Whether you’re a seasoned body image activist or an average consumer of Western media, no doubt you’ve noticed the battle between the “curvy” and skinny body ideal. After decades of being bombarded with images of extremely thin models and starving ourselves to fit the waif-mold many women and organizations–such as the author of Fat!So?, Marilyn Wann, and movements like The Body is Not an Apology, have worked to bring about size and fat-acceptance.
Despite the push for variety, we’ve been left with few messages in the mainstream media that reflect real representations and acceptance of women of substance. “Curvy” has become an ubiquitous term for anyone who doesn’t fit the skinny definition, while still promoting a narrow ideal by highlighting specific features and rare hourglass figures. Meanwhile, popular catchphrases such as “Real Women Have Curves” have pitted women of all sizes against each other in a battle between who is “real”, who is desirable (sexy), and who isn’t. We’ve fought to see a wider variety of body types in the media, and to accept that some women are fatter, flatter, and shaped in innumerable ways, but have we actually made progress? Is the promotion of curves a legitimate backlash against an industry with a narrow and thin definition of beauty? Or is the promotion of curves yet another unattainable standard under the guises of caring about women’s self-esteem, health, and body image?
Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, and Jennifer Lopez have been the most famous poster-women of the “curvy” ideal. Beyonce touts how she rebels against traditional beauty standards by having a voluptuous figure, Kim states she knows she will never be a size zero but loves her butt and thighs anyways, and Jennifer responds to criticism by saying, “I have a butt, I have boobs, and I have a woman’s curves.” Even petite Scarlett Johannson has been classified as a curvy woman; yet she fights ongoing criticism by some of her body while others tout her as one sexiest woman alive.
Typical online conversation and memes such as “When did this become hotter than this?” pit skinny bodies of today’s celebrities like Nichole Richie against bombshells of the past like Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page in an attempt to show that larger women can also be attractive, but at the expense of other women deemed less “hot”.
When we look at photos of women are highlighted as the curvy alternative, are they really representing a huge rebellion against mainstream beauty and body ideals? True, these celebrities carry more weight on their bodies, but only in socially acceptable places. Although curvy celebrities are quoted saying loud and proud that they have curves and have nothing to be ashamed of, their fat stays in all the “right”places–flat stomachs, long necks, no sags, and no visible stretch marks, just a fuller figure than the overly-thin models, singers, and movie stars before them.
In fact, a study referenced in The Independent found only 8% of women fit the hourglass figure. The majority of us are either top-heavy, pear-shaped, or ironically, rectangular; 47% of women are actually shaped the opposite of curvy, with a waist less than nine inches smaller than their hips or bust.
While it’s important to address the overwhelming push for thinness purported by our media, the current curvy ideal can also bring up feelings of inadequacy. Christina Hendricks of Mad Men has said, “Anytime someone talks about your figure constantly, you get nervous, you get really self-conscious. I was working my butt off on the show, and then all anyone was talking about was my body!” The “love your curves” movement has been spearheaded by image after image that fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room — fat in the “wrong” places is still unacceptable.
Women in the US and UK are increasingly lining up for breast enhancement procedures because we are told only certain shapes of fat are sexy. Butt lifts and implants have also seen a jump, with some women unfortunately losing their lives in the chase for the perfect voluptuous figure. What about those of us who are flat-chested with a belly?
Or those of us with arms that are flabby with stretch marks? What if our fat doesn’t form an hourglass figure? Where are the celebrities and spokespeople openly admiring their round bellies, small hips, cellulite, and sags? The few larger women, who have typical rectangular or apple body types, such as Gabby Sidibe of Precious, Melissa McCarthy from Bridesmaids, and Shannon Beiste from Glee are rarely pictured or portrayed as sexy, desirable, or even feminine. Ironically, they are noticed for their talent in spite of their figures.
The “Curvy” revolution was meant to be about loving your body AGAINST media norms. If women, who look like the closest living thing to the Barbie ideal, are continuously portrayed as body outlaws, what does that say for the rest of us? If women who have a more average, fatter body type are rarely shown as sexy (if they are shown at all), how does that affect our ability to appreciate our own bodies?
In Hollywood and mainstream media, being anything over 110 pounds causes a flurry of comments, blog posts, and headlines. Women in the spotlight who are curvier rock for broadening the body acceptance conversation. However, the depiction of what it means to be beautiful still leaves much to be desired, and we must stop pretending that our modern understanding of “curves” is revolutionary and inclusive. Bodies come in amazing varieties. We can curve out at our waists, arms, legs, as well as our butts and chest, or we might not curve much at all. Simply increasing the acceptable inch limit for boobs and hips, and calling it an alternative for the thin ideal, does no one justice. We’ve taken a step in the right direction…let’s keep moving forward.