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Why do we all want to be thin?

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Bettina Bendiner

Published

21.01.2022

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For decades now, we've been complaining about models being «too skinny». Nothing much has changed since then. Virtually everyone will go on a diet at some point in their life. Most of them have no good reason to do so. Why they do so anyway.

In January, we burn off the «Christmas pounds,» in April we have to start getting «beach body» ready, and in autumn we must be careful not to gain any additional «comfort kilos». Diet culture is flourishing. Even though we all know better by now.

#dietculture: What is it? 

Essentially, diet culture is like a pair of glasses: It lets us see supposed flaws, and filters foods into «good» and «bad». And thanks to diet culture, we perhaps read between the lines a little too often, perceiving the latent message: «thinner is better». Yet thin does not automatically mean healthy. There's nothing wrong with wanting to do more sport, or doing something beneficial for your health and well-being. But just because smoothly polished influencers sway their slender hips at us, it doesn't mean that we must be sporty. We engage in sport when we decide that we want to. Because we believe that it's good for us. Or because we feel better afterwards. Not thinner or more beautiful. Better. But where does this body obsession stem from?

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Whether looking in the mirror or standing on scales, comparing ourselves to unrealistic ideals does us no good.

Why be thin?

Are we all «too stupid» to know better? Of course not. We are all the product of our circumstances. Research on physical ideals shows that the difference between «too fat» and «too skinny» largely comes down to cultural differences. Thus an ethnographic study conducted in 2015 showed that most of the analysed cultures tend to prefer larger women. This has to do with the availability of food: where it is scarce, fat becomes a status symbol. Where there is excess, self-control becomes a luxury. Which way the scale tips depends on the era in which we live. In the course of history, body fat has been viewed as a symbol of wealth – and thus had positive connotations – as often as the opposite.

Changing ideals across time

Thus «size zero» is a product of the 2000s. Sizes 34 and 36 (UK sizes 8 and 10) are also a rather recent invention. In the 1950s, women like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield strove to fit into the definitely average sizes 38 and 40 (UK sizes 12 and 14). Was everything better back then? Not necessarily. Not every woman is naturally curvaceous. That's why weight-gain pills were extremely popular in postwar America. 

A decade later, we had Twiggy. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be a delicate little stick. Out went the tablets, in came Weight Watchers – and millions of women began a never-ending diet. In the Seventies, it became acceptable to be a little larger once more – though preferably with muscles, like Jane Fonda. After that, things didn't get any easier. Especially for the supermodels of the Nineties: Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell had to have defined curves and barely any body fat, all with a preferred minimum height of 1.8 metres. They thus left the average woman far behind them. 

Real #bodypositivity

Ideals of beauty are like a skipping rope: they go up and down. Where we trip up is in our heads because it's the negative thoughts that spoil our day. Because at some point, someone somewhere sorted all the different body-types into either good or bad ones. So instead of criticising ourselves for our supposed flaws, we should consider which attributes we as individuals and our society associate with a certain body-type. And what it would be like if we were to get a grip and stop associating certain body shapes with positive or negative adjectives. 


Then we would rewrite our own personal history from scratch.

Photo/stage: © GettyImages

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