We’re getting thinner but it’s not only about dropping a dress size…
Walking through the streets of London I have noticed women are getting smaller. I can’t remember how many times I have glanced up while on the tube and seen a person standing in front of me and wondered for a split second why a twelve year old child is holding a handbag and wearing leopard-print leggings and high heels, before realising that the person with no hips and a tiny waist, flat chest and super-thin ankles is not prepubescent, but in her twenties or thirties. We are turning ourselves back into children. Countless times I’ve seen women striding past me up the escalators out of the tube, her back disappearing up the steps carried by legs with the shapeless-ness and stick-like width normally held by young girls.
Yes, there have always been women who have naturally not only had thin but petite or boy-like figures their entire adult lives. But the numbers of women I see around London like this who are actively getting smaller are rapidly growing, and are shifting our concept of what constitutes the norm. But it’s not just about the physical effects (as damaging as they are). We are literally taking up less space status-wise.
It seems size really does matter! In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, about the judgments our subconscious makes – he reveals that we are universally programmed to favour taller people (and this applies to both genders). By analyzing split-second reactions made by our subconscious before we have time to override them, or acknowledge them, he exposes certain hidden biases ingrained in our psyches. Height and size, it seems, equates to positive associations. Gladwell says we assign taller people additional attributes such as greater physical strength, as well as strength in character, leadership and charisma. ‘Most of us, in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature,’ he says. Women wear high heels often to make themselves taller. Why? Quite literally, stature seems to positively influence social status. So the amount of space you take up in the world counts and goes beyond the physical. ‘Small man’ syndrome, where men become overly loud or arrogant to compensate for their reduced height, is often joked about but perhaps there is foundation to this concept that smaller people have to shout louder.
If power and status, and even credibility, are relational to size, women are only exaggerating their tendency to be shorter and have less muscle than men by deliberately reducing and weakening our bodies through excessive dieting. We all shape and control our bodies in a multitude of ways – as the remarkable feats of the Olympics, for example, showed, physical strength and size can be built. But we are making ourselves quite literally physically weaker through what is effectively malnourishment.
When I say ‘we’, I am not blaming women directly as this is a result of social pressures and shifting cultural norms, but we do hold the power as individuals to reverse this trend. It is a disturbing thought that society as a whole is pushing women into a more diminutive position.
But we can resist this – instead of trying to make ourselves frailer, we can focus on strengthening our bodies in positive health-boosting ways. We could aim to create a new idea of the aspirational body, which celebrates our fully grown female status and benefits both mind and body. Why must we conform to this excessive level of thinness? Let’s try and reverse what are truly damaging and disturbing trends.