Skinny Isn’t An Ideal- Evolutionary Arguments Against Being Thin 3

Skinny or ultra thin is not an ideal

A perfect example of an underweight model photo-shopped to look even thinner than she already is.

Skinny Isn’t An Ideal- Evolutionary Arguments Against Being Thin

 

Here in the West, we live in an environment where the predominant body image ideal for women is to be thin- being skinny is considered the Holy Grail for many of today’s women and images in the media reflect this idealization as most popular models are ultra thin and further enhanced through post image processing to look even thinner than they already are. The ultra thin look unfortunately embodies a certain degree frailty and lack of physical ability, with low to no muscle tone and a bodyweight to height ratio that falls far below recommended standards for healthy body composition.[1] It is somewhat ironic that only a very small percentage of Western women meet the ultra thin ideal [16] and that over the past few decades women’s body sizes have increased while societal ideas of ‘beauty’ call for thinner and thinner looking bodies.[43] Exposure to the ultra thin ideal is practically unavoidable as advertisements, television, movies and magazines constantly bombard us with images of tall, (usually white) thin models and actresses with an almost anorexic BMI of under 18.5- one that is far below that of the average American woman. The discrepancy between the unattainable sociocultural ultra thin ideal and the average Western female’s body has had far reaching effects on the female Western population. So much so that Western female concern over their physical appearance is termed ‘normative discontent’ since the overwhelming majority of women today harbor some degree of insecurity regarding their body image.[44, 45] Such body dissatisfaction is a major is a major risk factor for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia as well as mood disorders such as depression.[3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8] While there are many discussions about the root causes of body dissatisfaction and the fact that attempting to be ultra thin is unhealthy both physically and psychologically we seldom stop to consider that the idea of being thin goes against our evolutionary past and possibly against our genetic makeup. In this article we look at the ultra thin standard of beauty from an evolutionary standpoint and show that not only is not a universal ideal but rather a path towards shame and misery. Thank you for reading my work and do be sure to share it with someone who would benefit from reading it!

 

The Evolutionary Argument Against Being Thin- Conflicting Ideas Of Beauty in Other Cultures

Skinny and thin is not a universal ideal

While the thin look is highly coveted here in the West, in many other parts of the world being thin is not a standard of beauty.

While millions of women in Western countries believe that being skinny as an ideal, the models, actresses and celebrities who embody this standard of beauty would have a very difficult time being perceived as attractive by the standards of most non-Westernized inhabitants of our planet. [10] One of the problems is that we like to think that our standards of beauty are somehow ubiquitous and all women should aspire to be as thin as possible, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Cultures differ widely in their attitudes towards female body fat levels [9,11, 12 13] and most undeveloped countries associate having a considerable amount of body fat with high status.[9] The exact opposite of how body fat levels are perceived in North America and Europe where millions of women are diet obsessively in a bid to become as thin as they possibly can- often with adverse physical and psychological consequences. There are exceptions though, as minorities in Western countries (who typically have lower incomes) tend to identify with a heavier look as an ideal, while white women see a far thinner look as being the epitome of what it means to be beautiful. The standard explanation for these different perceptions of beauty has always been that people in poorer countries and those of lower socioeconomic status in developed countries have far lesser access to food. Consequently a woman who is a bit on the heavier side would be assumed to have an abundant food supply and thus more likely to be both fertile and in good health. A practical ideal that those of lesser means would logically strive to attain.[9]

 

As reasonable as this may sound, the food supply hypothesis does not stand up to closer scrutiny, as men who are fatter in developing countries are often perceived as lazy and not hardworking- negative traits that make them undesirable as mates. More significant is the reversed notion that being thin in affluent countries is a sign that you are affluent enough to know where your next meal is coming from so you can afford to control your caloric intake.[36] On the surface this certainly sounds does plausible, but thinness cannot logically be a symbol of status because it is impossible for an outside observer to know whether someone is thin because they choose to be thin or because they are impoverished and have a limited food supply.[10] ‘Pro-skinny-as-a-sign-of-wealth’ explanations also do not factor in how being thin would have been an evolutionary advantage for women and how it could ever have been an aid to the continued development and survival of the human species.

 

The Evolutionary Argument Against Being Thin- The Importance Of Fat

 

Being thin is not always healthy

From an evolutionary standpoint, humans would never have survived to modern times if being ultra thin was an ideal that early women strived to emulate.

Fat has a very unfavorable connotation in this part of the world but it does nonetheless play an important biological role in human females. Fat acts a as a storage mechanism for calories in the event of reduced food supplies, it provides insulation against cold temperatures and plays a major role in endocrine function by regulating the onset and maintenance of ovulation. [14,15] By storing calories, in our ancestral environments were there wasn’t always ample supplies of food, fat enabled our survival in times of famine and the allowed for the continuation of the species by allowing women to bring a baby to full term and keep the infant alive through successful lactation.[13] Before the invention of effective baby formula in the 20th Century, all human new born infants who were not breastfed would die of starvation as they are unable to consume any other calorie source besides human milk, so it was imperative that mothers had adequate body fat stores to support the high caloric demand that breast feeding imposes or have the child nursed by another lactating female. [18] Keeping that in mind, from an evolutionary point of view, those who were underweight (sporting the highly coveted skinny look that is idealized in the West) would have difficulty conceiving much less being able to bring a baby to term or breastfeed. Models and those who strive to be underweight today regularly struggle with amenorrhea and very seldom are able to lactate. [19]

 

Being ultra thin, would reduce estrogen store and limit not only fertility, but also increase incidence of osteoporosis and the woman’s ability to survive food shortages and the constant physical demands of the pre-agricultural age. Consequently, women with higher body fat levels would have higher rates of survival than thin ones and ancestral males would logically favored ‘fatter’ women as they would increase the likelihood of successful mating and child bearing.[20] Consequently, not having an ultra low body fat percentage can be thought of as a universal human standard of beauty, one that may have been warped in the same way the human diet has been negatively and radically changed as a result of industrialization and the social and physical changes that come with living in today’s world. That said, if our ancestors emulated today’s Western standard of thinness it would have guaranteed the demise of the human race in our food scarce ancestral environments.[10]

 

 

The Evolutionary Argument Against Being Thin- Historic Standards of Beauty

 

skinny Egyptian women

Women of high status in ancient Egypt saw being ultra thin as a ideal and interestingly enough the first accounts of lactation failure come from that period.

To support the pre-historic ideal of women not being thin, we have more than enough evidence of the idealization of a rounded female body in pre-historic art[21,22] and as a recurring theme in Western art as well until relatively recently. Our obsession with thinness came hundreds of thousands of years after the origin of our species and the early civilizations that did embrace a skinny ideal did so at a price.[21] Egyptian art for example, shows the idealization of a linear, thin and skinny physique for women of higher status- a look indistinguishable from the underweight, ultra thin ideal of today. Interestingly enough, our earliest records of lactation failure and the need for wet nurses come from historic Egyptian records dating back to 1500 BC as women emulating the thin ideal were apparently unable to breastfeed and we can surmise would have had difficulty conceiving as well. [23,24] In China a rounded, soft belly was an ideal for women as it was believed that a woman’s ch’i or vital energy resided in the lower abdomen. Women were ideally slim, but never to the degree of modern Western standards as they always had some fat in the abdominal region. [25] Ironically, from the fertile looking female portrayals of early prehistoric art to the busty and rounded women of the Renaissance period the idealized female in the Western World was somewhat voluptuous in nature as well. In fact a certain degree of body fat has been a societal Western ideal from the beginning of recorded Western history up until the 1960’s when Marilyn Monroe’s curvaceous figure was very much the standard young girls aspired to emulate.[26]

 

Madonna of the Meadow by Raphael (1505)

Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadow is a perfect example of the full framed woman as an ideal for feminine beauty during the Renaissance period.

In the 70’s, the popularity of Twiggy, an emaciated fashion model signaled a turn in the feminine ideal in print as her image and that of slimmer women sold more magazines compared to those with models whose body composition was more in line with that of the average woman. These changes happened in the arts as well, early photographs and paintings of ballerinas show them as being rather robust in build, but in the mid 20th Century this changed when choreographers such as George Balanchine, (often referred to as the father of classical ballet), envisioned a hipless and streamlined, (one could say boyish) figure as the ultimate expression of feminism in dance. An ideal that did away with the larger and more average sized dancers with healthy BMI’s and replaced them with the new standard calling for performers to be somewhere in the range of 5’7 weighing at or about 95 lbs. A body composition that falls well into the range of being under a healthy weight. [27] It is hardly a surprise that researchers have found that 15% of female dancers are anorexic and that over half display anorexic type behavior, [27] which many credit as a direct result of Balanchine’s standard. [27] Just as models are in magazines, ballerinas in Western societies are also often internalized as an example not only of perfection, but of what the feminine norm should be. Reviews of images in women’s magazines  from the early 20th Century to the 1980’s and from 1959 to 1999 reveal that featured models have become significantly thinner over time[25] and one of the ways that this thin standard is achieved is by using younger and younger models. [27] As an unfortunate result, underage girls who should not be engaged in sexual activity are regularly used as a models, dancers and performers representing a societal sexual ideal. [10] One that creates an undesirable pressure on young girls as they are also forced to identify themselves as sexual objects at an early age- and thus are more likely to strive to embody the ultra thin ideal.[10]

 

Skinny Isn’t An Ideal- Who Is To Blame?
woman skinny fashion model

While many blame the media for the idealization of the ultra-thin look, studies find that it’s origins are far deeper.

The knee jerk reaction is to blame the media for the unhealthy idealization of the skinny, mannequin look- but it would be a mistake to do so as they are more a reflection of the problem than the actual cause, a problem that has been in existence among upper class European women since the 1500’s, long before the media had a firm hold on our collective consciousness.[28] While some studies do find evidence of negative effects of media exposure to thin ideals on female body image[29,30,31], those studies have never been conclusive and when reviewed are regarded as correlational at best. Equally important is that a considerable number of studies have contradicted the idea that media images are the genus of the ultra thin body ideal. Research that has shown that media exposure to ultra thin portrayals of women have no effect or in some cases, even positive effects on women without pre-existing issues of body dissatisfaction or eating disorders.[32,33,34,35,36] The disparities suggest that something far more complex than media pressure drives the female Western desire to be thinner,[28]  Another common misconception is that women manage the way their bodies look to please men, but (as many men can readily attest) research shows that the preference for thinness is one usually imposed on women by other women. In fact, several studies have found that the average North American male tends to prefer women who are significantly larger than the skinny ideal. [37,38]

 

Females not males create body image issues

Studies show that a young woman’s body image is influenced not from the media but almost exclusively by their mother and female peers.

The facts of the matter require us all to look a little more closely at the issue, as like so many societal problems, it comes perhaps as a result of several social issues rather than one simple causative factor. The role of women in influencing the thin body ideal, for example, is seldom discussed, but studies have found that a young girl’s body image is influenced almost exclusively by their mothers and female peers. [39,28] Other studies find that the strongest effects on female body dissatisfaction are not from distal influences such as the media, internet, movies, magazines and television but from comparisons to close associates or unfriendly females. Dissatisfaction that increases significantly in the presence of an eligible male.[28] The most interesting finding though, is that body dissatisfaction is reported as being consistently lower in the presence of an eligible male among girls whose BMI fall within in the normal range and actually higher in underweight girls.[28] While being ultra thin may be a societal ideal, women who embody that much coveted look tend to feel the most degree of discomfort in the presence of other females and a desirable male.[28] This particular study was done with women who were mostly Hispanic but it does call for more research into the subject with other ethnic groups.

 

Skinny Isn’t An Ideal- Our Ideals Tend To Be Unattainable & Self Acceptance Is Always More Important
The fit look is becoming more and more popular among women and it can be acheived by simply following a healthy lifestyle as Christine Coen demonstrates.

The fit look is becoming more and more popular among women and it can be acheived by simply following a healthy lifestyle as Christine Coen demonstrates.

It’s an extremely complex issue- with several other possible economic and child bearing related motivational factors, but there is one common thread between our current Western preoccupation obsession with thinness and our ancestral glorification of the rounded fatter look among women. Both ideals where just that- ideals. Ones that represent an idea that is for the most part unattainable by most of the population in both eras. To illustrate this point, we need only look at the limited food supplies and active lifestyles of modern hunter gatherer ancestors to see that actual obesity or even being overweight (and the chronic problems that can accompany it) was improbable among pre-agricultural humans. [40,41] We need only look at the women of modern hunter gatherer tribes to see that obesity is not a norm even though it may be thought of as being favorable. Women from hunter gatherer tribes tend to be what we would consider ‘athletic’ by today’s standards- well muscled and toned [42] with a look that many Western women in the fitness world strive to attain. In fact many routinely subject themselves to unhealthy and restrictive diets while over exercising in the name of attaining that particular ‘fitness look’ as an alternative to the ultra thin ideal, a look that often focuses on the realization of a certain look rather than a healthy lifestyle. It does not have to be this way as it can be attained without extreme measures,but unfortunately the extreme approach is the one most common in our society. All the while the ‘athletic’ looking hunter gatherer women look westward to the curvier and rounder looks of typical of Western women as an ideal that they would love to emulate.

 

What matters is not trying to live up to any societal ideal of beauty but that you strive to love yourself and focus on being healthy!

What matters is not trying to live up to any societal ideal of beauty but that you strive to love yourself and focus on being healthy!

In the end it seems that we are almost hardwired to idealize what we are not, however, it is important to not compare ourselves with others or any standards about how we should or should not look as ultimately it’s what you can do that determines human fitness and longevity, not what you look like. Imagine how much more we could accomplish as a society if issues of low self-esteem were reduced by a societal shift from it being all about how you look to a communal idea of self-acceptance with a priority placed on being healthy and about how you feel? Just imagine? A healthy lifestyle with a proper diet and regular exercise may not make you look like you should be on the cover of a magazine, but it can make you feel that way- and that’s far more important.

 

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Related Articles:

Weight Loss & Self Image

Low Body Fat Does Not Mean You Are Healthy

Being Skinny Doesn’t Mean Being Healthy 

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Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training. His training company in New York City is the 3 time winner of the Best of Manhattan Awards for 2014, 2013 & 2012. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here!.

 

 

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