Channel 4’s exploration into the rise of the plus-sized fashion industry, ‘Plus Sized Wars’, has re-ignited debate about where body image ideals come from, their effects, and what we should do about them. But far from being a creation of today’s society, Dr Helen Driscoll from the University of Sunderland argues that the source of modern concepts of the ‘ideal’ body may stretch right back to our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Why is thin deemed ideal, Dr Helen Driscoll 3

Plus Sized Wars began by claiming that the fashion industry has sold women a ‘super skinny ideal that most of us will never achieve’. Few would argue with this claim. We are confronted with frequent news reports of deaths from anorexia, surveys showing body image dissatisfaction amongst increasingly young children, and tragic stories such as the death of twenty-one year old Eloise Parry from diet pills containing industrial chemicals. It seems obvious to blame the relentless exposure of young girls to the impossibly tiny waists of Disney princesses and images of painfully thin Photoshopped models.

Consequently, campaigns have challenged the presentation of uniformly thin models by companies such as Victoria’s Secret, and have called for an end to Photoshopping in the fashion industry and advertising. There are indications that these campaigns are making some headway. The French government has just passed a law banning models with a body mass index below 18,

and although arguably motivated more by profit than by the wellbeing of young women, the race to satisfy the fashion desires of larger women shown in ‘Plus Sized Wars’ indicates a shift in the UK fashion industry.

But will such changes result in a decline in body image dissatisfaction and eating disorders? This depends on whether we are correct in assuming that these problems are caused by the fashion industry and the media. One obvious question is why is thin deemed ideal? What is it about being thin that is desirable? Is it just an arbitrary preference of the fashion industry?

As an evolutionary psychologist, I consider much older causes of these preferences, and how these causes interact with modern environments. Humans have evolved preferences for mates who will help them to pass on their genes. The shape and size of women’s bodies provide signals about their health and fertility, and therefore their ability to reproduce successfully.

A narrow waist in relation to the hips (an hourglass shape) and a relatively slender body are typically preferred by men. These two features indicate better health and greater fertility. In the ancestral environment, both features would have been characteristic of younger (and therefore more fertile) women who were not already pregnant. Some researchers have suggested that men have evolved to be particularly sensitive to thickening of the waist, which may indicate reduced fertility as a result of either increasing age or pregnancy.

Why is thin deemed ideal, Dr Helen Driscoll 2

Men’s preferences for narrow-waisted, slender women go some way towards explaining women’s desire for thinness. Humans have always competed with each other for the best mates. Women compete with other women by enhancing their appearance, making themselves more attractive than their rivals. This is likely to include competing to be thin. Psychiatrist Riadh Abed has suggested that this once adaptive mechanism of female competition has spiralled out of control in industrialised societies. This may be due to increased competition for mates as a result of factors such as less stable long-term relationships and divorce, and greater numbers of older women maintaining a youthful body shape by using contraception to delay reproduction, and investing in modern methods of appearance enhancement.

Abed has argued that female competition underlies the pursuit of thinness in our society, and at its most extreme, it may result in eating disorders. These competitive mechanisms were useful to our ancestors who lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers, but in more competitive modern environments their effects are amplified. It is clear that men should not have evolved a preference for extremely thin women since anorexia results in cessation of ovulation, and therefore reduces fertility more than obesity does. There is also some evidence which indicates that women overestimate men’s preference for thinness, and this may be a consequence of the intensity of female competition.

Ultimately the fashion industry’s obsession with thinness may be more a reflection of this intense female competition to be thin, than a cause of it. If women do believe that thin is attractive, it seems unlikely that plus-size models will sell clothes; hence the challenges campaigners have faced in getting the fashion industry to change. However, whilst the causal role may have been overstated, if the role models for young women are predominantly extremely thin, this will lead to a distorted perception of the likely physical attributes of competitors for mates, and may exacerbate the pursuit of thinness.

Does this mean that plus size role models are a good thing? Jamelia’s controversial suggestion that overweight women should not be able to buy clothes on the high street is not helpful. Fat shaming does not work. It is important that young people have role models who reflect the diversity of human beauty and not just an unrealistically thin ideal. However, we should not forget the obesity crisis facing our society and the extremely harmful consequences of being very overweight. In discouraging the pursuit of extreme thinness, we should also be mindful of the dangers of promoting obesity.

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