Over the past century, the vision of the ideal body has become increasingly removed from the average woman. In 1994, feminist critics Fallon, Katzman and Wooley remarked that ‘[i]n less than two decades the acceptable female body size had been whittled down by one-third, and most women could no longer fit into it.’ Another two decades later, the disjunction between real and ideal bodies continues to widen; one website reporting that ‘[a]s the average BMI of women has increased, models have remained significantly below this average, often with BMIs of a mere 15 or 16 – considered clinically underweight. The BMIs of celebrity women are only slightly better, most commonly ranging from 17 to 20.’
Attempting to meet the current ideal therefore requires more time and effort than ever before, leading feminist critics to interpret the ideal as a means of sociocultural oppression. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf states that ‘[t]he qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behaviour that that period considers desirable.’ The ideal body appears to arise out of regard for aesthetics.
In reality, however, it is created as a mechanism of control. Culture exercises its grip by promoting a physical ideal that requires strict diet and exercise regimes in order to achieve and subsequently maintain it. If the body requires constant monitoring and disciplining, women will be too preoccupied to challenge their subordinate social position.
Jean Kilbourne writes that ‘[t]he ideal causes enormous suffering for women, involving them in false quests for power and control, while deflecting attention and energy from what might really empower them.’ Because of the energy invested in attempting to attain an impossible ideal, Wolf argues that ‘[d]ieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history.”‘ Society does not necessarily value female slenderness; it desires the behaviours that are associated with hunger: weakness, obedience and political apathy.
Feminists thus argue that the ideal was brought into being by patriarchal society in order to restrict women’s freedom. This was evident during the 1960s when the feminist movement was regenerated, alongside various women’s consciousness-raising groups. Western women were granted legal and reproductive rights; and offered more opportunities for education and employment.
Coinciding with the feminist movement, ‘a mass of neurosis was promoted that used food and weight to strip women of that sense of control’. The female body ideal reduced in dimension and anorexia nervosa became prevalent amongst the female population. At this time, hunger control groups Weight Watchers and Overeaters Anonymous were established, whose members aimed to shed excess pounds by regulating their calorie intake and suppressing natural appetite. According to Kim Chernin, this preoccupation with weight and bodies arose as a backlash against female liberation in which culture ‘demanded that women remain physically small, thin, frail, adolescent and therefore powerless’. The slender ideal was created to keep women in a controllable state of waif-like passivity and hunger.
In the modern Western world, women are gaining access to increasing amounts of power. This power continues to be undermined, however, by male-dominated institutions that perpetuate bodily dissatisfaction. Cases of disorderly eating have risen dramatically as the twenty first century woman desperately tries to live up to an idealised vision of the body.
The ideal can therefore be interpreted as a form of masculine control and a counterforce to female advancement. Wolf remarks that ‘women’s bodies are not our own but society’s, and that thinness is not a private aesthetic, but hunger a social concession exacted by the community. A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.’ The ideal body is a political solution.
In 1978, psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch wrote that ‘we can and must continue to hold the larger culture accountable for its role in promoting anorexic chic and in directing girls toward eating disorders as a strategy for coping.’ Almost forty years later, although the image has altered from ‘anorexic’ to ‘fit’, society continues to promote a physical ideal. The ‘bikini body’ ideal with its lean, yet curvaceous form has become the standard against which women are both judged, and judge themselves.
The ideal body acts as the norm against which women measure, discipline and transform themselves. In a culture obsessed with bodies, women are made to feel ashamed of their own figures and consequently engage in damaging behaviours in order to ‘correct’ them. Subscribing to the demands of the cultural ideal, women become agents of their own oppression by engaging in self-regulatory practices as they starve, purge, nip, tuck and beautify their bodies. Strict diet, beauty and exercise regimes are carried out by the individual in order to meet the social deal. In this way, ‘social and cultural discourse becomes inscribed on the “docile” body.’ In Unbearable Weight, Bordo writes that ‘through the pursuit of an ever-changing, homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity – a pursuit without a terminus, requiring that women constantly attend to minute and often whimsical changes in fashion – female bodies become docile bodies’. The political has been reduced to the personal as sociocultural forces act upon the passive physical form.
Acceptance of the ideal, however, and the belief that we can alter our bodies to accord with it ‘has exaggerated the problem and contributed to what we observe today – a progressively unstable body, a body which to an alarming degree is becoming a site of serious suffering and disorder.’ Jean Kilbourne states that culture compels us to ‘constantly perfect and change ourselves, working for self-improvement rather than social change.’ We are made to think that the problem lies with us, and if we mould ourselves to fit the cultural ideal, our problems will be solved. Instead of every woman trying to squeeze their bodies into a single cookie-cutter ideal; society should accept the variety of female bodies. Instead of striving for individual change, we should aim for social revolution.
 Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), pp.ix-x – by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley
 The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (Vintage, London, 1991), pp.13-14
 Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), ’Still Killing Us Softly: Advertising and the Obsession with Thinness,’ Jean Kilbourne, p.396
 The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (Vintage, London, 1991), p.187
 The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (Vintage, London, 1991), p.11
 The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, Kim Chernin, HarperCollins (NY, 1994),p.99
 The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (Vintage, London, 1991), p.187
 The Golden Cage, p.xi
 Julie Hepworth, The Social Construction of Anorexia Nervosa (Sage Publications, 1999), p.101
 Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995), p.166
 Susie Orbach, Bodies (Profile Books: London, 2009), p.2
 Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), ’Still Killing Us Softly: Advertising and the Obsession with Thinness,’ Jean Kilbourne, p.405