The myth of the ideal female body

If women don’t band together to fight the false portrayal of women’s bodies, problems of unreal expectations will just continue

It’s difficult to have a healthy body image when confronted by overly thin and airbrushed women on magazine covers every day.

It’s difficult to have a healthy body image when confronted by overly thin and airbrushed women on magazine covers every day.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, and advertisers have taken cue. Most people will tell you they are not affected by the persuasion of advertising, but take one glance around the American culture, and you know they’re either lying to you or lying to themselves.

The $2 billion advertising industry has one single goal, and it’s not improvement of your self-esteem. The advertising industry’s mission is to increase consumption. That drive has resulted in the invention of the ideal female image. She is a tall hourglass with lustrous hair, immaculate clothing, perfect nails, smile, scent, and she juggles career, family, social responsibilities and housework with the ease of a seasoned circus performer. The problem is, she doesn’t exist.

This fictitious female intrudes into every aspect of life from the magazines on the supermarket shelves to movies to how men pick their mates to how our young women perceive themselves. If women don’t band together and work to destroy this myth of female perfection, women’s lot will only deteriorate.

It’s not like this happens by accident. Madison Avenue employs psychologists and anthropologists to find out how to target desires and insecurities in their audience in order to fully exploit its values. In short, the marketing firms that create advertisements are fucking with your mind.

Media advertising typically promotes a woman whose body is 19 percent below the average body weight. Doctors often diagnose anorexia if the patient is only 15 percent under a healthy body weight.

A woman who measures 36-24-36 needs a dress size 10 for her breasts, dress size 2 for her waist and a dress with a hip size of 4. Needless to say, dresses like these aren’t found on most racks.

A body of this shape is propounded in commercials, magazines and movies, yet it’s virtually impossible to attain. To achieve such a size, plastic surgery is requisite.

“The average American model is 5 foot 10 and 107 pounds,” wrote Dr. Stanley Hertz in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. “The average American woman is 5 foot 4 and 143 pounds.”

However, even those deemed “ideal” are still not good enough for commercial viability. What advertisers don’t say is that women portrayed as having attained such perfection don’t truly exist. Before publication, models’ photographs are sent to labs for retouching, airbrushing and digital manipulation. Wrinkles are removed, waists are slimmed down, zits are erased, hair is shined, color is added to the skin tone, etc., etc., etc.

In movies, our lovely leading ladies frequently use body doubles for nude or risqué scenes. Airbrushing and digital “enhancement” are also added in the editing process. The face that smiles out at you from the glossy pages and shiny films is not real. It is a lie. It does not exist.

This impossible reality isn’t just presented in commercial advertising. So-called “women’s magazines” seem bent on contradiction when they declare tips such as, “How to make a chocolate cake your friends will die for” followed by “Lose 10 pounds before you buy a new bikini.” Apparently, you can bake your cake, but you can’t eat it too.

August’s cover of Allure magazine blares such headlines as: “Sexy Glosses,” “Secret Beauty Finds,” “Do moisturizers prevent wrinkles?” and “summer hair SOS.” This suggests the most pressing questions women have apparently are not about war, the economy or healthcare reform, but what to do about frizz and what type of gloss will give your lips that perma-moist look that says, “Look at me. I’m so hot for you, I’m wet!”

These magazines consist mostly of slick ads separated by irrelevant or contradictory copy. Most magazines’ profit is generated by the sale of ads to fashion and cosmetics companies. Why would they tell potential consumers that make-up is unnecessary, when companies like L’Oreal pay millions for advertising?

The consumer ends up buying a ridiculous manual that lists things to fix that were never broken and cures that depend on products sold by the advertiser.

The stress and frustration of trying to mold oneself into an impossible body standard can lead to an expansive array of dangers: depression, starvation, plastic surgery risks and, most commonly, eating disorders.

The Harvard Eating Disorders Center,, reports that 80 percent of women wake up each morning feeling depressed about their appearance.

The media’s impact on women’s lives and self-image can be illustrated by one simple fact: As the average model’s body weight drops, cases of eating disorders rise. During the “waif” craze, created by Calvin Klein and symbolized by model Kate Moss, cases of anorexia and bulimia were at an all-time high.

The problem with the false portrayal of women’s bodies is not just about self-esteem or self-image. Over- or under-eating can cause malnutrition, which can lead to respiratory infections, kidney failure, blindness, heart attacks or death. Dehydration—a common result of starvation, laxative abuse and vomiting—can result in heart failure, seizures, brain damage and death. Muscle atrophy is the deterioration of muscle, which is caused by the body feeding off itself in an attempt to replenish vitamins and minerals. Amenorrhea is the cessation of the menstrual cycle, which can result in infertility. Vitamin deficiencies in pregnant women can also induce the risk of miscarriage and birth defects. Induced vomiting can result in the tearing of the esophagus, ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding, stomach erosion, scarring and more. The toll of one or more symptoms can lead to heart failure, lung collapse, stroke, liver failure, pancreatitis, depression and suicide.

This is not a pretty picture.

In addition to the physical harm this myth of feminine beauty causes, there are the dangerous social consequences caused by acceptance of this illusion.

As other men and women who view the more than 13,000 ads a day begin to see this image as the norm, they reinforce it, too.

Men search for partners who look like supermodels, disregarding brains and moxie for the celebrated tits and ass. Women feel competitive and insecure with other women, instead of working together to recognize and reverse the beauty myth.

We’re on a roll. The longer an illusory image of women is promoted and propagated in society, the stronger and more menacing it will become. We were not made to be 36-24-36. Women are not created with 12 arms to accomplish everything for everyone. But we’re trying. Until we give up that fight and pick up another—deconstructing the myth of the ideal female—we’re only edging away from equal rights and toward self-inflicted torture, instead of loving each other and ourselves.