The ideal woman is a slippery concept: most would baulk at the idea of a model representing the ideal, but some young women probably hanker after their looks and lifestyle. How about a film star? Well, fine but which one? Cameron Diaz or Keira Knightly? One is the acme of tall, bronzed, blonde US good looks, the latter rocks the bendy-toothed kooky UK style.
Looking to the past doesn’t help us either: Marilyn Monroe was gorgeous, but with her ample curves and cushioned hips, bust and tummy she is not today’s sort of star with their toned abs and muscular biceps. The ideal must have long hair though, that’s a given – Ann Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence had to bear a hail of negativity for having the cheek to go short: the web pages gave both a massive thumbs down for daring to decide on their own hair cut. Blonde is preferable to brown and red probably won’t hack it either. Grey? Nope, that’s one of those ‘signs of ageing’ things that is not tolerated in an ideal woman. Wait until you are over 65 – you can claim your bus pass and freedom from dye jobs. Helen Mirren staged in her grey – would it have been tolerable before she hit pensionable status? I would tend to think not.
The ideal woman has a slightly childish bosom (like models) or a ginormous rack (like glamour models) – she has virtually no body hair and the wide-eyed, blue gaze of an infant. No spots, scars, stretch marks, deformities or disabilities (including glasses) and great teeth.
The average woman meanwhile is 5 foot and 3 inches, weighs about 11 stone and apparently wears a size 16 (according to the UK ONS in 2013). That’s me, I thought when I read that – Mrs. Average. This is what I look like – I don’t think I look obese or especially overweight (although my BMI puts me in the grey area between this categories), I’d maybe put my hand up for being wee bit short and stocky. But this makes me a gross 21 kilos heavier than some of the wee girls on the catwalk. And a good deal shorter. I have grey hair too, but I was a natural brunette, which meant that I have a good deal of visible body hair. Horrors.
I don’t mind an ideal which is achievable, but the image that women are presented with is a fantasy: you might lose enough weight to qualify for a BMI of 16 (which is ‘underweight’) and you can dye your hair, but you can’t grow 4 inches or more at will (Elite models give their height requirements as a minimum of 5 foot 8 inches – Kate Moss was very unusual to be modelling with her relatively diminutive stature of 5’7). To be free of blemishes and body hair is unusual in a grown woman and nearly impossible in a young one. The ideal we see on ads and billboards, on TV and in movies is suffocating and depressing if you have any (even minor) disability or deformity. Take glasses for instance – when was the last time a female lead wore specs – generally a woman wearing spectacles on telly is a ‘brain’ or a geek, not our hero.
To be an average woman, and increasingly the average man, is to stop seeing any image in the media that you can relate to. Love and passion is the preserve of the young and beautiful (Bravo BBC for flouting that with recent TV serious Last Tango in Halifax) and a big boo to every other film and TV producer of romantic drama and/or comedies. Ads are about the young and the pretty or pretty handsome, mainstream fashion is predicated on the notion that you design for young, slim people and then size it up for the fat and old. Just have a wander around your local high street store and look at the photos – are you seeing anyone who looks like you wearing the clothes on sale? No, I didn’t think so. While you’re there, have a peak behind the mannequins on display – most are pegged or pinned to the skinny shape of the dummies. Even the smallest size they have (that you’ll struggle to get into) is too big for the ‘ideal’ mannequins.
And all the time you’re being reprimanded for stuffing your face and getting fat. Dangerously obese and over-weight are regarded as the same in the press and not a day goes by when some article isn’t accompanied by a photo of a woman eating a burger, her head tactfully cut off to spare her blushes. The picture editor might as well write “a fat munter’ underneath. The TV is awash with food porn, and supermarkets sell more ranges of more food products than ever before. Meanwhile, in the background, the diet industry is churning over millions of pounds. And your local gym would burst if all of its members who were guilted in joining on January 2nd actually turned up.
I think that our problem is that we do want a healthy body but we don’t know what that does or looks like anymore. A fairly stocky, but not too fat, fairly short, dark haired body will last just as long as a tall, thin, blonde one and once you’re over 45 who gives a toss how you look, after all – your body is largely a vehicle for your brain to drive around in.
I’m not an advocate for being fat – having been quite chubby I tend to prefer to be a wee bit less buxom – easier on the joints and less of a pain in the arse if you want to buy pants from M&S, but I don’t think our wholesale worship of an unobtainable ideal is in anyway a good thing. Let’s have people on telly because they’re talented, witty, smart or funny. Let’s see clothes advertised on the sort of people who might actually wear them. Let us see more images of older, greyer, browner less perfect people smiling and being happy knowing they have a fit and comfortable body to rock about in. And let’s talk sensibly, without value judgements, about how to obtain that healthy body.
I suspect that if we could bin the BMI (which should be a useful guide but is used a clumsy stick to beat chunky people with), chuck the our nonsensical ideals of physical beauty in favour of admirable functionality, and love the skin we’re in, I would guess that it would be easier to manage our current issues around obesity. Self-hatred, contempt and scorn are not the basic building blocks of a healthy society.