What the Research Says

The Changing Ideal |  Prevalence of Body Ideal Messages

Psychological Effects | Who's to Blame?


The Changing Ideal

Whether it is hairstyles or hemlines, throughout history fashion and beauty standards have always been in a state of change.  This holds true for the ideal body type as well.  In times when food was scarce, a plump woman was considered quite attractive possibly because it was a good indicator of wealth and status.  In recent more prosperous times, a heavy body is not considered an indicator of wealth or status in women.  If anything, thinness is.  Among North American women there is a strong relationship between social class and thinness and dieting.  Incidentally, rates of bulimia and anorexia nervosa are higher in this group as well (Garner, et al., 1980).  Eating disorders are so pervasive that while only about 33% of college women in one study had what could be considered normal eating habits, 61% of them had eating behavior problems of some sort (Rockett & McMinn, 1990).

During the 19th century ideal body size, as measured by the mean bust-to-waist ratio of models in Vogue and Ladies Home Journal, has fluctuated.  In the 1910's it began to plummet until the ratio was down to about 1.1 in 1925 with the flappers.  (Just think- their busts and waists were practically the exact same size!)  From there it went back up until 1950 when it began a steady decline almost back down to flapper levels in the late 1970's (Silverstein, et al., 1986).  An often sited study by David. M. Garner, et al., showed a steady decline over a twenty-year period in the weights of Playboy centerfolds and Miss America contestants as compared to the average weights in the population for their height (using population norms from 1959).  Moreover, in the 1970's the pageant winners even weighed significantly less than the other contestants.  Meanwhile, actuarial statistics published in 1979 showed that the average female weight for the population had increased during that twenty-year period.  Also diet articles were found in popular women's magazines with increasing frequency (Garner, et al., 1980).  Basically, the ideal body size promoted by mass society and media has become more and more unattainable over the relatively short time it takes a child to become an adult.


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