Monday, January 29, 2007

Fashion Models, Body Image, and Food

Take a look in the mirror. Do you like what you see? No? You're not the only one.

According to a survey done by Dove 90% of women over the age of 15 want to change something about their appearance. The most common "problem"? Weight.

Dove, a manufacturer of soap and body care products, launched their Self-Esteem Fund, aka "The Campaign for Real Beauty" in 2006. The campaign has focused on promoting a healthy, achievable standard of beauty. Dove has run ads for their products featuring attractive women who don't fit the current media standard of beauty (ie, they have curves). One of the most striking features of the campaign is a short video called "Evolution" which shows a fairly average looking woman walking into a photo shoot, being primped, made up and styled by a small army of hair and makeup artists, then being photographed. The image then goes through some impressive manipulation on a computer before being put on a billboard.

Another blow was struck for healthy (or at least healthier) standards last September during Madrid's fashion week. Show officials decided, for the sake of providing better role models, and keeping participants from passing out backstage, that any model with a Body Mass Index of less than 18 (18-24 is considered healthy) would be banned from the show unless she passed a physical.

London's Fashion Week didn't institute any such bans, a fact which the news media has recently delighted in pointing out. Heroin Chic isn't dead yet, it seems, but changes may be on their way.

It's very interesting to note that much of the negative self-image that women suffer comes from the media or from other women. What men think seems to be far less important than what women believe that men think of them. Men, for the most part, seem to actually like women with hips. Words that men often use to describe attractive women are usually along the lines of either "curvy" or "athletic". Fashion photographers may be shocked to hear how seldom the word "bony" comes up.

Speaking of men, it seems like the gender gap is closing in the realm of neurosis, at least. Men are becoming more obsessed with their body image every year. While many women are concerned about losing weight, men appear to be more concerned with getting more muscular. The "ideal" male is now muscular, has perfect hair, a chiseled chin and doesn't actually sweat. Oh, and body hair is out too (where's Magnum P.I. when you need him?).

Negative male self-image increases with the amount of time a man spends watching television. While nobody should be shocked by that, what is surprising is that young men with poor body image are more prone to engage in high risk activities, particularly unprotected sex.

So, in a country obsessed with being skinny, why are we becoming more and more obese? According to a recent article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times magazine, our obsession with "nutrition" may actually be a contributing factor. According to Pollan, separating the "nutritional value" of a food from actual food may be making health problems worse.

Processed foods and food-like substances (nutrition bars, for example, which nobody who's ever tried them can really call "food") focus on barely-understood nutrients, as opposed to the complex interactions that happen when, say, you eat an actual salad. Pollan explores the political and economic factors that have shaped our culture's nutritional habits more than any hard science has.

Mr. Pollan's point, to sum up, is that we should eat a reasonable amount of food, most of it plants, and preferably lots of stuff with leaves. Or, as he puts it, don't eat anything your great-grandparents wouldn't recognize as food. Vegetarianism is OK, but flexitarianism seems to work really well (Flexitarian-lots of veggies with occasional meat, like the diet of many omnivorous primates. We are, scientifically speaking, an omnivorous primate).

Exercise is good too.

As for me, I'll make my salad, go for a run, and enjoy life. If not waxing my chest means that I'll never date a 90-pound fashion model, I think I'm OK with that.

Dove's Campaign For Real Beauty
Article on Male Body Image
Skinny Models Banned!
Skinny Models Not Banned.
Article on Diet

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