herald

Wednesday 24 September 2014

'Irish women are a variety of shapes and one should not be isolated as an ideal. Our focus should be our health'

Kim Kardashian. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/FilmMagic.
Kim Kardashian. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/FilmMagic.
Kate Moss. Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images
Kate Moss. Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images

KIM and Khloe Kardashian were all curves ahoy last year while brandishing 'QuickTrim' weight-loss tablets.

Their message was clear, 'we're all fabulous, but why not be that little bit more fabulous'. The Kardashians were later sued for promoting ineffectual and unsafe pills, but only after thousands of women signed up to yet another promise of a magic 'body ideal' that was for most of us completely unachievable.

Up until relatively recently, we were bombarded with images of Kate Moss weighing little more than my seven-year-old niece, and now it seems we're being pushed towards hourglass bodies like Christina Hendricks, a woman who 'just eats what she wants' and it happens to land in all the right places.

Good for you, Christina, but if I do that I end up looking like Onslow from Keeping up Appearances.

The question we face is this: are body ideals, even with diet and exercise, completely out of reach for most women? Our celebrities are now moving away from the 'ideal' heroin-chic madness of the Nineties into a 'revival of the curves'.

And we're told it's healthier and for our own good.

Facebook memes of voluptuous, pin up stars of the Fifties were contrasted with our contemporary emaciated celebrities; the slogans read: "This or that, which is hotter?"

 

Subtle

While many celebrated embracing our curves, I felt we were being pushed into the body ideal, this time the hourglass figure, that wasn't fair or achievable for most of us, The shift from super- skinny to super-curvy is designed to make women feel bad if they don't meet a set criteria. It was a slow, clever, and subtle process that duped a lot of us.

The 'healthier' hourglass campaign started several years ago as a counter-reaction to the popular heroin chic, when we were shown photos of emaciated celebs snapped by paparazzi, looking as if they'd just escaped the Gulags. Finally, emaciated was not ideal.

That was the first time I had seen a media backlash to the 'Nothing tastes as good as thin feels' – thank you, Kate Moss – propaganda thrown into my head since I was old enough to buy my first copy of Sugar.

After we attacked our super-skinny celebs clearly struggling with an unrealistic body ideal, we looked back with wide-lens nostalgia, to the Amazonian Claudia Schiffers and Heidi Klums, women who actually had boobs.

Suddenly, starving wasn't in any more and calls came through social media sites for more realistic body ideals.

Women seemed to be moving away from the waif, they wanted a new body ideal, one that didn't make them constantly feel bad about eating that extra bag of Taytos, or having three courses in their favourite restaurant, including the chocolate gateau.

And just in time, along came Mad Men, and moreover the 'full-figured' ideal.

The 1950s' pin-up cast became the new media darlings and supposedly revolutionised the way we looked at our bodies. Curvy is now cool and we should all be proud to have tiny waists, double Ds and pert bums.

Yet this, too, is an unrealistic and unfair body shape to impose as an idea and most women simply don't naturally look like that – in the same way that the waif ideal is not applicable to many women – and for some can lead to serious psychological problems.

Youth social worker and psychotherapist Carol O'Connor says she sees the mental health implications of negative body images daily through her work. "I see teenage girls every day who present with body-image issues; these include eating disorders, depressive episodes and deliberate self harm. All because they don't fit the mould.

"Some feel they are too tall, others too small, too broad, too curvy, too thin, too flat-chested or their hair is too dark, too thin or too thick. Popular culture, in particular the media, portrays women as vacuous objects whose only interests are achieving the perfect figure."

The tragic effect of body ideals on young women was highlighted in Sweden, when a story broke about talent scouts searching for models outside an eating disorders clinic in Stockholm. The story was disturbing and the fact that the girls were in their early teens made it all the more toxic.

Carol feels negative body images exist in all cultures. "African women use skin lighteners and hair relaxers. Chinese women want to change their eyelids and in Ireland we use tanning products and we want bodies with big boobs and bottoms but emaciated arms, legs and waists.

"Some go as far as Botox and bum implants. Young people also now get their sexual education from the internet and unrealistic porn images are fuelling idealised body images."

Trying to fit the current 'perfect' body mould is getting harder and for some women it is impossible.

A study by North Carolina State University on the shapes of 6,000 women concluded 46pc were rectangular, with the waist less than nine inches smaller than the hips or bust. Twenty per cent were pear shapes, with hips two inches larger than busts or more, while almost 14 per cent were "inverted triangles" – women whose busts were three or more inches bigger than their hips.

 

Factors

Dietician Orla Walsh, from the Dublin Nutrition Centre, says there are a lot of factors that affect our individual body types. "There are a lot of genetic factors involved here, for example it would be nonsense for the likes of Kim Kardashian to try and get a body like Cameron Diaz, or vice versa. It's completely unhealthy to try and force our bodies into shapes they are not."

That's something for the "Real women have curves" campaign to think about.

We're harking back to an ideal as oppressive as the waif. Those women were pulled and pushed into corsets that created an illusion of an ideal we now romanticise.

Orla feels the new hourglass ideal is just another in a long list of idealised body images.

"We've seen a lot of 'ideal' shapes; it was J-Lo's pear shape for a while, before that it was the heroin chic and so on. The reality is – and I see it all the time as a dietician – Irish women are a variety of shapes and one should not be isolated as an ideal. Our focus should be our health."

Irish women do not fall into any 'body ideal,' there is no 'typical Irish body type'. Even when I think of my friends, some can eat more than an Olympic swimmer and still complain they are too skinny, if others have one portion of chips they say they feel it on their hips. They are pear-shaped, spoon-shaped, rectangle-shaped and sometimes a hybrid of all shapes.

 

Healthy

Our metabolisms and shapes are different. That's life. For me, if I disregard eating healthy and have pizza for breakfast, I'll put on a few pounds and they won't magically float to the places I'd like them to go, they usually set up camp on my stomach or on my arms, keen for some bingo action.

Orla explains that women need to consider a variety of factors to ensure they stay healthy and, often, having a big bum is the least of their worries. "The Body Mass Index (BMI) can be a guide to evaluating your body's fat percentage and this is what we need to keep a watchful eye on."

You can calculate your BMI using this formula: bmi = weight (pounds) x 703/ height squared (inches). Orla says: "A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy. A person with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and a person with a BMI of over 30 is deemed obese.

"Age and gender have an impact on your BMI as does muscle composition – a sporty girl who has a lot of muscle could have a high BMI reading but this does not reflect her body's fat percentage."

Orla says, no matter how hard we try, we cannot force our bodies into different shapes. "Many women come in with a body fat percentage that is fine and they are healthy. But there is still a push to lose those extra pounds, or as I call them 'vanity pounds', which we have no need to shed."

At the time of writing, Penneys were sold out of padded 'bootylicious' pants – the poor man's implants. I will never wear padded underwear, nor will I get implants. As my mother says, "Don't go messing with the body I gave you." She has a point.

So the next time you're looking at some woman on the TV thinking, 'Oh she's so beautiful and thin' or 'she's so curvy and sexy', remember she's just fitting into an ideal.

It is time that we started to move out of ideal bodies and into healthier ones.

WAIF VERSUS HOURGLASS: Kate Moss and Kim Kardashian

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