With the approach of the commercial juggernaut of Christmas, we are bombarded with even more images of the ‘perfect body’ than is usual. Travel beyond Europe and the USA, however, and the vision of perfection may look very different. What drives these idealised images?
Here in the UK, and generally in the western world, the ideal body is seen as tall, tanned, lean and toned. Skin is smooth and bronzed and bodies are much thinner than most people in real life. The approved physique for a clothing model means a body mass index below the healthy range. This is excused by designers saying that they cannot make clothes look good on a larger body – which has to make us wonder if they really know how to design clothes!
Of course what we see in the pictures is edited and retouched – sometimes not even the models resemble their own photos. That said, modern fashion models are extremely thin, far thinner than their ‘supermodel’ predecessors who popularised a slim but healthy and sporty look. Many people outside the fashion business find the skeletal appearance of some models and celebrities to be disturbing, rather than attractive. Outside this extreme, the ideal in the west is to be slim rather than fat. It takes education and self-esteem to see past the images and to be realistic about what our own healthy bodies should look like.
It may be a surprise to find that this has not always been the case in the UK, and standards of beauty still vary considerably throughout the world. Our obsession with weight loss is by no means the norm. In fact in many countries, fat means wealthy and higher status has historically always belonged to those who would be considered obese in the west.
Why the different attitudes? It has a lot to do with food availability. Where food is not infinitely available, higher body fat indicates wealth, a good supply of food and a leisured lifestyle. An intermittent food supply also favours those who are able to store fat when food is available, and thus the population becomes genetically selected to tend towards being obese. This is particularly the case for the Pacific populations in places such as Tonga, Fiji and Samoa.
An extreme example is that of the small country of Mauretania on the western side of Africa, which has always struggled with drought and famine. Because of this, fat is seen as highly desirable, to the point that until relatively recently there was a tradition of force-feeding girls to make them overweight and thus marriageable for rich husbands.
The influence of the west is changing many of these traditions and attitudes. It has even been possible to prove this with a study carried out in the mid-1990s on the Pacific island of Fiji. With television not reaching parts of the island until 1995, researchers were able to assess the impact of images of thinner bodies on how the population viewed themselves.
Indigenous Fijians have a tendency towards obesity, as do many of the Pacific Rim peoples, but before the arrival of television on Fiji most were content with their appearance. Only one case of anorexia nervosa had ever been recognised on the island, and a larger body size was seen as desirable.
Showing thinner actresses and models surrounded by expensive cars and expensive clothes proved to be extremely influential on how young Fijians viewed themselves. In just a few months from the arrival of television, surveys showed that slimness became equated with wealth and prestige, especially in teenagers who are very vulnerable to such influences. The study may be nearly twenty years old, but it proves that the media does indeed have a very strong influence.
It is not just attitudes to weight that are different around the world. Smooth, tanned skin may be the current western ideal – but in Asia it is white skin that is prized, just as it was in the west until the mid-twentieth century. Shoppers in Asia will search in vain for fake tan, as the shelves are full of skin whitening creams and high-factor sun screens. Models and actresses show off their fair skin, despite the wide spectrum of skin colours in the population.
The quest for white skin can be as just harmful as the pursuit of a tan. Like most miracle creams, most skin whiteners will do nothing. Those that do have any effect contain a compound called hydroquinone which reduces the production of melanin, the ‘suntan’ chemical. Hydroquinone is banned in the EU for its possible carcinogenic risk. Another whitener that will work is mercury – as most people know, this is highly toxic. The quest for fairer skin can be even more harmful than sun-tanning.
So how we believe that we should look relates very much to the influence of the society around us. Perhaps the best thing that we can all do is to educate each other that a healthy body is not defined by looks but how your body is on the inside. Despite the glossy advertisements, health is a combination of good food, a bit of time spent at the gym or in general a reasonable level of fitness, and access to good healthcare. That applies wherever your home might be on our little planet.