The Psychology of Ideal Body Image
as an Oppressive Force in the Lives of Women

by Barbara A. Cohen, Ph.D.
  Note: Originally published in 1984.  
  This article is presented in 6 parts.  
  Part One  
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Fat oppression doesn't just affect fat people or fat women. It really works to keep everyone in line. Fear of fat is rampant in our society and is responsible for the current masochistic race toward a slender body image. We are a culture nearly addicted to individual control and the notion seems to exist in our society that fatness means a loss of self-control - which is considered the ultimate moral failure in our culture, and perhaps the most frightening of all fears.

Statement of the Problem
Everyone is born into a culture - a set of shared ideas about the nature of reality, the nature of right and wrong, evaluation of what is good and desirable, and the nature of good and desirable versus the bad and non-desirable. (Richardson, Taylor, 1983)

The definition of desirable, with regard to body image, has spanned rotund to emaciated, with various ideals in-between. And, the methods for achieving the desirable, idealized image of the times have been equally as varied.

Today we live in a society obsessed with thinness and youth. The emphasis on thinness in our culture not only oppresses overweight women, it also serves as a form of social and psychological control for all women:

"Fat oppression doesn't just affect fat people or fat women. It really works to keep everyone in line. It's a whole system of social control that keeps thin women absolutely terrified of being fat or thinking they are fat, and a whole lot of energy goes into dealing with fat. It keeps women who are medium-sized absolutely panic-stricken because they are right on the border. Those of us who are fat are over that border into some state of evil, basically, very much outside of what is permissible within white American culture. If you are fat, then what you are supposed to do is strive desperately to get non-fat..." (Judith Stein, Fat Liberation Movement, Mitchell, Newmark, 1981)

The achievement and maintenance of thinness and beauty is a major female pastime, as reflected by all of the magazines, newspaper articles, T.V. shows, commercials, idealized role models, and books that are aimed at the female audience. This endeavor consumes an enormous portion of the females' time, energy and money, leaving her little time for other activities and/or important life issues. But, we as women play a major role in perpetuating our culture's ridiculous ideals by buying into the image with the purchase of the magazines, diet books, beauty books and designer clothes thrust upon us, rather than developing an acceptable, personal idealized image of our own. By refusing to take that responsibility, we indeed perpetuate our own lives of dissatisfaction and self-hatred, and this need not be so.

Review of Literature

Idealized Body Image - Historical Perspective

There are always underlying reasons for the idealized female body image - these reasons appearing to stem from political and economic sources.

In 18th Century America the "idealized" Colonial women were tough, big, muscular, strong and very fertile. (Valentine, 1984) This was a period of time in the history of our country in which size and strength were important assets for a woman to possess, for her own survival as well as her desirability as a wife, mother and worker of the land. Her fertility was important because the more children she could produce, the more free labor or helpers the family would have to work the land.

By the 19th Century the idealized female body image had changed drastically. It was now necessary for the ideal woman to be sickly, frail, pale, wan and prone to fainting alot. (Valentine, 1984) The underlying reason for this new ideal was political. Women had to be made frail in order to support or justify slavery in the 1800's. Actually, what this ideal succeeded in doing was to make slaves of the women too. Womens' bondage was not in physical labor, but in the restrictive clothing they were encouraged to wear and the restrictive lifestyle they were allowed to live.

The corset came into fashion in the early 1800's and remained in fashion until the 1920's. With the idealized hourglass figure in fashion, the corsets were designed and constructed more and more narrowly through the middle area. This inhibited movement as well as breathing. But, the women were desirous of meeting the ideal.

Some women of the time had ribs surgically removed that kept them from corseting themselves into a small enough waist size, which was the desired image. There was strong competition for men and marriage, since women generally had no means of supporting themselves.

This was a time when the family unit was everything and it was a women's duty to bear lots of children, obey her husband (and men in general) and keep her mouth shut.(Todd, 1984) Femininity was synonymous with weakness, frailty, grace and romanticism. Beauty was defined as pallor of skin, tiny waist and a large bustle. (Todd, 1984) Women were less than second-class citizens. They were denied the right to an enjoyable life.

Men reflected a lot of status by having a wife who fit the ideal of that time. That fact still seems to hold true. Admiring glances fell upon the fragile waist that could be hand-spanned and lifted by a pair of strong male hands. (Brownmiller, 1984) For the women who resorted to those extreme physical measures in order to effectively compete for prized men, the removal of their lower ribs actually succeeded in dislocating their kidneys, liver and other organs, as well as causing other medical problems. (Hynowitz, Weissman, 1978)

Another manner in which women could demonstrate and confirm their frailty was by fainting. Charm schools were opened to teach women the fine art of fainting -how to position oneself, who should be present in the room, etc. ( Valentine, 1984) The charms of the fainting female so exquisitely demonstrated the need for masculine protection. (Brownmiller, 1984) Women assumed the position in society of goddesses and were a demonstration of "the poetry of dependency." (Stanton, 1851)

The beginning of the women's movement in the mid 1800's had a major effect on body image. The corset was specifically attacked for its restrictiveness - both in breathing and in movement. "If all women should decide not to wear corsets, nothing would be thought of it." (Connally, 1903) There is alot of power on reserve for women as a group that they have yet to utilize. However, many women did band together during this time period and converted to a corset-free figure. It seems that when women agitate for equality and start gaining independence, body types and fashions reflect it.


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