Wednesday, April 18, 2012

This blog discusses how the ideal body image is a product of social stratification and in effect, negatively influences society. In particular, this blog analyzes how changes in body size support conflict theory and symbolic interactionism.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills argues that in order to understand the social life for what it really is, we need "to step outside of the 'trap' of rapid historical change (Conley, 5)." Women and girls are heavily influenced by the mass media. Social construction is an idea or concept that exists because people behave like it exists (Conley, 30). Through mass media, society depicts its socially constructed standards of “beauty,” putting pressure on how women should look. According to Mills, the media reflects the values, beliefs, and practices of our society. The ideas, concepts and values are socially constructed by symbolic interactionism, which suggests that we interact with others using “words and behaviors that have symbolic meanings (Conley, 129).”

So, what is beauty? When answering the question through the perspective of society, beauty is having a thin body size. When women were asked what beauty was to them, they gave tons of definitions of beauty. Nowadays, however, we are inundated with instant communication and 24 hour programming showing digital fantasy, or a false reality. Women tend to look at TV, billboards and magazines in search of what they should look like or what the ideal body image is. Society’s ideal of “beauty,” though, does not accurately reflect the body shape and size of the average women. Research has shown that women exposed to ideal body images feel ashamed of their body and feel the need to change their weight and body shape. A negative image of the self leads to body dissatisfaction, which causes a range of unhealthy body disorders .Many women are not aware of the extent to which models are altered by digital retouching and image techniques. Body image issues are not an individual problem but rather a public health concern driven by society.Social identity is how individuals define themselves in relationship to groups they are a part of.  

For example, in a post called “How Do Negative Body Images in Media Impact Women? Physical and Mental Effects," the author asks, “What do you see when you look at me? (Classidella, 2010).” Some of the women are thicker than others. It is evident that our body image, or body size, holds great value in society. 

"Venus" of Willendorf
One of the earliest findings of the human image is the “Venus” of Willendorf, which is estimated to have been carved in 15000 BC. At 4 ½ inches high, the faceless statue depicts a woman with large breasts and accentuated hips. Her shapely features, as neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran explains, represent favorable features of health and fertility during a time period when food was especially scarce due to the cold living environment. In fact, ideal images of the female body have continually shifted depending largely on the historical forces within different time frames. While the ideal image of the female body changes constantly, the notion that the idyllic body size should be unattainable to the majority remains a common theme throughout all time periods. (Public Broadcasting Network)

"Gibson Girl" Fashion
During the beginning of the 18th century, Elizabeth I set the ideal standard of beauty with her pale skin and corset. The corset gripped a woman’s figure at the waist, giving the impression of large breasts and wide hips. About the mid 1800s, the "Gibson Girl" was most popular among women and focused more attention to the woman’s rear. The early to mid 18th century was a time period before the industrial revolution when food was scarce and more difficult to grow. For reason of exclusivity, the upper class wore corsets and "Gibson Girls" to accentuate the bosom and the rear. Accentuating the bosom and rear gave the illusion of fullness, symbolizing the socioeconomic status of a woman. (Media Awareness Network)

the "Flapper" 
However, the birth of the Industrial Revolution shifted the idealized female body image. Since the Industrial Revolution provided a new means to mass produce food, many people gained unprecedented access to the major food supply (Media Awareness Network). In effect, the full-figured body frame no longer symbolized exclusivity. Instead, a thin body frame became the sought after body image for women. Soon after, the “flapper” replaced the "Gibson Girl" image. In 1920, the 19th amendment passed, and women gained the right to vote (Media Awareness Network). With more autonomy, the “flapper” in the 20’s reflected the drastic changes that women were experiencing (Rosenberg). Even though the “flapper” modified the delicate "Gibson Girl" image drastically, the symbolism for socioeconomic status remained (Rosenberg). Renowned writer F. Scott Fitzgerald defined the idyllic flapper as “lovely, expensive, and nineteen (Rosenberg).” The flapper image strategically set the standard body size according to political changes of the time while preserving the notion of social stratification.

Marilyn Monroe
The Great Depression from 1939-1945 launched the biggest economic crisis in history, and the majority of the American population was left unemployed. The aftermath of the Great Depression paved the way for the ideal pin up girl body type. During a time period of great need, a “fleshy” figure indicated an individual’s accessibility to food, therefore symbolized the individual’s socioeconomic status. A thin body type during the Great Depression was often associated with poverty and inaccessibility to food. Marilyn Monroe, along with other pin up models, represented the ideal woman during the Great Depression era (Sternheimer). Functionalism is a theory based on the idea that “the best way to analyze society… [is] to identify the roles that different aspects or phenomena play ( Conley, 27).” The ideal shapely figure advertised in magazines and posters had the manifest function to attract potential customers to products; however, such advertisements cleverly enacted the latent function of social stratification. Clearly, the idealized female body is one which is more accessible to one social class than any other class.


With an improved economy, the late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw a shift back into the thin-figured body image. The emergence of Barbie and Twiggy, famous for the “original waif look”, especially solidified the reemergence of the thin look as the desired body image. In addition, the 60’s was a time period in which the youth protested in hopes of ending the Draft and the Vietnam War. Feminism also gained a stronghold on the youth of the 60s and women demanded women's rights to sexual freedom. In effect, the political involvement of a younger generation attracted the attention of major magazines and ads alike, generating a newer emphasis on the younger female image. The thin, fresh faced woman as the standard of beauty carried over into the 70s, 80s, 90s, and continues to be the ideal woman of the millennia. (Media Awareness Network)

According to a BBC News Report, as of 2003 the dieting industry is a $40 billion industry (Cummings). So what does a rich dieting industry say about the modern time period in which we live in? A thin body frame is still the ideal body image for young girls and women alike. In fact, the thin body type continues to symbolize wealth and accessibility to health. Obesity, on the other hand, is linked to poverty and inaccessibility to health. A U.S. Public Interest Research Group study called “Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food” analyzed the causal relationship between agricultural subsidies and childhood obesity between 1995 and 2010. The study found that junk food is cheaper and more accessible to lower income families; on the contrary, fruits and vegetables are more expensive and thus, less accessible to lower income families (Russo).

Changes in body image throughout history support conflict theory. Conflict theory explains that “conflict between competing interests is the basic, animating force of social change and society in general (Conley, 28).” Despite changes in history, the upper class has managed to withhold the power to change the ideal body image, oppressing the lower class. In effect, the ideal body image is socially constructed by the upper class and projected through the media.

Kim Kardashian

Media and technology today have greatly impacted body image and created an impossible idea of the “perfect body”.  The average American woman is 5’4” tall weighing 140 pounds while the average model is 5’11” and weighs 117 pounds (Sheppard).  The ideal thinness is actually achieved by less than 5% of the population, which makes this the opposite of what society portrays as the norm (MRSMENOPAUSAL).  Today the volume of images presented to us in a multitude of forms of media surpasses any time period seen to date. The constant bombardment of advertisements and commercials engrains the idea that the socially constructed image of the ideal woman is the standard for how all women should look like today.  In a media study, 69% of girls reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of the perfect body shape (Washington University). Technology has aided in the evermore-flawless woman and today, every woman seen in the media is photo shopped to portray flawlessness. However, no woman or human being is flawless in real life. These technologically engineered women leave real women vulnerable to a falsified perception of what the human body is able of achieving. Cooley's looking glass self explains that human beings formulate their identity according to “the point of view of others” and that imagining how others see us influences our self-concept (Conley, 115).

In addition, George Herbert Mead’s theory on the development of the social self, notes that the final step of socialization is the generalized other. In this final step, the individual is able to reach an “internalized sense of the total expectations of others in a variety of settings (Conley, 117).”  For women, the generalized other is the ideal image projected by the media. In effect, women internalize the unattainable body image and suffer from an endless sense of failure. 
         Before Photoshop                          After Photoshop
There are numerous negative impacts of poor body image, which are mostly caused by the media.  One study found that “the amount of time an adolescent watches soaps, movies and music videos is associated with their degree of body dissatisfaction and desire to be thin” (Washington University).  Widespread dissatisfaction with body image is apparent, supported by an astounding reported 78% of seventeen year old girls who are unhappy with their bodies (Washington University).  Most women today would admit that at some point in their life they were on a diet or are currently dieting.  Plastic surgery has become an increasingly sought option as well to fulfill society's ideal woman.  This is a direct response to what women are shown in the media.Today 8 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, with 90% of the 8 million people female (South Carolina Department of Mental Health).  This statistic emphasizes gender inequality in the effects on women compared to men, in which feminist theory would encourage taking any road necessary to reach the ideal thinness due to women’s subordinate position to men.  Women try to achieve the “perfect body shape” because they believe it will help them have more equality with men and be viewed more positively in accordance with the looking glass self. Ultimately, women strive to fulfill society's  socially constructed idea of success.  
So what does this say about our society?  Are we in a never-ending cycle of wanting the unattainable? What is for sure is that our society is constantly influenced by the media and inhibited by it.  After analyzing the trend of body image throughout human history it is evident that the most basic and intimate aspect of a women’s life, in particular her body size, is constantly shaped by the most impersonal, and remote historical forces. At the same time, the "perfect body" is carefully structured  by social and political forces and projected into the media in efforts to maintain a status hierarchy system within society. 


Cassidella. "How Do Negative Body Images in Media Impact Women? Physical and Mental Effects." Web blog post. HubPages. 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <>.

Conley, Dalton.  Afterword. You May Ask Yourself. By Dalton Conley. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W.W.  Norton & Company, 2011. 5-259. Print.

Cummings, Laura. "The Diet Business: Banking on Failure."BBC News. BBC, 2012. Web. 14 Apr 2012.   <>.

Media Awareness Network, 2010. Web. 14 Apr 2012. <>.

MRSMENOPAUSAL. "Body Image Statistics." Weighing The Facts. WEGO Health, Feb. 
2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. < 

Public Broadcasting Service. "Venus of Willendorf: Exaggerated Beauty." How Art 
Made the World. Community Television of Southern California, 2006. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Flapper in the Roaring Twenties." 20th Century History, 2012. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <>.

Russo, Mike. Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food (2011): 12. PDF file.

Sheppard, Wendy. "Body Image Statistics Weight Loss & Diet Statistics.", June 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. 

South Carolina Department of Mental Health. "Eating Disorder Statistics ." 
South Carolina Department of Mental Health. South Carolina Department of Mental Health, 2006. Web.
 17 Apr. 2012. <>.

Sternheimer, Karen. "Thinking Like a Sociologist: Understanding Changes in the Ideal "Body Size"."Everyday Sociology   Blog. W.W. Norton & Company, 08 01 2009. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.<>.

Washington University. "Media's Effect on Body Image." Teen Health and the Media. Teen Futures 
MediaNetwork, 1994. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <