Considering that gender has now become a culturally constructed phenomenon, rather than simply being limited to the sexes; it has indeed changed the way people think about masculinity and femininity. Popular culture, especially, plays a great role in shaping peoples’ lives in ways that are accepted by the mass society. We are constantly bombarded with images on television and magazines that illustrate “skinny” women and “muscular” men, which indicates that this is the norm now, emphasizing the importance of diet and exercise.
However, if we look back at historical Western media, particularly women’s bodies from the forties and fifties, we notice women back then had fuller, more voluptuous bodies. A good example is Marilyn Monroe who was a size 14 and had a perfect “hour-glass” figure. She was considered to be very feminine and attractive. However, today women with Marilyn Monroe’s measurements are considered “fat.” As much as this fact sickens me, it is a fact, nonetheless. It seems that both men’s and women’s contemporary images alternate between a soft, unobtrusive look and a solid, muscular, athletic look. These two ideals, though very superficially different, are united in a battle against a common enemy: the soft, the loose; unsolid, excess flesh. While it is perfectly permissible in Western culture to have substantial weight and bulk, it should be so long it is tightly managed. Simply to be slim is not enough – the flesh should not, by any means, “wiggle.”
Thus, it is the desire to look absolutely perfect that popular culture keeps emphasizing over and over and over again. And, today the well-muscled body has become a cultural icon, where exercising and “working out” for both men and women is glamorized and sexualized. We are constantly told that we can “choose” our own bodies and this can be achieved with the proper diet, the right amount of exercise, and by following these simple rules, we can virtually have any body we want. It appears that now the firm, muscled body is not only a “male thing,” as women, too, are highly encouraged to go to the gym regularly and work on the “loose flab.” Additionally, plastic surgery has now become a rapidly expanding trend. These surgeries or a proper term would be “self-perfecting treatments” vary from nose jobs to face lifts to tummy tucks to breast augmentation to collagen-pumped lips, calves, and buttocks. And the sad thing is that such self-defiling surgeries have contributed to numerous fatalities; an example would be former Miss Argentina, Solange Magnano.
Popular culture does not apply any brakes to these fantasies of transforming oneself into something that is considered more “handsome” or “beautiful.” We see young girls today, barely eleven or twelve years-old, who desire to be skinny and look like models in fashion magazines or celebrities on television. These young girls are oblivious to the consequences of dieting, where things always have a tendency to get out of hand, leading to extreme illness or even death. We, as vulnerable humans, are conditioned through the society in which we live in to create defenses against desirable foods. The desire to look thin and beautiful overpowers peoples’ need to eat, as they have a fear of becoming fat or worse, obese.
As a result, bulimia and anorexia nervosa emerges as a characteristic of modern personality construction, mostly among females rather than males, since women in such cultures are more tyrannized by the contemporary slenderness ideal than men. While anorexia is an extreme development of self-denial and the repression of desirable foods, obesity is the complete opposite where desirable foods are absolutely impossible to resist. Yet, neither obesity nor anorexia is accepted by popular culture. Still, many anorexic women feel proud of their ability to achieve such a high level of “thinness” even though they still may be inclined to hide their skeletal bodies from society.
However, despite the obsession to look skinny, there is no denial that the most literal symbolic form of maternal femininity is represented by the nineteenth-century “hourglass” figure, emphasizing breasts and hips as the markers of reproductive femaleness. This maternal power is threatening to today’s society where women are making their ways into arenas that were traditionally reserved for men, such as achieving higher education and getting into the field of law, business, politics, and so forth.
Furthermore, I’ve noticed that women’s bodies depicted today are not much different than men; they have almost non-existent hips, which is extremely important for child-bearing. This new era of the female gender symbolizes the body-ideal of the “boyish slenderness” and it further gives women the freedom from a reproductive destiny. One may wonder whether these images promote equality between the two genders, where women are not viewed as powerless and subordinate to men. It appears that women who have soft, protuberant body parts are usually associated with maternity where they are seen as being suffocated, because of their lack of position and authority outside the domestic arena. Women with slender, “boyish” bodies, on the other hand, are seen as taking on the “male” power and possessing such qualities like detachment, self-containment, self-mastery, and control that are highly valued in the Western culture.