August 01, 2009

Thinking Like a Sociologist: Understanding Changes in the "Ideal" Body Size

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

I have been working on a research project this summer that includes analyzing movie fan magazines published throughout the twentieth century. As I examined the articles and ads, I was struck by how even back in the 1910s ads for weight loss products were very common. By the 1920s, weight loss had become a topic in several magazine stories too.

Each year in my deviance class, we talk about how weight norms shift and change over time. The most common explanation students offer is a reasonable one: that super-skinny people are celebrated in media, from movies, television, and magazines, to gossip websites that criticize celebrities for being “fat” if they merely look normal.

This is makes sense; certainly popular culture shapes the way in which we understand beauty.

But thinking like sociologists, we need to dig deeper. Why, for instance, are there significant cultural differences in body dissatisfaction? Research has repeatedly found that African American girls feel greater body satisfaction than white girls, for instance. Why might this be? One study concluded that parental emphasis on dieting and dissatisfaction was the best predictor of teens’ feelings about their bodies. So culture matters, but not only media culture.

Here’s another sociological question the media answer does not address: why do body ideals change over time in the media?

It might seem like standards of beauty insist that women get thinner and thinner over time, but my magazine research reveals that the relationship is more complicated than that. Yes, today’s supermodels like Kate Moss are much thinner than 1950s icon Marilyn Monroe and her fuller-figured peers. But to understand why, we must examine this issue more deeply.

Let’s go back to the 1920s, when ads for weight loss products and articles about getting thinner appeared more regularly in the movie magazines I’m studying.

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Photoplay, June 1925

If you take a look at a snippet from the 1925 article above, you can see that fame and material success were considered the rewards of silent movie star Clara Bow’s weight loss. The article also describes her as a flapper, or a young woman who flouted gender norms of domesticity and docility. Wearing bobbed hair, short dresses and abandoning full skirts and corsets, flappers also challenged notions of beauty.

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Motion Picture Classic, November 1924, p. 21

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Photoplay June 1925, p. 142

But thinking like sociologists, we need to think even more about why this style would have changed when it did and not, say ten years prior. A major political shift took place in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and women gained a constitutional right to vote in the United States.

Historian Joan Jacobs Blumberg, author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, considers this major change a watershed moment in women’s bodies. No longer bound by legal restrictions—women could increasingly inherit property and maintain custody of their children in the event of divorce—Blumberg argues that self control heightened at this time.

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Photoplay, September 1926, p. 30

The growing prosperity of the 1920s also provided women with a bit more independence in their teen and young adult years. More women could attend college, though certainly not anywhere near the proportion we see today, but this too provided more opportunity in an increasingly advanced industrial economy. While the kinds of jobs women had were still very limited, the growth of department stores created new professions that gave women opportunities to gain a bit more autonomy.

I noticed a very interesting change when reading magazines from the 1930s: they offered advice and ads about how to gain weight! There were still occasional ads for weight loss products that rudely proclaimed how terrible being fat was, but an overwhelming number of ads chided skinny women. Yes, we do see frighteningly thin celebrities called out on magazine covers today if they appear anorexic, but I have no memory of ever seeing an ad promising weight gain like the one below.

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Motion Picture, February 1934, p. 83

So why would thinness suddenly go out of style? One clue rests in the lower right of the ad: the National Recovery Administration (NRA) logo, a depression-era agency that set fair competition standards for businesses. At a time of want, such as the Great Depression, being skinny could reflect poverty, while in times of plenty being thin implies self-control. Developing countries today with serious poverty problems don’t idealize thinness the way that wealthier nations do.

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Photoplay, September 1936, p. 72

As you can see, body ideals can shift relatively quickly due to economic and political circumstances. More recently, we might consider why the 1980s body image, personified by supermodels like Christie Brinkley, focused on women as athletic. Brinkley made the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue three years in a row and frequently appeared on fashion magazine covers.

Contrast that powerful 1980s ideal with the late 1960s icon model Twiggy, so-named for being stick thin. While we often identify the 1960s as the time when the second wave of the feminist movement really gained traction, it wasn’t until the 1980s when women made major professional inroads and began to take on positions of power at work.

Thinking like a sociologist, we can see that idealized images of weight are complex and a product of social, political, and economic realities. In the United States, we have an ongoing battle between consumption and gratification and the Puritan Ethic of self-restraint and self-control. Have you ever noticed at grocery story check-out lines the magazines with a big piece of cake on the cover and promise of a new diet inside? What other sociological factors do you think make the images of beauty shift in the media?

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Comments

I'm speculating here, but it may also be that the recogniztion of women's rights that has developed in the 20th century may have also created a de facto state of competition between women. This competition may be for access to jobs, social status, and even relationship/marriage opportunities. Combine this with our social constructs of femininity and we can see how physical beauty might be considered an asset. This may also drive the extremes. If thin is beautiful, and beauty is advantageous, then thinner is more beautiful and more advantageous. Large breats are beautiful? Great! Then larger breasts must be more beautiful! I've not looked at this issue like you have, but I wonder if there is competitive language in these adds that might confirm this speculation.

I think that fashion is all about cycling - at some moment it returns to its starting point. Appearance and outlook is all about fashion and popularity and it goes in cycles just like any other fashion attributes. So at some point, I believe, the modern unisex style will give way to older, more feminine styles. This is my personal opinion.

I believe the images of beauty should be correlated with health.

It makes complete sense that as the feminist movements took shape, so did Americans' ideals of a skinnier woman. Since divorce became more socially acceptable as well as dating, even as far as the sexual movement, women may have taken a completely different look at themselves. Knowing that it wasn't as drastic a taboo anymore to want and work for attention from more than one man led women to work more on their personal appearances.

Why the media makes us idolize the twig-skinny celebrities I'm not sure I have a clear of opinion of. Maybe its the assumed correlation of thinness and wealth. If you are thin then you must have the extra time to exercise, cook healthy foods, and diet. You must have the extra money to afford organic and healthier options. Atleast to me it seems as if people have begun to connect excess weight with poverty and lack of weight with excess finances.

I loved this article it really showed the shifts in the norm for body image. That's always been an intriguing subject to me and now I'm learning of deviance in my Sociology class. It says that anorexia is a positive deviance. These articles you show tell what the norm was and how people conformed to these with the media.

I think that this article was very interesting. I never thought about how current readiness of food could shape beliefs on body image. I think that now days it has a lot to do with being healthy. With medical advances we now know how many problems obesity can cause with the heart. If you eat right and exercise, it shows in the way that you look. It also shows that you are healthy and not at high risk of disease.

It may also have to do with class and wealth. The more money you have, the more money you can afford to spend on fresh, healthy foods. However, anyone can get a double cheese burger full of fat and calories from McDonalds for just $1. This could explain how even women who are at a healthy weight, are still considered fat.

Ariana Menchaca
ID,k00340946
Crn#31654

Body image and also how people look at weight has always been a great issue that I love talking about and also supporting. I have always been a strong believer about being happy about who you are and accepting what you may look like. That we should not look at the media as a way of trying to become and also look like. In the article ,Thinking Like a Sociologist: Understanding Changes in the “Ideal “Body Size By Karen Sternheimer,i was amazing to see that not only was there Ads about weight lose, there was ads about how to gain weight also. Sometimes I look at why have we just been looking at the media and how we look at being thin is the best and most wanting. We all look at weight too much, also judge celebrities how they look. We need to all start having heart and look inside for true beauty not just what looks “hot”!But i like how this showed how in the world it went up and down how we look at size and accept a body type.

American women are living in a time when ultrathin bodies are in.Flipping thru the pages of a womens magazine, there are entire sections devoted to diet and exercise tips as well as pictures of extremely thin models. The media portrays an unhealthy body standard for American women to look up to. As the full figured female body was replaced by the ultra thin, our country saw an increase in eating disorders and a preoccupation with obesidy. A dissatisfaction with with our bodies can also lead to eating disorders.

Now in days media has made the average American women obsessed with getting in shape. Every magazine cover or ad shows us women what we should look like. Even though we are not pressure to be skinny like in the 1920's we are still pressured to beleive that their is an "ideal" body size.

This article makes me feel sad for the women of today who suffer from eating disorders and body dimorphism. In the olden times, being "fat" used to be looked at as a good thing because it meant you could afford to eat fine food. In the 1920s, women did not want to be stick-thin because men liked curvier women. Now, from looking at hollywood tabloids and watching movies with celebrities, the American people see that being skinny equals being accepted. People are obsessed with being the perfect size and shape, and this is not how life should be lived. They do not realize that not everybody is born to be the same size, and we cannot just conform to this epidemic of thin-ness.

It is sad how consumed the American culture has become with being the perfect size, counting calories, and going to extremes to be the size that is acceptable and desirable. As much I hate to hear the words: "I hate my body," I have found myself saying that too often, and also from most of the women around me. It is really interesting to see how culture has developed and re-defined that ideal image through the years, not just through media, but to see how much the circumastances that people live in (i.e the Great Depression) shape this. It would be nice if we could get rid of all of these things that are constantly telling women that they are not beautiful unless they look like the model on a magazine cover. It reminds me of the commercial that takes an ordinary girl and transforms her into a model that looks nothing like her using tons of make-up and photoshop.

It is sad how consumed the American culture has become with being the perfect size, counting calories, and going to extremes to be the size that is acceptable and desirable. As much I hate to hear the words: "I hate my body," I have found myself saying that too often, and also from most of the women around me. It is really interesting to see how culture has developed and re-defined that ideal image through the years, not just through media, but to see how much the circumastances that people live in (i.e the Great Depression) shape this. It would be nice if we could get rid of all of these things that are constantly telling women that they are not beautiful unless they look like this or that. It reminds me of the commercial that takes an ordinary girl and transforms her into a model that looks nothing like her using tons of make-up and photoshop.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hibyAJOSW8U

I loved the link above because it is soooo true. Beauty in today's society is truly distorted. Women who are curvier are just not what the media want to see. The media makes being skinny the only possibility of beauty and takes in no consideration that fuller women are also beautiful. I'm not really sure if wealth any correlation but maybe it just has to do with women idolizing celebrity because they are what we see everyday.

I loved the link above because it is soooo true. Beauty in today's society is truly distorted. Women who are curvier are just not what the media want to see. The media makes being skinny the only possibility of beauty and takes in no consideration that fuller women are also beautiful. I'm not really sure if wealth any correlation but maybe it just has to do with women idolizing celebrity because they are what we see everyday.

YOU KNOW AS A KID YOU ENVISION YOURSELF DOING THINGS THAT ADULTS DO, SUCH AS BEING A PROFESSIONAL VOCALIST, OR MAYBE AN ACTOR/ACTRESS. AS YOU GET OLDER (IF YOUR DREAMS DON'T CHANGE) YOU FIND YOURSELF EMULATING PEOPLE IN THOSE SAME PROFESSIONS. FOR EXAMPLE BEYONCE IS ONE OF THE GREATEST POP STARS OF OUR TIME, AND THERE ARE A LOT OF FEMALES WHO WANT TO BE WHERE SHE IS AND WILL DO ANYTHING TO GET THERE, SUCH AS CHANGING THEIR HAIR, OR THEIR WARDROBE AND EVEN THEIR BODY IMAGE. THE MEDIA SETS THESE CELEBRITIES ON A PEDESTAL, AND SOCIETY ENVIES THESE PEOPLE. THEY TRY TO MOLD THEMSELVES INTO IMAGES OF THESE CELEBRITIES.

After reading this article, I can see how the media and economy can affect the image of a woman’s body. In the 1920’s, women were given rights to vote, which gave them a voice in society. It also changed the way they dressed and appeared in the public’s eye. The 1930’s brought in the depression-era, which brought in a new body image. Having skinny bodies was about poverty and a heavier body was about wealth. As the media changed with the economy so did the shape of the woman’s body. Many young women today have developed unhealthy opinions of what her body should look like and how she should dress. This is because of the influence of advertisements in magazines, television, and the internet. In my opinion society should focus more on family values and developing healthy atmospheres for our young women today.

I enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for a wonderful job!

It's all about the media and what people see. You can't flip through a magazine or watch t.v. without seeing an advertisement for a weight loss supplement. After a while of seeing these things people begin to believe them. What the media says is right to some people, they figure if it's in a magazine and all over t.v. it must be the way to go. If suddenly the media was posting ads on gaining weight because it makes you look wealthier then women would probably try to gain weight. It's all about what's in and the culture. In some countries men see women as disgusting if they're skinny. But unlike other countries in America women are striving to be as thin as possible. It's what the famous people do, so it must be right, right?

I found this article particularly interesting primarily because body image is something that I struggle with. I have struggled with anorexia on and off throughout junior high and high school, and it continues to stay with me to this day. I also am extremely interested in how the media plays a role in our lives, and how it shapes who we are as human beings. I know that I have an issue with restraining myself from certain foods, and if I give in and eat something unhealthy, I then feel guilty later when I’m at the gym and reading or watching media advertisements about weight loss. I feel a constant pressure to lose weight, and my inner self is always telling me I’m not good enough, not skinny enough, and not pretty enough because of the media’s influence on my personal self.

My sociological interest in the article included the concepts of culture, media/advertising, and the self. Each of these components of sociology fascinates me, as my major is Media Studies. As the media industry continues to rise, we have noticed precisely how much it affects our everyday lives, as people are constantly attached to their iPhones, Laptops, and iPads. Our society will soon be completely consumed in media, as it seems that print books, magazines, newspapers, etc. are no longer popular. In addition, we have seen an increase in eating disorders of young teens, and I believe that this is a direct result to the media and advertisements constantly encouraging us to lose weight. All in all, I found this article extremely interesting and applicable to both my life and the future as well.

I was struck by how even back in the 1910s ads for weight loss products were very common. By the 1920s, weight loss had become a topic in several magazine stories too.

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