Being Seduced by Shape.

There are an increasing number of teenagers suffering from eating disorder, especially females. I continue to be increasingly concerned by this obsession with body shape and weight. Quite often I get these slim young women who come in and tell me, “Doctor, I need to lose weight”. More often than not I have stopped being polite and I tell these women to have a life.

However we could wonder about the factors that influence individuals to refuse to maintain a minimally normal body weight, harbor an intense fear of gaining weight, exhibit significant distortion in the perception of the ideal shape or size of their bodies, as well as feel dissatisfaction with their body shape and size

A brief look at the history of attractive/desirable body types reveals that these trends were always influenced by public perception. The lower classes always looked towards the higher classes for their model of the desirable body types.

Various strategies are sometimes employed to temporarily or permanently alter the shape of a body. The most common included dieting and exercise. At times artificial devices were used or surgery was employed. Breast size could be artificially increased or decreased. Falsies, breast prostheses or padded bras may have been used to increase the apparent size of a woman’s breasts, while minimiser bras may have been used to reduce the apparent size. Breasts could be surgically enlarged using breast implants or reduced by the systematic removal of parts of the breasts.

Historically, the greatest efforts have been made to reduce a woman’s waistline. Boned corsets were used for several centuries, but during the twentieth century these were mostly replaced with more flexible foundation garments. Where corsets are used for waist reduction, it may been for temporary reduction by occasional use or permanent reduction by people who were often referred to as tightlacers. Liposuction is the common current surgical method of reducing the waist size.

Each society develops a general perception of what an ideal female body shape would be like. These ideals are generally reflected in the art produced by or for a society. The ideal or preferred female body size and shape has varied over time and continues to vary between cultures; but a preference for a small waist has remained fairly constant throughout history. A low waist-hip ratio has often been seen as a sign of good health and reproductive potential.

A low waist-hip ratio has also often been regarded as an indicator of attractiveness of a woman, but recent research suggests that attractiveness is more correlated to body mass index than waist-hip ratio, contrary to previous belief. Historically, according to Devendra Singh, there was a trend for slightly larger women in the 17th and 18th centuries, as typified by the paintings of Rubens, but that in general there has been a preference for a slimmer waist in Western culture. She notes that “The finding that the writers describe a small waist as beautiful suggests instead that this body part – a known marker of health and fertility – is a core feature of feminine beauty that transcends ethnic differences and cultures.”

New research suggests that apple shape women have the highest risk of developing heart disease while hourglass shape women have the lowest. The waist-hip ratio (WHR) is a person’s waist measurement divided by the hip measurement. Notwithstanding wide cultural differences in preferences for female build, scientists have discovered that the waist-hip ratio of any build is very strongly correlated to attractiveness across all cultures. Women with a 0.7 WHR (waist circumference that is 70% of the hip circumference) are usually rated as more attractive by men from European cultures. Such diverse beauty icons as Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and the Venus de Milo all have ratios around 0.7.

In other cultures, preferences vary, ranging from 0.6 in China, to 0.8 or 0.9 in parts of South America and Africa, and divergent preferences based on ethnicity, rather than nationality, have also been noted. WHR has been found to be a more efficient predictor of mortality in older people than waist circumference or body mass index (BMI). In the early days (18th Century) it was both class consciousness and the works of great artists like Botticelli and Michelangelo influenced public perception.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the printed media ( ie newspapers, television and the media), the popular perception of what looked good became what was fashionable. So the media has always influenced public perception. However what is happening now is that the divisions that existed between the different cultures and societies is dissolving (ie East and West, Indian and Chinese etc). We are witnessing the melding of different models of desired shapes.

Advertising in teen magazines and on television typically glamorizes skinny models who do not resemble the average woman. In fact, today’s models generally weight 23% less then the average woman. Considering the average person in the United States sees approximately 3,000 ads in magazines, billboards, and television every day, your teenager is getting the wrong message about body image much too often. Media targeting teenage girls are emphasizing the ideal of thinness as beauty. When you stop and think about the fact that the average height and weight for a model is 5’10” and 110 lbs, and the height and weight for the average woman is 5’4″ and 145 lbs, it’s easy to see why this creates a tremendous health risk for young girls.

This leads to starving young skinny women who have difficulty getting pregnant because their BMI is too low for healthy hormonal balance. If they do become pregnant, they often give birth to children who have subtle deficiencies that impact their physical and emotional health. These young women eventually develop osteoporosis in their later years because of their early dieting (See Blog on “Osteoporosis). “Oh what a tangled web we weave”. The media has a lot to answer for.

Be well
Dr Sundardas

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