WARNING: Please be warned that psychological disorders and eating disorders are discussed in the following article in relation to body image.
By Tia Bush.
Body trends are exactly that-trends! These trends have shaped the way in which the female body is viewed by society and has therefore influenced the way in which women view their own bodies. These trends, which will discussed in more depth later in the article, are an example of how the social and cultural construction of beauty ideals has defined beauty for women. As a result, women have and will continue to go to various lengths to conform to these standards.
Cosmetic surgery is one of the lengths that women will go to and is becoming increasingly popular; so popular in fact that the industry has an estimated value of £2.5 billion as of 2023 in the UK alone. The cosmetic surgery industry was built on exploiting the insecurities of women, by convincing them that the only way to achieve their ideal body is to pay to have their bodies permanently altered. This has caused women to suffer financially, emotionally, and physically; all of which has inevitably had a detrimental effect on their overall health.
By analysing popular body trends of the 20th and 21st century, the societal pressures that women are exposed to regarding these standards are evident. Naomi Wolf, a feminist author and journalist, has dedicated her career to research relating to what she has labelled ‘The Beauty Myth’. Wolf published her book titled ‘The Beauty Myth’ in 1990, which has remained an insightful piece of written work in the subject area; evident in how the findings from the book are still relevant today. Wolf implies that cosmetic surgery “processes the bodies of woman-made women, who make up the vast majority of its patient pol, into man-made women”, which suggests that the industry is primarily based on satisfying the male gaze by encouraging women to change the appearance of their bodies.
The ideal body in the 1920s could be described as ‘androgynous’; to have a flat chest, no waist, and an overall boyish figure were the requirements of the time to possess the ‘ideal’ body. In contrast to this, the 1950s portrayed Marilyn Monroe as having the ‘ideal’ body; an hourglass figure, curves, large breasts, and a slim waist. The differences between these two body types are vast and clear evidence of how the ‘ideal body’ is a social construction. The ever-changing nature of these ideals has resulted in the formation of these trends. Analysing the trends of the last century show evidence of a pattern whereby the ideals are recurring; for example, the preferred ideals in the 1920s are similar to those in the 1990s; both sporting ‘androgynous’ figures, and those from the 1950s are similar to those considered to be ideal today, such as the ‘hourglass figure’.
The Impact of body trends
The research carried out by The Mental Health Foundation suggests that the impact of trying to adhere to such standards has a negative domino effect on the other aspects of a woman’s life, in addition to their mental health; “higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders”. The evolution of social media has further impacted the views and expectations of impressionable young females and is further evidenced by the statistics of a survey completed by the same foundation which found that 31% of young females felt ashamed by the appearance of their bodies in 2019. This is a frightening statistic, and one that should be addressed to prevent, or at the very least reduce, the psychological disorders and eating disorders that are becoming increasingly common among the younger generation, e.g. depression, body dysmorphia, and bulimia.
It is important as women, especially as women, that we continue to challenge the ideals of female bodies and beauty portrayed by society to improve the overall health of women. As of today, women suffer psychologically, emotionally, and physically as a result of their countless attempts to adhere to those ideals. If we are ever going to bring about change regarding women’s health, the first step has to be to change the mindset of women; to empower them, and to improve their confidence in a way that will enable them to make decisions regarding their body for themselves.