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Viva la Difference Also Applies to Historical Shifts in Body Ideal

January 21, 1988|CAROL-JANE RAND | Carol-Jane Rand, a candidate for a doctoral degree in nutrition at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City, specializes in eating-disorder research and cultural beliefs about body size.

Whether it's long, lean and elegant or frankly feminine, most people believe that New York fashion designers or TV and film celebrities dictate the ideal body type.

Actually, no one knows exactly which factors cause a culture to prefer one body shape over another. Almost every conceivable shape and size has been desirable at one time or another. And although a recent anthropological study showed that 47 of 58 cultures surveyed preferred plumpness over thinness, current Western culture isn't one of them.

Margaret Mackenzie, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has compared the attitudes of Western Samoans with adult Americans living in the San Francisco area. One of her most striking revelations was that Western Samoans saw nothing unusual or shameful about a woman becoming fat, because they viewed the increase in body weight as a function of such natural events as childbirth and aging.

In contrast with this attitude, most Americans see fatness as an indication of a loss of self-control and a visible sign of emotional disturbance. Unlike Americans, who exalt individuality, Western Samoans believe that a person doesn't stand alone but exists in relation to others of her village or clan.

Weight Means Little by Itself

Because the culture of the Western Samoan is so firmly based on the relationships between people, an individual's weight means very little by itself. What carries significance, however, is the weight of the person in relation to his or her role in the group.

For example, in Western Samoan culture, a chief should be relatively slender to show that he or she distributes the village's food supply fairly. The village spokesman, on the other hand, should be plump, an indication of the village's prosperity. In small villages the chief may serve dual roles, so the chief may be perceived by fellow villagers as slender in his role as chief, yet seen as plump in his role as spokesman.

During our country's relatively short history, many body shapes and weights have been in fashion. Until recently, I was under the impression that there was a distinct trend in our culture. Women, I thought, were becoming thinner and leaner, or at least it appeared to me that this was what was fashionable. I thought that roundness had been fashionable rather consistently until the last 20 years or so--except perhaps for the celebrated thinness of the flappers during the 1920s.

Actually, as I learned from reading "American Beauty" (Knopf, New York, 1983) by Lois W. Banner, plumpness, slenderness, tallness and shortness have all rotated as ideals on an almost cyclical basis.

For example, our feminine ideal today seems to be the tall, slender woman with visible hips and breasts--picture supermodel Christie Brinkley. Such a body type was also very fashionable from 1895 to World War I, when it was referred to as the Gibson Girl look after the graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson, who created her.

A woman of the times who exemplified this look was described as being "braver, stronger, healthier and more skillful, able and free, more human in all ways." Doesn't this sound like a description in a magazine today portraying the current ideal?

The Gibson Girl was preceded by "the voluptuous woman," who was best characterized by actress Lillian Russell--a woman who today would have to shop in clothing stores specializing in larger sizes. The Gibson Girl ideal was succeeded in the 1920s by the flapper, with her small breasts and hips and almost androgynous shape (think of Twiggy).

Researchers see a direct relationship between the role of women in our culture and the ideal, prescribed body shape and clothing styles of the period.

Patricia Mulready, a faculty member of the fashion and retailing department of New York University, believes that clothing styles and body-size ideals of men and women in a culture reflect the similarity or disparity between their roles. When their sex roles are similar, their clothing tends to be alike in shape and form. Disparity in roles will produce great differences in clothing.

Threat to Men Called a Key

Kate Davies, Ph.D., a body-image researcher, believes that men have always controlled the way women should look: When men feel less threatened--for instance, when women aren't active in the work force--women are "allowed" to be more curvaceous.

Other researchers see this same phenomenon but interpret it differently. They see that when women compete with men for jobs or for a dominant position in society, they minimize the physical differences between the sexes.

The flappers of the '20s reflected their more liberated role in society by bobbing their hair and de-emphasizing the "old-fashioned" feminine curves of their mothers. Many women today working at jobs once labeled as masculine wear suits and even ties that look remarkably like those worn by men.

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