weight articles they contained. It seems the trend in the 1980's, showed from their results, was to become even thinner and more tubular shaped. In this context, tubular shaped means that women's bust and hips were decreasing as their height was increasing. Results of the study showed that 69% of centerfolds and 60 % of Miss American contestants were below 15% of their expected body weight in regard to their age and height. The DSM-III-R (1987) classifies maintaining a body weight below 15% of the expected body weight as one of the major characteristics for anorexia nervosa. There was also a significant increase in the number of diet and exercise articles. This evidence supports the notion that the cultural expectations of women's body standards is to be ultra-thin. Hence, the message our culture is sending to women appears to fit one of the major characteristics of having an eating disorder. The study also shows how our America began to emphasize exercise and fitness in addition or in place of dieting. It should be noted that this study was conducted in 1992, and today these trends continue even more. Not only are "ideal" women supposed to be ridiculously underweight, but they are also supposed to be physically fit and toned without being too muscular. The picture on the left (1988) illustrates how the ideal female image ideal is thin and toned.

Below on the right is the cover of the May issue for Harper's Bazaar magazine (2002) which looks very similar to the 1988 Cosmopolitan cover. Both models are very thin, toned and have very little fat on their bodies. Unfortunately, the unattainable, ultra-thin female body image has not changed much from the late 80's to today.

Below on the left is a image of what models tend to look like today. It really illustrates just how thin the body 'ideal' for women has become (which is apparent by her hip bones that are protruding through her skin). Because the media has surrounded women with so many images like these and our culture has accepted this body type to be the 'ideal,' it makes sense that most women feel that their bodies are inadequate because they are basing their comparisons to these super slender body images that they come in contact with every day.


Most women I know are dissatisfied with their bodies. One source has estimated that around 80% of women are dissatisfied with their bodies (Katz, 2004). I often hear women insisting that their thighs, butts, and tummy are "too fat." It's sad that the media has pushed this unnatural body standard on women. These areas store more fat in the female body yet, these are the areas that women work the hardest to tone. Markula (1995) states that these problem areas, where female bodies store most fat, "are the very parts of our body that identify us as females: the rounded bellies, the larger hips, the thighs, the underarms" (p. 285). Why is it that women work the hardest to rid themselves of their most womanly areas? According to some researchers, it is because the ideal image today is more resemblant of a young male,with its tubular shape, narrow hips and toned muscles, than a female (Markula, 1995). Try as they may, most women are not shaped like this and when females attempt to attain this supposed ideal image and do not meet the demands, they often become frustrated, form a negative self-image, and perhaps, a distorted body image. Body image, in a nutshell, is the way we view our bodies, physical appearance, size, and shape and how we believe other people view the same attributes of our bodies. With all the ultra-thin media images in our culture today, it is difficult for women not to feel that their body is inadequate in some way. However, the truth is that the majority of females will never meet this cultural ideal because only 2% of American women are as thin as the fashion models they see (Katz, 2004). Statistically, according to Katz (2004), "the average American women is 5' 4" tall and weighs 140 pounds whereas the average American model is 5' 11" tall and weighs 117 pounds" (p.1).


From the Atkins to the Zone Diet, our culture has a list of diets from A to Z. The United States spends around 40 billion dollars in the diet industry every year (Spake, 2004). Our cultural beliefs are that if we just work hard enough, eat right, and exercise we too should be able to achieve this 'ideal' body. This industry targets women especially by saying with the right amount of money, and the correct help from a proper diet program , that they too can attain a body that is slender and firm. Many magazines directly focus upon women's health and fitness such as Shape, Self, Weight Watchers, Health, Fitness, Yoga Journal etc. It seems our culture has become very focused upon attaining the 'ideal' body.

According to Stice, Spangler, & Agras (2001), over 40% of teenage females report magazines to be their greatest source on dieting and health information and 60% of teenage females read at least one fashion magazine on a regular basis. Perhaps, this could explain why 91% of college women report that they have used dieting to curb their weight, 45% of women report (at any given time) that they are on a diet and why 51% of nine and ten year old girls report that being on a diet makes them feel better about themselves (Spake, 2004).

However, research has shown that the weight loss from a dieting plan is usually put back on and often the weight regained exceeds the weight of anindividual before they began diet. It is like a yo-yo effect; people diet, lose weight, regain more weight, and start a diet all over again. According to Wardlaw (2003), "only about 5% of people who follow commercial diet programs actually lose weight. Typically, one third of the weight lost during dieting is regained within in 1 year of the end of the dietary restriction, and almost all weight lost is regained within 3-5 years" (p. 358).

Additionally, dieters often want too see results quickly and buy into diets promising a 10-15 pound weekly weight loss. However, this goal is unhealthy. Wardlaw (2003) states that a more realistic and healthy diet plan would offer weight loss of 1 pound a week. A slow and steady weight loss is, perhaps, the only way to avoid yo-yo dieting. According to Keesey's set-point theory, our bodies have a set body weight and percentage of fat that is predetermined by our genetics. The hypothalamus has been linked to monitoring the amount of fat on our bodies and trying to keep this amount constant.

Therefore, according to this theory, genetics and the hypothalamus of the brain monitor our bodies by trying to keep our weight and fat content at a 'set-point.' When our bodies are being under/overfed then, we are biologically resisting this weight change by making physiological adjustments (Keesey & Hirvonen, 1997). Since this research suggests that we have a 'set-point' for our body weight and other evidence has shown that commercial diets do not work it seems confusing as to why so many American women are dieting. It seems that through the media and our own cultural views, we are given the message that we can change the biology of our bodies through a strict regimen of calorie counting and exercising.


It is not uncommon for people to believe that the media and advertisements have no effect on their beliefs or values they hold. However, this is simply untrue. According to Kilbourne (1987), although some people believe advertisements are trivial they have significant cumulative, unconscious effects. A clear-cut example of how our cultural standards are influenced by these advertisements can be is seen in the current emphasis placed on the ultra-thin female body. Advertising creates an "ultimate standard of worth, so that women are judged against this standard all the time, whether we choose to be or not" (Kilbourne, 1987). Therefore, advertisements are aimed at doing more than just selling their products, they supply us with ideas of normalcy and tell us what we should and should not be. Most advertisements show excessively thin, beautiful, young and flawless models displaying their products and women are repeatedly being exposed to these types of images both in printed ads, television, and movies. Being constantly shown these types of images, it becomes difficult for women to tell what is 'normal.' Kilbourne (1987) also suggests that it is even harder for women to not compare themselves to this 'ideal.'

Advertising is a multi-billion dollar a year industry. There is a great deal of profit for organizations and corportaions to make in advertising. The individuals that make these advertisements are not stupid and are aware that many women feel self-conscious about their bodies. Hence, "the images that are presented in advertising are designed to create an illusion, a fantasy ideal that will keep women continually consuming. The influential power of the diet, fashion, cosmetic and beauty industries and their advertising strategies target this..." (Dalnet IRC, 2002). As previously stated, the mass media specifically targets women to believe that they can achieve this 'ideal' if they adhere to the instructions of following a prescribed diet and exercise regime. However these images are not even real, the ads of the very beautiful and thin models are altered through photographic techniques such as airbrushing, soft-focus cameras, composite figures, editing and filters. According to Thompson and Heinberg (1999) "print and electronic media images blur the boundaries between a fictionalized ideal and reality. Therefore, these 'ideal' images that are represented in the mass media are not only unreal but also very misleading" (p.340).

The picture on the left is of Britanny Murphy was from the movie Clueless in 1995. The picture on the right was taken at the VH1 Big Awards in 2002. Notice anything different besides hair color? Her face in 1995 is much rounder and seems chubby when compared with the 2002 photograph obviously showing that she has had a major weight loss during this time. Why did she lose all of her curves and transform herself into a toothpick? When I watched the movie Clueless, I never once thought she looked overweight but now she looks severely underweight.



These pictures support the idea that movies and Hollywood actresses contribute to the unhealthy, extremely thin body image that is the current trend in our culture.

This picture to the left shows another extremely skinny actress: Calista Flockhart. She looks severly underweight, but continues to to be Hollywood icons sending females the same message that is portrayed in our media, namely that the ultra-thin body is in.


Because women begin to compare themselves with these images of the 'ideal' female body, it has been supported through research that exposures of the mass media could lead to "body image dissatisfaction, and eating disorder symptomatology in both girls and women" (Thompson & Heinberg, 1999, p. 344). Other researchers tend to agree with this notion. For example, Halliwell and Dittmar (2004) conducted a study that focused upon how effective women's advertisements were using both thin and average-sized women. As suspected, they found that women (internalizing the thin ideal) who were shown advertisements of very slender models had more anxiety about their bodies than women who were shown the average-sized models. Interestingly, these researchers also discovered that the advertisements were just as effective for both body types. According to Halliwell and Dittmar (2004), "this implies that advertisers can successfully use larger, but attractive, models and perhaps avoid increasing body-focused anxiety in a large proportion of women" (p.104).

It is important to note that internalizing the body ideal is when women accept the sociocultural principles of what the media portrays and internalize these attitudes to the same degree. Unfortunately, the more an individual is surrounded by these images, the more likely they will be to internalize these attitudes. Stice, Sprangler, & Agras conducted a longitudinal study in 2001 to see if the thin female ideal portrayed by the media would have long-lasting effects on body dissatisfaction. They found that these images have the most detrimental effects upon vulnerable adolescents. What does vulnerable mean? Basically, vulnerable women are those that internalize the ideal, perceive more pressure to be thin than other women, lack social support, and have a higher body dissatisfaction (Stice, Sprangler & Agras, 2001).

Body image dissatisfaction is widespread for women in Western culture (Posavac, Posavac & Weigel, 2001). Apparently, because dissatisfaction is so prevalent in the US, being a woman and being worried about your body and weight is considered part of being female. According to Garner, Rockert, Olmsted, Johnson & Coscina (1985), having a body image disturbance could be an important link to developing an eating disorder.


Wardlaw (2003) defines eating disorders as "severe alterations in eating patterns linked to physiological changes; the alterations are associated with food restricting, binge eating, purging, and fluctuations in weight; they also involve a number of emotional and cognitive changes that affect the way a person perceives and experiences his or her body" (p.418). However, it is not the eating disorder that is the real problem at hand (although they pose extremely dangerous health risks) it is the underlying causes such as how women feel about themselves (Wardlaw, 2003). The media portrayed, ideal female body plays a role in increasing negative body images when an individual can not measure up to these unrealistic standards. In addition, internalizing the ideal has been linked to negative body images and eating disorder symptomalogy for both adolescents and adult females. Therefore, it seems that certain cultural values portrayed by the media in print, television, and movies is adding to the development of eating disorders. The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating. It has been approximated that nearly 7 million women suffer some type of eating disorder (Spake, 2004).


Women suffereing from anorexia nervosa have an irrational fear of becoming obese, a preoccupation or with their weight and food, a distorted body-image, persistently starve themselves and deny their appetites (Dictionary.com, 2004). Anorexic women are defined by weighing less than 85% of expected body weight for their age or having a BMI of 17.5 % or less (Wardlaw, 2003). When compared to the study of Playboy centerfold's and Miss American Contestants (Wiseman, Mosimann & Ahrens, 1992) it is evident that the majority of these women could be defined as having a major characteristic of this disorder. Since the ideal images from this study were taken from areas of the media, it appears that our culture is saying anorexic- like bodies are in and surrounding women with thousands of these images everyday. Although there are a number of factors that contribute to the development of this disorder, it is safe to say that the media plays a large role.

The image on the right was taken from a pro-anorexia website from the section marked "Thinspiration Photos." A pro-ana site is a site for women suffering from anorexia that claim that their disorder is a choice in lifestyle, not a disease. The creator of this site wrote on this page, "Some of us like the chiseled look, some like the frail look, some just wanna see bones. Whatever your ana taste, hopefully you will find a picture here to trigger and motivate you."

The images below portray how an individual suffering from anorexia nervosa look at severe stages. Notice how the body of the model resembles the women who have anorexia. Previous research has stated that models fit one of the major criteria for being anorexic by their weight and, by comparing these pictures, it seems that the model on the right could also be classified as having the disorder by simply noting how similar her body is to the anorexic women.

Supermodel Kate Moss is known for having an excessively thin body. She became well-known after posing for a number of Calvin Klein advertisements like the one on the left. However, perhaps the caption in this picture would better explain the images that the media portrays to women. By showing these images, targeting women's insecurities about their bodies and knowing that only 2% of American women actually have this skinny body type, the media is, in a sense, promoting "starvation imagery."

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia is another eating disorder that primarily affects women. However, bulimia is categorized by a binging and purging cycle. According to Wardlaw (2003), women affected by this eating disorder eat large amounts of food in one sitting (binge eating) which is followed by a purging from the body through vomiting, misuing laxatives, diuretics, or enemas. In addition, bulimics often use alternate methods such as intense exercise or fasting to balance the effects of excess calories.

Binge-eating disorder (compulsive overeating)

This eating disorder is very similar to bulimia because it too is characterized by recurring binge eating. However, these individual's do not purge and are classified as feeling as though they have lost control over their eating patterns. Individual's suffering from compulsive overeating are generally categorized as binging twice a week for at least six months. Many times these binging episodes are provoked by feelings of extreme hunger, wanting to eat "forbidden foods" anger, depression, anxiety, helplessness, and frustration (Wardlaw, 2003, p. 418).

Why is it that binge-eaters crave forbidden foods and what makes these foods forbidden? As previously explained in Part One, America is loaded with fast food restaurants, vending machines full of junk food, and a soda machine for every 97 people. It surely does not seem that any food (besides fruits and vegetables) are forbidden in our diet. In fact, we place value on the option of being able to drive to our favorite fast food joint grab a cheeseburger, greasy fries, and a soda to wash it all down because it tastes good, is more convenient than making a home-cooked meal and is relatively inexpensive. The media surrounds us with fast food, junk food, soda, and candy advertisements while at the same time it surrounds us with virtually flawless, excessively thin female body images. So, in a way, the media is promoting both forbidden foods and an ultra-thin female body image. Is it any wonder that individuals who binge on junk food feel angry, frustrated, and depressed? Perhaps they are confused by the conflicting messages that the media portrays which says eat unhealthy food but be sure to maintain a super slim body.

Want to learn more about the topics on this webpage? Visit these other sites:

  • America's Diet
  • Meat N Potatoes
  • Image Ideal
  • Media Monster
  • Super Sized Americans