the little woman

This is the story of the origins of the thin ideal, as I learned it at a conference about eating disorders. It changed my life:

Time was (and by “time” I mean the C17th-ish) a softer, rounder, plumper female was the glorious standard. See, it was only the rich women who could afford the food and the sedentary lifestyle that allowed them to accumulate the abundant curves of the women in Rubens’ paintings.

Around maybe the mid-C19th, coinciding roughly with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class, it became a fashionable thing for a man to be able to afford a wife who was too weak to work.

It was a status symbol for a man, an advertisement of his wealth, you see, for his wife to be a small, thin, weak female, barely able to totter daintily around the house; how decadent to have a wife who not only didn’t but COULDN’T contribute to the household income!

This is in contradiction to everything evolution would have a woman be: robust, healthy, strong, tall, able healthfully to conceive, gestate, birth, and breastfeed multiple offspring.

But it’s so vulgar and coarse, isn’t it darling, for a woman to be able to give birth without having to spend months recovering, and it’s quite low class to breastfeed one’s own children.

Need evidence that big was beautiful? Take Jane Eyre (1847); whereas Jane herself is small and thin – “puny,” Ms Bronte says – Blanche, the lady lined up to steal the heart of the black but comely Mr Rochester, is tall and curvy:

They were all three of the loftiest stature of woman…. Blanche and Mary were of equal stature—straight and tall as poplars. Mary was too slim for her height; but Blanche was molded like a Dian.

When I first read Jane Eyre – when I was 12 or 13 and thoroughly steeped in the thin ideal – I thought, “That’s ridiculous, of course he’ll choose Jane, she’s smaller!” Which just goes to show you.

So that, my friends, is where the thin ideal originates.

Nowadays thin is the ideal for a combination of historical and class reasons: only the rich, who can afford real food and have the leisure for exercise, can be thin. But always these fashions around women’s bodies are about social class. Thin is rich and thin is young. Nothing to do with fertility (on the contrary), nothing to do with an “evolved preference,” except insofar as we have an evolved preference for higher social status.

(Remind me to tell you one day why it’s stupid to think human males aren’t attracted to cues of high social status in females – which is a myth firmly entrenched in the “standard narrative.”)

Next time you meet a young woman who is worried about her body fat, maybe tell her this story and remind her that she’s no man’s property, no one’s status symbol, and the best way for her to be beautiful is to be healthy, which isn’t at all about weight (it’s healthier, indeed, to be 75 pounds “overweight” than to be 5 pounds “underweight”), and self-confident.