Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

The Ideal Woman?

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Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)

A controversial new government study released this week has challenged some dieters’ resolutions to lose weight.

The research showed that people, who are  up to 30 or so pounds above normal, have a slightly lower risk (6%) of premature death than those at a normal weight.

But those who are extremely obese — roughly 60 or more pounds over a normal weight — have a 29% greater risk of dying early than those who are at a normal weight, according to the review nearly 100 studies, conducted by researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The scientists looked at deaths from all reasons and people’s body mass index (BMI), a number that considers weight and height.

This recent study supports previous studies that basically reached the same conclusions.  A study in 2005 found that overweight people had the lowest mortality of any weight group. The overweight category of BMI ranges from 25 – 30, a groups we would politely called “chubby”.  For example, a woman who is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs between 146 and 175 pounds would fall into this group as well as about a third of Americans as defined by the Center For Disease Control and Prevention.

Fat phobia, excessive fear and dislike of fat in oneself and in others, is a relatively new phenomenon, born during the 20th century. Before that time, fat was accepted and admired in women, and was considered a sign of affluence and therefore high status. One of the greatly admired beauties of the end of the 19th century, Lillian Russell (1861-1922), weighed over 200 pounds. Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was an operatic star and actress of large proportions. Elisabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), the feminist writer and lecturer and the fiery labor organizer, Mary Harris “Mother Jones” (1830-1930) were both obese by present day standards.

Generally the time line looks like this:

  • Victorian area – 1800’s.  As mentioned before, the ideal woman’s body type was plump, fleshy, and full-figured.  This led to the wearing of tight restrictive corsets to make the waist appear tiny, a very unhealthy problem leading to breathing and digestive problems.
  • Early 1900’s – Slenderness became more fashionable, and women became more interested in calorie counting and the science of weight loss (just emerging).
  • 1920’s – The hourglass figure changed considerably to the image of the “flapper”, who ideally was thin to resemble a more boyish image.
  • 1950’s – A thin woman with a large bust line was considered most attractive.  Marilyn Monroe became the ideal but by today’s standards but has been described by some as “fleshy”.
  • 1960’s – Being thin became the normal standard exemplified by the English model Lesley Hornsby, aka Twiggy.  At that time she weighed 90 pounds at 5 feet 6 inches tall.
  • During the 1970’s and 1980’s, thinness was ideal as promoted by popular women’s magazines.  Miss America contestants became thinner as well as top models.
  • 1990’s – Pamela “Baywatch” Anderson exemplified the ideal as very slim and large-breasted.

Today – Thin is still in.  We use many means to achieve this goal including liposuction and many fail diet after diet.  There are some indications that reality may prevail as we hopefully shift our emphasis on weight loss to healthy weights.  The track record is dismal and not since the early 1900’s has it been popular.  Maybe it’s time for a change, again.  Is it time for common sense about our weight?  Take a look at the “ideal woman” from 1912.  It is totally impossible to define the ideal woman or man and even more impossible for many of us to acheive.  TAKE A LOOK AT THE LIFE OF ELSIE REBECCA SCHEEL


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