The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Woman

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.

Nudity and power: Harry versus Kate

The recent media storms surrounding naked pictures of the two high-profile royals expose a mismatch in how we view men and women’s bodies and why it’s actually about power

So Prince Harry gets captured on camera naked. The resulting media storm presents the story as little more than a highly amusing, at most embarrassing, incident for a potential future king. Chuckles all round. There are no lawsuits, and it is written off as something that a single 20-something man may be unfortunate enough to have happen to him when he’s having fun. And besides, it’s not Harry’s fault – he should have been entitled to privacy in a private hotel room, it’s the fault of those who betrayed him by taking the photos and selling them. His sister in law Kate gets caught semi-naked, sunbathing in her private chateau’s terrace and the publishers of her pictures defend their action by claiming it’s her fault. She should expect to be photographed in her own garden just under a mile away from the nearest public road, and the public can lay claim to those images.

Further, argue Kate’s detractors, they have the right to share these images for the world to enjoy apparently because she “is beautiful”. The publishers, and the public, essentially own them. I’m sure many people (mainly female!) thought Harry’s body beautiful too, but it didn’t lead them to assert the right to see it published in the papers nor raise it as a defense for such actions. Rather it wasn’t considered relevant. Kate’s body’s alleged attractiveness however was held up as justifying its exposure and giving us the right to “possess” it.

And so the consequences once the pictures were published were different for Harry and Kate. There was little shame bestowed on a fully naked Harry. Kate was however, considered humiliated and shamed, her modesty protected by a lawsuit. Why? Again, because she is a woman, her image was sexualised. Harry can laugh and shrug, the context of his nudity one of mirth not lust. Kate has been more significantly affected, because her sexuality has been exposed against her will. And so she is entitled to feel hurt, exposed to an international media baying to buy her “beauty” or rather her sex. Which is where the power lies – she can’t control the fact that her image was perceived or controlled in this way.

The more others (rather than individual women themselves) try to control the portrayal of our bodies, the more degraded and unequal we become. The more our bodies are weighed down by a male-orientated, sexualised meaning, the more highly charged and controversial both any exposure, or concealment, of our bodies becomes. The more power moves from the body’s owner to the viewer. And it’s not simply a case of getting all women to cover up. Expose more than an ankle in certain, more intensely male-dominated societies, and you can still be considered shamed. Expose a leg in front of a bunch of straight women and it has no meaning and there is no shame because it has not been turned into a sexually charged act.

We can however reclaim our bodies and take back the right others feel they have over them. The Eastern European women’s group Femen have chosen to do so in a very radical way by protesting topless, while also removing any sexual connotations this may hold. Bravely and boldly reclaiming their own image, they control how their nakedness is interpreted by painting their breasts with macarbre splashes of fake blood, subverting any traditional image of attractiveness. That such extreme measures may be necessary perhaps demonstrates the huge need for a significant redress of power. Watching these women with awe, their power is indeed palpable, if extreme and beyond what many of us would be prepared to do. It gets them publicity too — they’re cleverly playing the media at its own game. They are addressing such inequality in the arena where it is commonly found, and using it to argue their point on various issues.

It may be a radical approach and I’m not saying we all should be running around topless in defence of Kate, but the case of the two siblings-in-law can’t fail to highlight the disparities in how we view men and women.