Throughout history, society has been preoccupied with the concept of the ‘ideal’ female body. The modern definition of this ideal, slender and toned, yet also curvaceous, is so unattainable that women who try to reproduce it often develop problems with body image and disorderly eating.
But where does this ideal originate? And why do so many of us want to achieve it?
The answer lies in the current global market, which reflects a $166 billion health and weight management industry; a $532 billion beauty industry; and a $51 billion cosmetic surgery industry. The flawless female body is economically exploited by multinational corporations: it is ‘an icon created by capitalism for the sake of profit.’1
Beauty, fitness and diet industries generate their income by presenting us with a vision of the perfect body that targets our own insecurities. We are vulnerable to the power of this image since, in comparison, we are made to feel overweight and ugly.
The same companies then sell us products so that we can ‘correct’ our many physical deficiencies. These products promise to make us appear younger, slimmer and more attractive.
Under the guise of counselling women on ways they can attain physical perfection, companies increase their profit margins by nurturing bodily anxiety. They create a problem; then offer the solution. As long as bodily dissatisfaction is maintained, women are controllable and profitable.
Since these industries profit from selling bodily insecurity, they make us believe that we can improve ourselves by purchasing their products.
Women’s magazines and websites are packed with articles and adverts that provide solutions for sculpting the perfect glutes; reducing body fat; and getting rid of wrinkles. They tell us that transformation is easy, as long as we are willing to spend.
Companies not only advertise products to improve our physical exteriors; they also offer consumable items that promise to reduce our weight and size. Within modern culture, women and dieting are almost synonymous.
This weight preoccupation is created by the diet industry that is worth over £2bn in the UK alone. Diet companies profit by offering weight loss solutions that are unsustainable in the long term, thereby ensuring that women return to buy their products.
Low carbohydrate diets, for instance, can cause rapid weight loss, yet the rate of this loss decreases as the body adapts and metabolism lowers in order to compensate for lack of nutritional energy. Most diets offer a quick and easy solution, yet fail to counsel women on the long term effects, or their possible health risks.
In addition to investing in diet plans and products, an increasing number of women have resorted to surgery to shed the pounds. Weight loss surgery is on the rise, with a market worth of almost $6 billion in the USA. More than one in five women claim that they would consider surgical procedures to combat their weight.2
There is also a growing market for surgical and non-surgical cosmetic treatments. This is owing to the current body ideal that is both curvaceous and lean. Since this is almost impossible for most women to achieve naturally, surgery is often required.
According to The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, the top 3 cosmetic surgeries of 2019 include breast augmentation, with 7727 surgeries carried out during this year.3
Owing to the somewhat unnatural body ideal and the over-commercialisation of surgery, going under the knife has become a social norm. Since it is now possible to drastically change our bodies through diet, exercise and surgical procedures, however, the ideal has become increasingly unrealistic.
In these ways, capitalist industries perpetuate the myth that the physical form is a blank canvas to be constructed, improved and enhanced. We are led to believe that we are perfectible: that the body can be shaped according to our volition.
Feminist critic Susan Bordo points out that the body is no longer understood as ‘a biological “given” …but as a plastic potentiality to be pressed into the service of the image-to be arranged, re-arranged, constructed and deconstructed as we choose.’4
Being told that we have the power for self-improvement creates the illusion that we are in control of our own transformations. In reality, however, we are victims of commercial enterprise.
Not only is the concept of the ideal body created for capitalist gain, it also serves to maintain patriarchal power. In a culture obsessed with bodies, we are made to feel ashamed of our own figures and engage in damaging behaviours in order to ‘fix’ them.
Accepting this ideal and believing that we can alter our bodies to achieve it has, according to Susie Orbach, ‘contributed to…a progressively unstable body, a body which to an alarming degree is becoming a site of serious suffering and disorder.’5
Subscribing to the demands of the cultural ideal, we become agents of our own oppression by engaging in self-regulatory practices as we starve, purge, nip, tuck and beautify our bodies.
By directing our energies towards meeting an impossible body ideal, this means that we do not have the time, energy, or confidence to challenge our position in society. In this way, our bodies have become mediums of cultural control that ensure we remain attractive, silent and obedient.
Society leads to believe that the problem lies with us: that if we mould ourselves to fit their ideal, our problems will be solved. Instead of trying to squeeze our bodies into a single cookie-cutter shape and size, however, we should celebrate the beautiful variety of female bodies. Instead of striving for individual change, we should aim for social revolution.
- Hesse-Biber, Sharlene, Am I Thin Enough Yet?: The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996)
- Bordo, Susan Feminisms
- Orbach, Susie Bodies, (Profile Books, London, 2009)