The XX Factor

More Than a Backlash, It’s an Epidemic

Women are defying the beauty backlash, as Amanda writes , and there are men who prefer the curvy and sneakered to the waxed and plastic. But there is still an epidemic of disordered eating and surgical self-improvement that correlates exactly with women’s growing power, as Naomi Wolf outlines in her 1991 book The Beauty Myth .

Dieting came into vogue around 1920, when women received the vote. Voluptuousness regained popularity in the socially regressive 1950s, but this reversed as women’s influence grew. Between 1960 and 1969 the number of high school girls who considered themselves overweight increased from 50 percent to 80 percent.

As the female mental domain expanded from hair curlers and casseroles to dollars and digits, it was overwhelmed at the same time from the pressures of the exploding media industry. By 1984, in a Glamour poll, losing 15 pounds beat out romantic and career success as women’s greatest goal. A 1997 survey showed that young girls indicated were more afraid of being overweight than of cancer, nuclear war, or the death of their parents.

Ingrained in elementary school, these expectations help secure the status quo of male power. A 2006 survey by UK magazine Grazia found that the average woman today worries about the size and shape of her body every 15 minutes. Twenty-nine percent said they worry about their body every waking moment. Seven out of 10 women can look at a plate of food and tell you exactly how many calories are in it. It’s hard for a woman to succeed as much and demand as much as a man when every 15 minutes she is distracted by the chafing in the hip of her jeans. It’s hard for a woman to have as much sexual agency as a man if she can’t have an orgasm without sucking in her stomach.

Michelle Goldberg writes in the American Prospect : “Almost twenty years later, the period Wolf was writing in seems like a prelapsarian paradise of female self-acceptance.” The measures today are more extreme, like remaking breasts or unmaking labia, but the bare numbers are also more striking. An article published yesterday in the Telegraph found that 10 percent of women have an eating disorder. As women from more privileged backgrounds suffer anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating in much higher proportions, the most empowered population to smash the glass ceiling is also the most mentally distracted, consumed, and sick.

The epidemic of mental illness among American women fails to unite us into a defiant community, beyond Dove commercials and the feminist blogosphere. I hear women comment with a hint of jealousy: “Oh, she’s too skinny” or “She’s lost so much weight.” We have internalized these beauty standards and reel at the possibility of another woman, an adversary, increasing her beauty status. Women are isolated and mutually threatening, poisoned by our own insecurities.

The woman who best denies herself, who most suffers, is society’s new female ideal. Wolf writes: “The gaunt, youthful model [has] supplanted the happy housewife as the arbiter of successful womanhood.” Brittany Murphy’s cause of death is yet unknown, but her bathroom cabinet was filled with Ativan, Klonopin and other anxiety, pain and depression meds. Possibly it was her home pharmacy or, as the media assumed, self-starvation that placed the excessive strain on the 32-year-old’s heart. In Clueless (1995) and Girl Interrupted (1999), Murphy’s two most cultishly beloved films, she had an average figure and above-average talent. Murphy clearly crash-dieted for her 2000s oeuvre, including 8 Mile (2002), Just Married (2003) and Uptown Girls (2003). She seemed underweight to me in these films, but not to men’s magazines FHM and Maxim , who in 2006 named her on their 100 Sexiest Women List and Hot 100 List, respectively. If disordered eating and drug abuse led to the actress’ untimely death, perhaps the greatest tragedy is that three years earlier men in the media held her up as the picture of female beauty.