Every age and culture has its body beautiful ideals: for the Flemish in the 17th century, it was the corpulent curves of Rubenesque lovelies, while the 1920s silhouette was slight and boyish in contrast to the supers of the '80s, who epitomised athletic sexiness.
It's hard to tell what the perfect physique is nowadays, even though there seem to be countless paradoxical articles written on the subject, as we're told to diet one week and to embrace our curves the next. As Kelly Osbourne becomes the latest celebrity to gradually disappear before our eyes, it's time to accept that our society's pathological obsession with what thinness represents – money, power, sexiness – is seriously warping our body image and self-esteem.
We appear to have two, equally unrealistic, options: either try your best to look like UK government-approved Christina Hendricks or get as thin as you possibly can. Just last week, Osbourne wrote of how she dropped 10 lbs (this is after already losing three stone while training for Dancing with the Stars) since splitting with her ex. Now a size 6, the singer has been flooded with 'positive comments' and rewarded by the media with abundant praise since her weight loss began. Her super svelte frame received yet another plaudit: the opportunity to don a corset and fishnets and perform in The Pussycat Dolls' Burlesque Revue (alongside sex symbol Carmen Electra). She's also bagged a gig as a judge on E!'s Fashion Police. So the message is pretty clear: thinness means new opportunities, instant sex appeal and success (even for those already in the spotlight).
Some academics tell us that we're living in a "post-feminist" era, where women, once objects, are now self-policing subjects expected to invest in themselves and their appearance (with makeup, clothing, diets and surgery). We train a critical eye on our flaws and are willing to buff, scrub, tan, tone (and even starve?) our bodies into submission. Failure to do this is viewed as a failure to be appropriately feminine. Thinness is aspirational - we are taught to equate being slender with being beautiful and wealthy. And who doesn't want to be both of those things, especially when our society places such a high value on them?
Thinness is admired and viewed as the result of discipline and self-control, qualities we strive to possess. To be "fat" is to be lazy and unruly, and fatness is treated with the utmost derision. Also, no matter what any number of studies (and boyfriends) will tell us, thin is sexy (and sexy is powerful).
Not only is celebrity thinness and weight loss rewarded with complimentary media coverage (but don't get too bony, or the media will turn on you), there are pecuniary benefits – from modelling gigs to acting roles – to be reaped (which further cement and increase a celebrity's popularity). It seems almost inevitable that a young starlet (no matter how thin she is to begin with), will lose weight within months of becoming famous. Even those already well-established in their careers, like Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore, Kate Winslet and Angelina Jolie are all significantly thinner than when they first emerged on the Hollywood scene. If Oscar winners who have clearly proved their acting mettle are losing weight to stay in the game, then what hope is there for anyone else?
Admittedly, fashion also plays a part in the shrinking of celebrity figures, no matter how many people chime in on the size zero debate or announce that we've heralded in an era of plus-size models. Carey Mulligan – an actress who hardly need be concerned about her weight – recently said that when she posed for the October cover of US Vogue, she was forced to wrap a towel around her bottom half because her bottom was too big too fit into any of the clothes, which were sample sizes sent in from Paris. Gemma Arterton, Kim Cattrall and Hendricks have all faced similar difficulties.
Since celebrities are constantly being "papped" in their private lives as well as in public, we are able to scrutinise them from every angle, and while we deify celebs in many ways, we love to see our idols crumble. A celebrity snapped looking especially thin causes its share of short-term repercussions (no one wants to be accused of an eating disorder if they've had a bout of flu and dropped a few pounds), but often, the celebrity in question uses the opportunity to kick start their career and reinvent themselves as a style icon (I'm thinking of Nicole Richie here).
Pity the celebrity who gains weight. Pregnancy rumours will inevitably ensue (and for their sakes, let's hope they are), followed by bullying and fat jokes (remember what happened to Jessica Simpson?). Even if said celebrity claims to be happy with their "curvier" look, the pounds will quickly drop off (or else their career will halt dramatically). It's a vicious cycle – the media picks on you if you're too chubby or too skinny – but ultimately your place in the celebrity food chain is only secure so long as the pounds stay off (and ideally, keep falling off).
And when a celebrity like Osbourne suddenly undergoes a dramatic weight loss, it not only has ramifications for other celebrities, but also for real women, since ordinary people often measure themselves against the barometer of celebrity. However unattainable their beauty regimes (most of us don't have access to a personal trainer and plastic surgeon whenever we need), the abundance of media imagery of constantly shrinking stars guarantees that the pressure to look a certain way is felt by all women. It's no secret that compulsive dieting and exercise caused by an unhealthy weight loss obsession can take a dangerous turn, leading to eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
This celebrity-focused, media-induced cycle that constantly demands more and more from women and expects them to strive towards an unrealistic ideal and to manipulate their bodies has spiralled out of control. Worryingly, the most serious consequences are for future generations, who are inundated with the message that thinness is valued above all else.
By: Jen Barton
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