Special Report

Body Envy

Nora Underwood August 14 2000
Special Report

Body Envy

Nora Underwood August 14 2000

Body Envy

Special Report

Thin is in—and people are messing with Mother Nature as never before

Nora Underwood

Dr. Stephen Mulholland is no psychic,

but he can make astoundingly accurate predictions about what his clients are going to want. All he has to do is run through the movie listings and keep on top of popular television shows, and the Toronto plastic surgeon can anticipate at least some of the business that will be coming his way. Angelina Jolie is on the cover of several magazines and starring in a couple of movies? Requests for lip augmentations will soar. Jennifer Lopez displays her assets in a barely there dress at an awards ceremony and breast implants become even more of a must-have. Leonardo DiCaprio strips down in Titanic or The Beach, and requests for hair removal shoot up 20 per cent. “I have been amazed by the call of Hollywood,” says Mulholland. “Younger people want to look done.

They want to take on the physical attributes and characteristics of the stars of the day.”

American writer Allen Ginsberg once said: “Whoever controls the media— the images—controls the culture.”

Truer words were never spoken. The media, and those they celebrate, have always influenced fashion and body shape. But what’s remarkable now is how profoundly body image is affected by popular culture, and how willing—no, eager—people are to mess with Mother Nature.

Why the rush to retool? For one thing, baby boomers—the demographic group that can usually be counted on to rewrite the rules—are stampeding across the 50-year mark. They have long been obsessed with youth and vitality, and even before researchers mapped a rough draft of the human body’s genes earlier this year, the prospects for a longer, healthier life were increasing all the time. So were the options for making changes, be they profound or merely skin-deep—from celebrity-endorsed diets and exercise crazes to fitness trainers, weight-loss or muscle-building drugs and sophisticated cosmetic surgery procedures.

There are best-seller lists packed with diet books {Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, Barry Sears’ The Zone), magazines filled with the beauty secrets of the stars (“Never eat bread!” “Do three hours of yoga every day!”) and, everywhere, famous thin women and bodyhair-free, heavily bicepped men. “We place such a big premium on whatever the designers and image-makers have created as what’s beautiful,” says Mulholland. “That inspires conformity, it inspires the concept of self-worth through physical attractiveness. ‘Beauty fades’ just isn’t true anymore.”

During the 1920s, thin women were briefly in vogue, but their popularity was usurped by the likes of Mae West,

Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe. In the 1960s, model Twiggy helped usher in the next era of thin—one that has never completely abated. Some of that trend, notes Dr. Paul Garfinkel, head of the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, “is an emulation of the higher social classes. Some relates to extreme health consciousness, some to a desire to control, some to a narcissistic preoccupation with youth and appearance.” But much of it, he adds, “has to do with media and advertising—the notion that appearance is the self. The world has become much more superficial.”

Th©r© 3re SO many options, from celebrity-endorsed diets to muscle-building drugs to sophisticated cosmetic surgery

And because we have truly become a global village, particularly as a result of the Internet, there are few corners of the world left untouched by western popular culture—or impervious to its influences (page 41). In fact, two researchers travelled to a corner of Peru that had little experience with western culture and showed men there a variety of images of women —fat and skinny, shapely and tubular (bodies with less differentiation between waist and hip). The results, which were published in the journal Nature in November, 1998: the men found the heavier, tubular women more attractive and healthy looking. Peruvian men from less remote villages who had had more exposure to western culture regarded thinner, smaller-waisted women as more desirable.

How thin is too thin? The average North American woman is fivefoot-four and weighs 140 lb.; the average model, on the other hand, is five-foot-11 and weighs 117 lb. In May, the British medical establishment issued a report that blamed the media’s preoccupation with the ultra-thin on the growing numbers of eating disorders among young women. “Female models are becoming thinner at a time when women are becoming heavier, and the gap between the ideal body shape and the reality is wider than ever,” the British Medical Association wrote. “There is a need for more realistic body shapes to be shown on television and in fashion magazines.” At a summit in London a month later, British editors pledged to monitor images that appeared in their magazines and use “models who varied in shape and size.”

That’s exactly what editor CyndiTebbel had in mind when she published her April, 1997, “Big Issue” of the Australian

edition of New Woman magazine, which featured size-16 model Emme Aronson on the cover and photographs of average-size women inside. Despite the positive response from many readers, big-money advertisers hated it, complaining so much, in fact, that Tebbel—who has since written a book called The Body Snatchers: How the Media Shapes Women—was forced to resign.

Others are also challenging the thin-is-in ethic. Three years ago, Allyson Mitchell and Mariko Tamaki founded Pretty, Porky and Pissed Off, a Toronto-based fat activist group. They initially handed out flyers and candy outside a fashionable clothing store that sold only small-sized items. They have since put on plays, organized regular clothing swaps with other large women and are now working on a documentary. They approach the subject of fat in a humorous way, but their message is serious. “It’s important to reach out to other people because our stories are all very similar— like never having clothes that fit, crazy yo-yo diets,” says Tamaki. “So we’re trying to tell kids that beauty is more than fitting into a size-4 pant.”

Sure, but try telling that to fashion writer Dick Snyder, who, in a recent column in The Globe and Mail, extolled the virtues of thin women. “Magazines with sexy, skinny girls on the cover sell like crazy,” he wrote. “Very few guys will admit it, but these magazines attract them like bees to honey. And women buy them as well. Slap a heavy model on the cover and that magazine will sit around collecting a month’s worth of dust. You can’t blame that on skinny girls.”

According to Greek myth, when Eos, goddess of the

dawn, fell for the mortal Tithonus, she begged Zeus to give her beloved immortality. But she neglected to ask for eternal youth as part of the deal. As Tithonus aged, Eos lost interest in him—eventually ending the union by turning him into a cicada.

In the non-mythological world, it seems, a long, healthy life alone is not enough. People want to look as good as they feel. In 1920, the average Canadian lifespan was 59 years; today it is 79. And once the genes responsible for aging can be manipulated, anything, conceivably, is possible. “No one wants to prolong life if it means sitting in some home and being cared for,” explains Dr. Claudio De Lorenzi, president of the Canadian Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. “People want to play golf and tennis and then die with their boots on.”

In other words, growing old gracefully just isn’t much of an option anymore, particularly for the boomers and succeeding generations. “This is the fastest-growing group of men and women seeking cosmetic surgery,” says Mulholland. “They created jogging, the tennis club, the cult of youth and vitality. And now they’re finding that genetics is not allowing them to maintain that edge.” Louisa, a 64-year-old German-born woman who asked not to be identified, was always slim and looked and felt young for her age. Since her retirement six years ago, she put on a little weight and developed a few more wrinkles than she would have liked. Her body no longer reflected how she felt inside. With $25,000 she inherited, Louisa made some changes, starting with a tummy tuck, then « laser surgery on her face to remove wrinkles, 1 rhinoplasty (nose job), an eyelid tuck and fi! nally a face-lift. “When I was growing up, 64 was ancient,” she says. “But I’m the type who wears miniskirts and lots of makeup. I jog, I’m a very active person.” She knows her decision would have shocked her parents. “There’s so much that we take for granted these days that was absolutely taboo in the olden days,” adds Louisa. “We know so much more about nutrition and exercise. Why shouldn’t we do something about our bodies? We look at ourselves and we see our mothers. Now, when I wake up, I look at myself and I think, ‘Hey woman, you look great.’ ”

For the generation now entering the labour force, cosmetic surgery is simply another lifestyle choice, and having it done involves little more introspection—and certainly no more guilt—than changing hair colour. Younger people, says Mulholland, have “embraced the concept of physical manipulation as an improvement of what has been given to you. There are almost no ground rules as to who you can be and what you can be.” In 1998, 22,000 American teenagers had cosmetic surgery—a 95-per-cent increase from 1992. Among the most popular procedures were liposuction, rhinoplasty and breast implants; the latter have been controversial, although a New England Journal of Medicine article in March concluded that gel-filled implants were unrelated to connective tissue disease or other autoimmune or rheumatic conditions.

What they’re seeking has changed too, says Dr. Robert Thompson, a plastic surgeon in Vancouver. “With the young group, there’s less fear of cosmetic surgery than ever before,” he says, “with women who want to not only have a breast augmentation, but a very large augmentation.” If Thompson points out to a patient that what she wants isn’t in proportion with the rest of her body, he adds, “many say they don’t care—they don’t mind if people know they have implants. ‘Natural’ often doesn’t enter into the equation.”

Sophia is five-foot-six and 115 lb., but already the 23-year-old woman has had cosmetic surgery to enhance a body she felt was imperfect. At 20, she had breast augmentation to increase her less-than-A cup to a B. Last fall, she had liposuction to smooth out her thighs—and to head off coming trouble.

“There were certain areas I didn’t like that I thought were going to get progressively worse as I got older,” she says. “I look at the older generation and I wonder how did they get that way. They lost the bodies they had.” Sophia researched the procedures, saved the money to pay for them—$11,000 to date—working three part-time jobs, and then took the plunge. And she makes no apologies for her decision. Half a dozen of her friends have also had breast implants. “They’re common,” says Sophia matter-of-facdy. And if she feels she needs more work in the future, she’ll do it. “It’s not that I’m a high-school dropout doing pornos,” she adds. “I went to university, I have a great job, I own my car, I plan to get married one day and have children. I am a normal 23-year-old who’s just had work done to better myself— for nobody else.”

Anyone who thinks men are somehow spared bodyimage angst hasn’t looked closely at the covers of men’s magazines lately, with their photo spreads and advertisements featuring brawny, chiselled studs. Not that such pressures are new—Montreal’s Weider brothers began pumping up their body-building empire in the 1940s. But Dr. Harrison Pope Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of The Adonis Complex, published earlier this year, believes that mens insecurities are becoming as insidious as women’s. “Men are now beginning to get a taste of the same medicine that women have had to put up with for decades,” explains Pope, “namely seeing pictures of unattainably perfect bodies in the media.”

Pope and his colleagues devised a test for college men in the United States and Europe. Each man was shown a computerized image of a male body and was asked to change it to create the look he wanted and the one he thought women would

like the best. On both sides of the Adantic, the college students wanted an average of 30 lb. more muscle than they had, which they also felt would make them more attractive to women. When the researchers asked women to choose the male bodies they found attractive, they generally picked men with only slightly more muscle than average.

Part of what is fuelling male insecurity, says Pope, is the advent of anabolic J steroids. “It’s now possible I to create male bodies that I are more muscular and i leaner than any natural male,” he says. Pope also argues that many men have focused on their bodies as one of the few remaining ways to express their masculinity. “Women now can fly combat aircraft, they can go to military academies, they can be CEOs of multinational corporations,” he adds, “so that men’s traditional roles as soldiers and defenders and breadwinners have gradually been eroded.” But no matter how much women can do, says Pope, they can’t benchpress 300 lb.

Mark knows all about body-image pressures. He exercises like mad, is careful about what he eats and still wasn’t happy with how he looked. “I wanted to look thinner and I didn’t want to look quite so old,” says the 45-year-old man, who does not wish to be identified. “I didn’t want to look like I was 27. I wanted to look like a good 45.” Mark had liposuction from his chest and abdomen, and had fat removed from under his chin and injected under his eyes to take away his tired look. Men, in fact, now comprise nine per cent of cosmetic surgeons’ clients; men’s liposuction procedures alone have increased 200 per cent since 1992.


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But as John Xiros Cooper points out, obsessions with the body long predate Hollywood. “You just need one visit to the archeological museum in Athens to be impressed by how good-looking the Greeks were,” laughs Cooper, an associate English professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who is interested in the cultural impact of mass media. “But the body has become a commodity and like all commodities it’s in constant need of updates. Now we have the technological means of changing its shape and the genome project has opened the door to unimaginable things. So the question is, how far are we going to go?” Bodies that are more perfect? Now there’s something to feel insecure about.